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Q&A with Matt Clifton

As part of our Spotlight series, Bars and Clubs sat down with Matt Clifton, Director of the MJC Group of Companies (Donny’s, InSitu and The Cumberland in Manly), and Complete Events Group (Vanfest in Forbes and Anthems in Canberra).

Here we chat about being a young bar owner and event organiser, and what advice he has for getting started.

Bars and Clubs: How did you first get into the industry?

Matt Clifton: I grew up on a farm. I grew up on 15,000 acres in the middle of nowhere, about two hours west of Dubbo. My old man, I think when I was 15, bought a pub out in the country and so that’s probably the start, but came to Sydney and trained, went to uni for it. Worked in hotels here in Sydney for a couple of years and then went to the States and was over there for seven years working… anything from small little cafes, restaurants, small bars, nightclubs.

Then I came back to Australia and worked for Merivale for a few years, and bounced around a few times… you obviously grow the passion along the way, of always wanting something for yourself, and had a little bit of an entrepreneurial streak and kind of took a bit of a chance and started with Donny’s. Found a little space and designed that guy from scratch from nothing and it’s still standing after six years.

BC: You now have three bars and two music festivals – how do the two types of work compare?

MC: They’re very different – it’s a different industry to a different group of people. But at the same time, you’re still entertaining people, you’re still following trends or creating trends… you’re definitely taking chances. But you try your very best and surround yourself with industry people and you do your research and make sure those chances you do take, have knowledge and research behind them and make sure you’re not taking stupid choices. Or unfortunately, you’ll end up being one of the three small businesses that fail.

BC: Starting out in the industry fairly young, what was the hardest thing for you?

MC: I’m a single owner operator of everything I’ve done so far, that’s probably the hardest thing. Finding good help is hard… being able to find partners that have different skill sets and ability to work with each other and create those kind of relationships is probably going to be a way that I’m going to have to start taking on board.  

BC: You’ve just opened The Cumberland, the third of your Manly venues. How do you feel about about getting that project over the line?

MC: The place, I’m exceptionally proud of what it has become. It is never an easy journey. After I did Donny’s I swore to myself, I was like, ‘I’m not building a bar ever again’, but here I am again.

It does have challenges no matter what anybody says. Opening and building a bar is incredibly hard. And it’s not just finding a building to build a bar – it’s jumping through the hoops, the political hoops of councils and DA process and liquor licensing, and then residents and then acoustics and then all these different reports… And when people throw a hell of a lot of barriers at you, you’ve got to navigate your way through.

BC: What advice do you have for anyone like you, starting young and wanting to open a bar?

MC: Don’t do it by yourself. Expect 18, 19 hour days for a long period of time. You’re going to be tired and cranky and really bitchy, but nobody’s really gonna care and you gotta push through. And if you’re willing to do that, you deserve to open a bar.

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