Maybe Sammy co-owner Stefano Catino talks to us about the impact of the lockdown and more.
Stefano Catino is having a busy year. Or at least he was, up until the delta variant of Covid and the pandemic came back into the lives of Sydneysiders.
“I’ve never spent so much time at home in my life,” Catino says.
Catino is the co-owner of Maybe Sammy, which landed at number 11 on the World’s 50 best Bars list in 2020; Catino, along with fellow partners Vince Lombardo, Andrea Gualdi, and Martin Hudak, bounced back from a tough 2020 by opening a string of venues: a collaboration with Salt Meats Cheese in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, Cielo Rooftop and La Costa which opened in December of last year; Sammy Junior, their Sydney CBD all day cocktails and coffee bar led by Hudak and opened in late March of 2021; and the most recent, a luxe hotel cocktail bar, Dean & Nancy on 22, perched high above Hunter street in the A by Adina Hotel.
Dean & Nancy — which has garnered a lot of attention since it opened for its floor to ceiling windows, creative cocktails and old school hospitality — opened in late May this year, and made it a month before the NSW Government announced a fresh set of lockdown restrictions on Saturday 26 June.
But Catino and the crew were ready, and as a result, Catino is still very busy.
“I think in the first lockdown they were doing better,” Catino says of the government’s response. “I firmly believe the lockdown was called five days too late. We were the first [bar] company to decide to shut that weekend.
“I said that when there was the first leak of Covid on the Monday, then the government was trying to work out whether we should shut down, I personally made the call on Wednesday. I said, from Thursday all of our venues are going to be shut. That’s it.
“It was a way to protect my staff and me from getting the virus, and I wanted to give a sign — like, fuck money, honestly, let’s not worry about how much money we can make this weekend and then shut down on Monday. Let’s shut down because [the virus] could leak and go on for [a long time],” says Catino.
Below, lightly edited and condensed for clarity, Catino tells us how they’ve embraced delivery cocktails, how they were ready from the first restrictions, what he believes the government should be doing, and why he is staying positive.
You’ve had a busy year, opening two venues before June, and then the pandemic came back. Were you prepared for this?
Our new project, we were smart when we started them because before jumping into the new projects — I’m sure people thought we were crazy — there were some pandemic conditions on them. So we’re not paying any rent or anything while the venues are closed. And we’re in a pretty good position with the new venue venue, let’s say, as much as we could [be]].
Last year, we started Maybe Sammy Cocktails, which was never supposed to be just a gap filler — it was more another project that we really wanted to take on. Vince [Lombardo, co-owner of the group] really took the lead on that one so we ordered these beautiful bottles, these beautiful boxes, and we were going, no? We were selling them throughout the hotel, and then of course the pandemic arrived and we were pretty ready.
I saw that PS40 was very ready, of course Pasan [Wijesena, of Earl’s Juke Joint and Jacoby’s Tiki Bar] was ready, but we were very ready too. And thank god, it’s going very well; it’s keeping us busy and afloat for at least all the full timers that we have.
All our casual staff have been managed to get the money from the government now, unfortunately without JobKeeper, which I think is the biggest issue that we have in this new lockdown, we don’t have the possibility to rehire them. Hopefully the government will wake up and bring it back so we can keep our staff busy.
Do you think the government is doing enough?
I think in the first lockdown they were doing better. I firmly believe the lockdown was called five days too late. We were the first bar company to decide to shut that weekend.
I said that when there was the first leak of Covid on the Monday, then the government was trying to work out whether we should shut down, I personally made the call on Wednesday. I said, from Thursday all of our venues are going to be shut. That’s it. It was a way to protect my staff and me from getting the virus, and I wanted to give a sign — like, fuck money, honestly, let’s not worry about how much money we can make this weekend and then shut down on Monday. Let’s shut down because it could leak and go on for long.
I’m lucky because the first thing I do, still today, [after] 13 years in Australia, I always look at Italian news first. I heard about this strain, and I was worried, and I knew this one was spreading faster, and I said let’s go because one day, two days makes a difference. Then the government made the call — I think they made the call too late — and I’m personally not happy like many operators.
We need JobKeeper back. Without that we’re not doing as good as we could.
Given all that, how are you personally trying to stay positive?
I’m always positive. I always do the same thing: I try to keep myself busy, we are not stopping. For example, we realised that soon after opening Dean & Nancy, we were not happy with a few of the menu items. So we went in and we spent the first two weeks of lockdown on Zoom to re-do the food menu and adjust some sequence of service. So we’re very proactive.
If we close, when we reopen let’s show that we weren’t dormant, we’re taking action. It’s beautiful to realise you made mistakes because it means you can fix them, you know what I mean?
We have a weekly meeting with Dean & Nancy, we have a weekly meeting with the Maybe Sammy group, we’re trying to come up with a new cocktail list, and that’s it. We play trivia nights, we’re going to do a few more of those to keep the team together.
How do you keep the team together? Obviously you’ll want your team back when you’re allowed to reopen.
I call them every day. My job, even when we’re not closed, my job in the company is I think I spend half my morning calling my team members: how are you doing, what happened last night, you know I check in on a ton of people in general. I do that a lot.
I have this crazy desire that I need to make sure that everyone is happy. It’s a disability I think, but it’s important. I cannot lose Paolo [Maffietti] when I reopen, or Sarah [Proietti] — it would kill me. I need to make sure they’re good.
If they find an office job so they can still work when another lockdown happens, I’m happy for them. But I wouldn’t want to lose them to another venue.