Stefano Catino on bringing Matt Whiley’s RE to Public, how to survive tough times, and the second coming of the Maybe Cocktail Festival

There’s two conflicting narratives out there about the hospitality landscape: openings and closures.

Stefano Catino on bringing Matt Whiley’s RE to Public, how to survive tough times, and the second coming of the Maybe Cocktail Festival
Stefano Catino. Photo: Supplied

We are living in some interesting times for hospitality, with what seems to me a conflicting narrative out there at the moment.

On the one hand, it seems like every week there’s a notable venue closing, as outlined in this piece by Dani Valent last week although it does seem to me more troublesome for restaurants than the top bars at the moment. Either way, that means people are put out of work at a time when the cost of living is reducing people’s spending power. And speaking in recent weeks to some spirits brand people, their sales volumes seem to be down across January and February this year.

But on the other hand, there are also signs of considerable optimism, with a new bar launching every other week — the last few months have seen new Sydney offerings from Swillhouse, Mucho Group, a new place from the team behind Jacoby’s Tiki Bar, Palomino Lounge (from Dylan Howarth, of Fortunate Son), The Emerald Room from the team behind Dulcie’s in Kings Cross just opened — deep breath — and Pleasure Club from Odd Culture Group — along with plenty of others.

And coming down the pipeline, there’s a trio of restaurants and bars coming from the guys behind Continental Deli Bar & Bistro, House Made Hospitality are opening a number of bars, and even my old boss at Australian Bartender magazine, Dave Spanton, is adding a third bar to his growing Potts Point empire. It looks like a good time to grow a bar group.

But there’s also a couple of yet to be announced bars coming from some top bartending talent, making their first foray into bar ownership. And that’s just in Sydney.

So there are closures, and there are openings. Like our friend Sebastian Soto from Double Deuce Lounge is known to say, in Sydney your two best days in business are the day you open, and the day you close.

So what’s one to make of it all? Who knows what’s going on? Stefano Catino is pretty well-placed to talk about it, and he’s my guest on this episode — he is a co-founder of the Maybe Group, with Maybe Sammy, El Primo Sanchez, Maybe Frank, Dean & Nancy on 22, and Sammy Junior under its umbrella; the Maybe Group was acquired by the Public Group in April 2023, adding to their growing portfolio of venues — like the recently opened Busby’s — and including a lot of pubs, across NSW and Victoria.

Stefano is now the director of hospitality at Public, so I talk to him about the state of play in the industry right now, and he offers some advice to anyone thinking of starting their own bar in these economic times. I also ask him how they got Matt Whiley to move his bar, Re, to their group and when that’s expected to open.

And we also talk about the return next month of the Maybe Cocktail Festival. From April 9th to the 15th, more than 30 bartenders from across the globe will be in Sydney and doing shifts across the group’s venues, representing some of the world’s best bars: Handshake Speakeasy (Mexico City), Caretaker’s Cottage (Melbourne), Freni & Frizioni (Rome), Argo (Hong Kong), Panda & Sons (Edinburgh), Dante (New York City & Los Angeles), Bar Nouveau (Paris), Gucci Giardino 25 (Florence), Bar Leone (Hong Kong), Tayēr + Elementary (London), Byrdi (Melbourne), Re (Sydney), La Punta Expendio de Agave (Rome), Kwãnt Mayfair (London), The Donovan Bar (London), Origin Bar (Singapore), and Trick Dog (San Francisco).

Also in town for the event is Millie Tang, the high-flying Brisbane bartender (and winner of Person of the Year QLD in 2023), and the wonderful Julio Bermejo, creator of the Tommy’s Margarita and the living embodiment of hospitality.

It’ll be quite a shindig. The schedule is online here — you might want to schedule some work free days in April if you can.

You can listen to Drinks At Work on Apple PodcastsSpotifyAmazon Music and on Android.