Behind the scenes at Employees Only

16 October, 2018 by
Madeline Woolway

Since Robert Krueger arrived in Australia to launch the Sydney-outpost of Employees Only — the first venture down-under for the speakeasy group that opened its first, and now very famous, venue in New York in 2004 — most days have been non-stop.

“That’s the beauty of this business, you’ve got to learn everything,” Krueger tells Hospitality as he’s running a sound cable down to electricians fitting out the basement venue. “It’s solving one thing at time. If it’s not the plumbing, then it’s the people. That’s what keeps it entertaining.”

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Krueger, who has close to 14 years with the company under his belt, will spearhead the Sydney venue alongside Dushan Zaric, who co-founded the New York bar with industry friends Henry La Fargue, Igor Hadzismajlovic, Jason Kosmas and Bill Gilroy in 2004.

One thing the team has learned is how to spot the right city for its next location. First, the group is a seven-nights-a-week operation, meaning it needs to set up shop in cities of a certain size; with a growing population of just over five million, Sydney fits that bill.

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On top of that, it’s well connected to Singapore and Hong Kong, Employees Only’s two other international establishments. And, of course, there’s the glaring gap in the market — Sydney is in need of late-night options.

“We feel like we’re coming at the right time,” says Krueger. “That’s one thing EO does, whatever hours the city will give us we’re gonna use to the max and we’re gonna pump food and drinks until it’s legally mandated that we go home.”

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After finding a heritage-listed basement on the CBD’s Barrack Street, Employees Only has managed to secure an extension to their trading hours, which means they can operate until 3am, six nights a week.

“In the CBD that’s unique, and there’ll be a restaurant menu going all that time as well,” mentions Krueger. “We’ll have a dinner menu that’s a little more complicated than the main dishes. It’s actually an all-night menu and then a dinner menu from 6pm–10pm or 11pm on the weekends. But from 5pm–3am we’ll still have a proper menu.”

So, what can frequenters to Sydney’s iteration of the speakeasy expect? In terms of both the drinks list and food menus, the venue will offer both a number of classics from the O.G. New York location and a range of bespoke options. Cocktails are at the heart of the operation and guests can expect to see pioneering classics such as the Amelia, made with vodka, elderflower liqueur, pureed blackberries and fresh lemon and the Provençal, made with lavender-infused gin, stirred with Herbs de Provence infused vermouth and Cointreau, sit alongside new libations.

Head chef Aurelian Girault will lead the kitchen, executing a New York-bistro menu, which will feature a handful of New York favourites, including the famous hand-cut steak tartare, made with filet mignon, roasted tomato puree, parsley, Dijon, capers, shallots and Employees Only hot sauce; pancetta wrapped lamb chops with salsa verde; the bone marrow popper, complete with a pastry shell and bordelaise sauce; and the classic house-made Cavatelli, with pork sausage, tomato, rocket and parmesan cheese.

Sydney-exclusive additions include dishes like a falafel crusted calamari, coated with mild Middle Eastern spices. “Calamari is super popular here, not really so much in New York,” says Krueger. “And this is a different take on it, it’s crisp and crunchy and super delicious.”

There’s also an antipasti plate filled with components like fried zucchini and house-made pickles, designed to appeal to the vego crowd while also matching with the cheese and cold meat boards.

The basement location affords the kitchen, and diners, more space than other outposts too, which has allowed the team to put a number of more eye-catching and appetite stoking dishes on the menu. “What’s great about this space is that we’ve got here is that we’ve got a little bit larger seating area and we’re able to put in some great big tables and booths,” says Krueger. “We have a little bit more space to do larger dishes.”

Those larger dishes include a rib-eye steak that’s perfect for sharing, a whole fish and a herb-crust full or half rack of lamb.

“They’re feature dishes, great for larger parties,” says Krueger. “It’ll be awesome because these things look great and taste great. They’re the type of thing that, if you’re in by yourself or with a mate and you see it, you’ll want to come back with a group to try it – dishes like that are an event.”

Interior designer Tim Leveson (The Sandwich Shop, The Collector Store, Pane e Cipolla) has brought the cavernous space to life. Whilst it will still have a number of signature Employees Only elements, including the neon “psychic” sign and EO-branded awning, the team are committed to creating a space that is entirely unique to Sydney.

A curved bar, with a top made of brass, allows bartenders to be closer to guests. Employees Only Sydney will also be home to a private dining space for thirty.

The first and last problem that needs solving when launching a venue of this size is, of course, staffing.

“We’re looking for people who are in it for the long term,” says Krueger. “In NYC there’s I think five members of the bar team who are 10-year veterans. The consistency of the faces you see in a venue on a day-to-day basis are just as important as the consistency of the food.”

In Sydney, one of those consistent faces will be venue manager, Sydney-native Anna Fang. Fang will lead the team as they adapt the Employees Only format for Australia, which means creating a space for the hospitality industry to enjoy.

“If you just finished work at a wine bar, it’s time for you to come and get a Manhattan and steak tartare to treat yourself,” says Krueger. “Then hopefully rub shoulders with other people in the business who are your friends.

“We’re excited to work with the incredible local bar community, together helping to reinvigorate Sydney’s nightlife and bring it back onto the global stage.”

Employees Only Sydney will be open in November, with full food and drink menu details to come.

Image: Anna Fang and Robert Krueger