Steven Woodburn

Hospitality magazine has long prided itself on being the industry’s go-to resource for the latest news, trends, openings, and movements that sweep across our ever-evolving industry.

But it’s also essential to take pause, reflect, and look to the future, which is why we’re thrilled to introduce the first iteration of the Hospitality Leaders Forum.

The following series is filled with valuable insights from the country’s leading operators – think Lucas Restaurants, Solotel, House Made Hospitality, and six other groups on everything from milestone moments to the impact of the cost-of-living crisis, what they’re tipping will be big in 2024, and the current staffing landscape.

Learning from your peers is an invaluable experience and always provides plenty of food (and beverage) for thought.

First up: Applejack Hospitaity’s Ben Carroll (co-founder and director); Patrick Friesen, (director of culinary); and Matthew Jenkins (director of people and culture).

Ben Carroll
Applejack Hospitality had a vibrant and eventful 2023. The year kicked off on an optimistic note amidst the last leg of the Covid-19 purple patch, marked by robust spending and a delay in the impact of rising interest rates. Despite the challenges posed by incremental interest rate hikes, Applejack’s adaptability and resilience shone through.

While the beverage segment experienced a dip, the food sector stood strong. Applejack’s commitment to offering value-added experiences without heavily relying on discounts paid off. December turned out to be a stellar month, buoyed by exceptional venue choices, consistently great service, and a fantastic Christmas period.

Applejack Hospitality is gearing up for an exciting journey of growth in 2024, transitioning from a medium- to large-sized company. The key focus is on strategically structuring the company’s expansion while preserving the essential connection to venues and people, which is at the heart of Applejack’s identity. Hamish Watts and I are committed to maintaining a hands-on approach, ensuring that the company’s growth doesn’t compromise the personal touch.

Monthly company inductions fostering face-to-face connections will persist to continue a sense of camaraderie within the team. We recognise the importance of head office as a supportive network and will prioritise spending time in venues alongside the teams. During the festive season, myself, Hamish, and the head office team actively participated in shifts.

In 2024, brace for the launch of UrbnSurf, a venture that promises to bring a wave of innovation and excitement to Sydney Olympic Park complete with Sandy’s – a casual surfside all-day eatery – and Rafi UrbnSurf, a second location of our hatted restaurant.

Patrick Friesen
2023 was a big year for Applejack Hospitality and our largest focus in our teams was building on relationships with suppliers, growers, fishermen, and farmers. With the changes in the economy, we switched from the premiumisation of post Covid-19 years and moved more into providing great value and a better sense of approachability.

We’ve noticed that eating out is moving from a daily occurrence into more of a privilege. We are expecting our guests to lean into experiences they can trust in 2024. Already, we have seen a large shift to prix fixe and happy hours. I’m hoping to see some opportunities for young operators to take risks on sites as they become available and bring a fresh new approach to hospitality on the smaller scale.

Matthew Jenkins
In terms of recruitment, things have certainly stabilised since the labour shortage crisis leading into Christmas 2022 and we are now seeing regular patterns of applications that we are used to. Casual food and beverage attendants and low-level cook and chef candidates are more prevalent and tend to be on student or working holiday visas.

However, we are seeing a lack of senior managers and chef candidates with the number of years’ experience and behaviour set we believe is necessary for our venues. The Covid-19 closures forced many hospitality professionals to work in other industries and we are now working to close that knowledge gap through training and development initiatives with the new crop of staff members.

Our most effective tool for recruitment is to create an enticing employee value proposition. We cast the net wide and meet as many people as we can to introduce them to Applejack, hoping they choose to work with us or at least become a valued customer that one day might be an employee.