by Neometro

Simon Griffiths on Shebeen

Ideas, People - by Open Journal


Both in vision and in execution, Shebeen is not your average city bar. Combining a social enterprise business plan with CBD watering hole and venue space, Shebeen is bar where beer and wine is sourced from developing countries, allowing proceeds to go back to development initiatives in each country.

A relatively simple sounding concept, but of course, opening a venue is never that simple, especially one as unique as this. Open Journal talks to Simon Griffiths about the concept and what it took to get it off the ground.

Congratulations on opening Shebeen. It’s been quite a journey right?

Yes! It’s taken about 4-5 years from concept through to opening.  It’s great to be trading and seeing customers really responding to the concept.

How do you describe Shebeen to someone who you’ve just met?

Shebeen is a non-profit café and bar with an Afro/Asian/Mexican feel.  So we sell dine-in and take-away coffee and Vietnemese style banh mi by day, then transition into more of a bar offering at night.  100% of our profits are donated to seven development aid projects.

What makes Shebeen unique is that we only sell exotic beer and wine from the developing world.  The profit from each drink sale goes back to a development organisation in that drink’s country of origin – so drinking an Ethiopian beer helps to provide agricultural equipment to rural farmers in Ethiopia via KickStart, and a glass of South African wine provides local language books to school children in Kwa-Zulu Natal via Room to Read.

Tell us about the local practices you’ve worked with to make the project come together.

We built the venue on the tightest budget possible, which meant that we had to work with almost everyone on a pro-bono or cost recovery basis.

All of our professional services were provided pro-bono, with Clamenz Evans Ellis, HWL Ebsworth and King & Wood Mallesons handling legals, Swear Words on graphic design, Run Forrest on PR, and the interior concepts and creative direction coming from the amazing team at Foolscap Studio.  Tin & Ed worked on pattern design and iconography for our wallpaper and murals, and their patterns then ended up on the uniforms that were brought to life by Alpha 60.  We’ve also got light fittings from Coco Flip, and Volker Haug helped to turn some old streetlights into indoor lamps.  McCorkell Constructions handled the build on a cost recovery basis and Marshall Day Acoustics and Architecture and Access consulted to us for free as well.

Financially, we had about 25 private “social investors” (who don’t receive any financial return on their capital) put cash behind us, then created product partnerships with Brown-Forman, Schweppes and Silver Chef to build the remainder of our start-up budget. Nexia Australia helped with the paperwork for the investment side of things, and Moore Stephens look after our annual audit process.

I think that’s it – phew!

This is your first foray into hospitality correct? Have you worked in a lot of bars before this?

I’ve spent a tiny amount of time behind bars, but a hell of a lot of time behind the scene’s of Vernon Chalker’s bars (Vernon is my business partner and owns Gin palace, Madame Brussels, Bar Ampere and Collins Quarter) – the intention was that I would never actually step foot behind Shebeen’s bar, so I actively avoided hands on service experience so that I wouldn’t be tempted to serve customers!  Vernon has given me a lot of high-level managerial experience, which is really all that my job at Shebeen involves.

How did Vernon Chalker come into the equation? How was it working with someone so seasoned in opening new venues?

In 2008 I was starting to think about how to bring Shebeen to life, and actively sought out successful hospitality operators to validate (or flaw) some of the assumptions in my business model.  At the end of that year I worked in the Melbourne International Art Festival’s pop-up bar for three weeks, and I told my boss (Simon Hall, who now owns and runs Easy Tiger on Smith Street) about the Shebeen concept.  Simon had worked for Vernon for nine years and suggested that we meet.

Vernon and I hit it off as soon as we sat down together.  He suggested that we meet weekly so that he could help iron out some of Shebeen’s creases, and a few weeks later we started selling our Ethiopian beer at Madame Brussels… with $1.50 from every sale being donated back to Shebeen.  Six months after that Vernon came on board as a Director and we started to look for capital.

Working with Vernon has been quite amazing – he’s one of the few people that I’ve met that prioritises relationships over money.  As a result he’s had a lot of time for me, but has also taught me a lot about how to look after and retain staff, and how to do business in a bit more of a friendly manner to your typical businessman – that’s something that has been crucial to Shebeen.  He also opens his team up to me.  I can call his CEO, HR department, accounts team, venue managers, sommeliers or handymen depending on what problem I’ve got on my plate.  Shebeen would have never happened at its current scale without Vernon’s help and generosity, and we’ve become incredibly good friends in the process.

What’s the process for sourcing your product from developing countries? How do you even find out about a beer from Nigeria or from Ethiopia?

I lived, worked and travelled in the developing world a lot in the 10 years prior to opening Shebeen.  As a result, I’d tried almost all of our products and food offering in country, and had a list of the products that I liked in the back of my mind.

When it came to opening Shebeen, we had to find local importers/suppliers for everything that we wanted to sell.  We would like to import some of our own products in the future, but doing imports from day one was too bigger job.  As part of searching for suppliers we stumbled across a few new beers and wines, then took everything to Vernon’s team for tasting and a final tick of approval.  The result is a well-balanced menu with some rare flavours that are unique to Australia.

Can the social enterprise approach be applied outside of beer? Are there good wine and spirits form developing countries?

We already sell beautiful wines from South Africa and Chile and are currently working on a Herradura tequila based cocktail that will send profits to Root Capital in Mexico.  We’ve been looking into some other spirits for the near future, but the main problem is the rotten hangover that comes with drinking foreign firewater!

The Manchester Lane site is a really sweet location. Was it a long search?
We were looking for a venue for 24 months, and negotiated on our current lease for 12 months before we finally signed the paperwork – it was actually a nightmare negotiation that really pushed my stress levels!  Finding the right lease is one of the most important parts of a successful venue.  We’re really happy to have found something that is amazing both at day and night, and works well on steamy summer nights as well as wet winter evenings.  It was worth the stress!

And rumour has it you inherited a smashing sound system? 

Haha, the rumours are true. We have a huge Funktion One sound system hidden downstairs in what we call the “Shebang” performance space.  We’re currently working out how to acoustically insulate the Shebang so that the sound system isn’t too disruptive to our neighbours, then we’ll open it up to the public and start to do regular parties down there – it’s going to be a great edition to Shebeen, and a Shebanging good time for punters.

Now that it’s completed, what is one piece of advice you would give yourself if you could go back in time to the start of the process?

We’re not quit there yet – we’ve still got about 2/3 of the venue that we’re planning to renovate in the next few months.  If I had my time again, I would have raised a touch more money so that we could start the next stage of renovations straight away!  The piece of the budget allocated to my salary was also blown on the existing fit out – it would have been nice to hold onto that.  With trade going the way that it is, I should be able to draw a salary in the next month or two…

36 Manchester Lane, Melbourne
03 9650 6931

By Matt Hurst


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