Peter Sullivan’s front of house stories

written by Dominic Rolfe.

It’s Valentine’s Day at ARIA almost a decade ago and a dapper gentleman is treating his glamorous partner to a romantic lunch. The restaurant’s best waiter moves skillfully about the floor, taking time to chat to the pair and deliver their orders. Later that evening, during the dinner service full of loved-up couples, the waiter spots the same dapper gentleman from lunch. Wandering over, he says, “Great to see you again, how was your lunch today?” Only then, does he realise that the woman dining with him is not the same woman from the earlier lunch.

“It was quickly obvious,”says Peter Sullivan, co-owner of ARIA and Electrolux Appetite for Excellence Young Restaurateur judge, “that the gentleman had come in with his mistress earlier and then with his wife for dinner. It’s funny now, but it soured the night a little bit at the time. You don’t really know where to go from there and the waiter didn’t get much of a tip from them that night!”

Running the high-profile, two-hatted restaurant overlooking the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge has brought plenty of amusing moments over the years. Like the time he brought Jennifer Aniston and her entourage up into the restaurant via the goods lift and through the screaming throng in the kitchen to avoid the paparazzi. “Suddenly, mid-shout, all these chefs were doing double takes. There are plenty of other funny moments …but many of them aren’t fit for print!”

Sullivan and his business partner Matt Moran have built an empire through their MorSul partnership, including North Bondi Fish, CHISWICK in Woollahra, CHISWICK at the Gallery, ARIA in both Sydney and Brisbane and the newly refurbished Opera Bar. Their well-told story began when they met working at the small La Belle Helene restaurant in Roseville in Sydney’s north. It was Sullivan’s first manager role. “It was a pretty small restaurant so on the busiest night it would be myself, three staff and 50 diners,”he says. “On Mondays it’d be me serving 20 people. But I liked the responsibility and ownership of it. I’d get in at 1pm, vacuum and get the entire place set up including cleaning the toilets – you did everything and that wasn’t a bad thing. The food was amazing and the guys in the kitchen had been there since 7am so I owed it to them to really put in as well.”

While it was his first restaurant manager role, Sullivan started his hospitality career at a lowly two-star hotel on the Pacific Highway while he studied at catering college. He soon moved down the road to a hotel in Artarmon and did stints in the kitchen, on the floor, at the bar, in functions and even as a porter. “I moved around as required,”he says, “which was good for learning.”

Learning and moving seem to be constants for Sullivan. After an 18 month search with Moran, they settled on a lease at the Paddington Inn in 1991 and started their own adventure. “We didn’t really think about it, we just went ahead and did it,”he says. “There was a bit of risk because we borrowed quite a lot of money and we only had a lease for a month! We backed ourselves and while you never know what will happen, you just try to learn as you go.”

They did everything themselves – brought and arranged the flowers, went to the markets, paid the wages. After a month, they were pretty happy with what they had done. Until they realised that apart from the staff, nothing had been paid – including the rent. “We were basically going broke very slowly,”says Sullivan. “Back then, we knew how to run a restaurant, but not a business. We had to stop, rethink it and do it properly. That was a pretty important moment for us because we could have been just another victim.”

At its heart, running a small business for Sullivan is all about problem solving. “If you’re not solving problems every day,”he says, “then you probably shouldn’t be running your own business. And the bigger the business, the more problems you have.”

While he has never come close to quitting the industry, he does recognise that all things maintain a certain flux. And coping with that is key to being successful. “My big thing is that everything goes through cycles,”says Sullivan, “and part of that is that it’s not the best that survive, it’s the ones that can adapt the quickest. That’s very important.”

In the past, a restaurant would be first glimpsed either by peering intently through its windows or in the restaurant review pages of the paper. With the proliferation of social media, that has been spun on its head. “Facebook, Twitter and Instagram mean it’s more about engagement before you get to the venue,”says Sullivan, “And then you throw in chefs becoming big personalities, and that engagement has really started long before a person comes in to dine.”

That need to constantly engage has its downsides though. “I get my balance out a bit,”says Sullivan, “I’ve fallen into the trap of sometimes letting my life be run by mobile phones and email. Throw in a lot of obsessive compulsion and it makes for a very wife- and family-unfriendly mix! But I fall into that trap because it’s a very personal business.”

MorSul (Moran and Sullivan) is the restaurant and catering group owned and operated by Peter Sullivan and Matt Moran.

Entries for Australian Young Waiter are open until 12 April 2015

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