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Lyndon Kubis is quietly building a wine empire in Melbourne, but he doesn’t see it as such. "It's not much of an empire," he says coyly. To his name, he holds six wine bars across Melbourne and an online bottle shop. At the very least it’s an impressive resume, especially for a thirty-something-year-old. Starting on the till at Toorak Cellars straight out of high school, Lyndon learnt the ropes from his first boss, "He was amazing. Extremely passionate, I learnt a lot from him." says Lyndon.
After escaping to the European ski slopes for a season, Lyndon returned ready to start a new challenge. His boss at Toorak Cellars had subsequently moved on and the new owners were much more hands-off. "When I got back, I told them that I wouldn't be coming back, and then I said flippantly, 'unless you want to sell it to me.'" Lyndon explains, "They took me a bit more seriously than I thought they would, and sold it." At the time, it was just a suburban bottle shop with one table at the front. In other words, a blank canvas for a young, aspiring bar owner.
Over the years that followed, Lyndon paired up with a friend, found an investor, and opened Milton Wine Shop in Malvern. Then The Alps Wine Shop in Prahran. Then came The Moon in Collingwood, The Hills in Surrey Hills, and more recently Clover on Swan Street, Richmond. With an eye for comfortable, chic interiors and a nose for a good drop, Lyndon found a winning formula but has always made sure to adapt each venue and its wine list to the area. "The philosophies of the producers don't change, but stylistically, things change," he explains.
This opportunity to explore has undoubtedly had a hand in expanding our palette to natural and minimal intervention wines, which Lyndon has been championing for over a decade, and which have had their moment recently. "Wine is fashion, for sure. It always has been, for centuries… what were considered ‘wild wines’ 10 years ago are certainly now mainstream, and it's probably now been pushed all the way to the end of the spectrum of strange and weird wines," he explains. "We just always try to champion the producers who we believe in and who we want to see on every corner of Melbourne."
By the time Lyndon had opened venue number five, the plans were already in the works to launch an online retail store and wine subscription program. However, when COVID-19 hit, it brought those plans forward. "We started DITC [Diggin’ In the Cellars] on day one of lockdown," Lyndon says. "Our graphic designers pretty much moved in," he laughs, "they held our hand through a lot of it. Setting up the store, the newsletters, the subscriber software, the inventory software, all that kind of stuff," he explains.
Having a well-established community greatly assisted in getting it off the ground quickly, but its success is also owed in no small part to Lyndon’s level of care and attention to detail. "As with hospitality, every customer is individual, so there were a lot of emails back and forth trying to provide that individual service as much as we could with an online store," he says.
Bolstered by the confidence of having survived a global pandemic with five venues still afloat and thriving, Lyndon and his team were ready for their next challenge: opening a new bar – Clover – amid spiking inflation and a cost of living crisis. "Even compared to COVID, this is probably the most challenging time to be running a hospitality business," Lyndon admits. "There are headwinds on all sides." Notwithstanding, the cosy 48-seater bar and restaurant opened in the ‘Paris end’ of Swan Street in late 2022 with a pared-back approach that lets the team focus on what’s important.
The bet paid off, with Clover receiving rave reviews, and being immediately recognised as one of Melbourne’s top new wine bars. "It’s about not spending money on things that aren't important compared to things that can give value," he says. "For example, we leave the bottle on the table, the chefs run food… it just means that you don't need the full army of staff. Here, water stays on the table, and in certain restaurants that's unthinkable… but does someone else pouring the water really enhance your experience? It just means there's more time for the important stuff."
At Clover, everything from the linen to the ultra-seasonal menu has been carefully considered to ensure money is used wisely, and in a way that adds maximum value to the customer. Switching to Zeller was another lever Lyndon pulled (across all his venues) to save on unnecessary costs, thanks to a competitive rate, surcharging capability, and the ability to recognise and reward staff through increased tipping. At Clover alone, their tip value reached 4% of their turnover in July this year. "Zeller Terminal has a very inviting interface, so it certainly welcomes tipping," says Lyndon. In fact, it was the interface that initially attracted him to Zeller in the first place, "Some friends of mine, the Marquis of Lorne group guys who also have Union House, Mount Erica and The Royal Oak, were using it in their places and I just liked the interface as a customer. I also liked the speed of it… at Toorak Cellars where it's order-at-the-bar, that speed is especially handy."
Spreading his time between the six venues, two sourcing trips to Europe a year, and days on the road wholesaling, it’s any wonder that Lyndon has time to sleep, but, he says the secret lies in being hands-off. "Surround yourself with people who are infinitely better than you! That’s the key," he explains. "Especially when it’s more than one or two venues. You need people who are much better than you. Which is quite easy… It’s way better when I’m not around!" he laughs.
While many others would enjoy taking credit for a six-strong fleet of wine bars and an online shop, Lyndon is quick to deflect praise. "All our managers at each place are extremely strong. We wouldn’t have been able to do another one without them." It’s perhaps this humility that is his greatest strength. That, and having a knack for smelling out the world’s best wines.