For over 12 years, Daniel Sofo’s Firefly has been lighting up Sydney’s small bar and restaurant scene. Known for its shared dining menu, extensive Pinot Noir collection and eclectic atmosphere, Firefly continues to delight customers old and new.
Based on his success with Firefly, Daniel has been inspired to train and mentor the next generation of hospitality go-getters. This started internally with Firefly staff in 2009, “this is when I realised that I had some very talented, young managers who had big dreams, so I felt a strong obligation to do as much for them as I could to help them advance in their career,” says Daniel.
The essence of mentoring incorporates a few ideas. It is about taking a personal interest in somebody and setting an intention for them as well as to educate and lead by example. There can be more, or less formal components to mentoring but it does involve spending one on one time, thinking about what needs to be taught, setting some goals and desired outcomes. “At the very simplest, the aim is for your mentee to leave the conversation just a little bit more informed, challenged, inspired or educated than they were at the beginning” explains Daniel.
Daniel knew that his mentees’ time at Firefly was limited as they would eventually be ready for their own ventures, but nonetheless, he chose to continue with his mentoring program.
It is a risky move to train, advise and support someone who is looking to go into direct competition with you, but Daniel believes it has paid off as “mentoring makes you more accountable to your own principles because you have to lead by example and it keeps you focused on your own goals and values”.
One of Daniel’s most successful mentees is Quynh Nguyen, who is now one of the most recognisable names in Sydney’s bar and hospitality scene. Daniel and Quynh’s professional relationship began in 2008 when Quynh joined the Firefly bar team. After parting ways in 2009, their boss and employee relationship ended, but Daniel was and always has remained a major part of Quynh’s success story.
After learning from Daniel the in’s and out’s of the industry, he went on to become one of the most sought after hospitality consultants. He has curated the drinks programs for a variety of Sydney’s best-known bars and restaurants including; Brooklyn Social, Luis Tan, Bondi Icebergs and China Diner. His credibility within the industry has seen him appear as a drinks expert on Channel 7 and also as a finalist in the Suntory Cup Cocktail Competition, Disaronno – Mixing it with the Star’s Cocktail Competition and was the Asia Pacific Finalist in the Belvedere Ultimate Martini Competition.
In addition to Quynh’s many other projects, he has come back to where it all started for him and is now a valued consultant at Firefly.
Laura Twomey is another member of the Firefly alumni. At just 20 years old, Twomey was already a Venue Manager with the company. Once she left, and with Daniel’s guidance she quickly worked her way into Sydney’s bar scene by setting up The Little Guy, an iconic bar in Glebe and thereafter, co-founding Kingston Public in Newtown. Daniel would meet Laura formally once to twice a week for between 10 minutes to an hour but also outside of work they would attend wine tastings, trade events and new venue openings together.
“For the duration of the time that I worked with Daniel, we worked incredibly hard, at an incredible pace. We were constantly moving forward but we had no qualms in looking back to resolve any errors that may have occurred along the way. Daniel constantly gave me the confidence to grow into the role that he had planned for me; he entrusted me with so many aspects of his business that I felt personally responsible to push it as far as I could and for it to succeed under my leadership as it did under Dan’s.”
“At no point did I feel like I worked for Daniel, only alongside him; we had a mutual respect for each other and although he did throw me wildly into the deep end, he did so only because he knew that I needed that challenge and I knew that I would overcome any hurdle that could have gotten in our way. The support that I had from Daniel was always from beside me and never from above me and that is the kind of mentorship that grows leaders, not just good staff members.”
Saroj Khatiwada was mentored by Daniel Sofo. He worked as a junior cook and worked his way up to head chef before going on to open Brio in Prymont.
“In the years I spent working with and being mentored by Daniel at Firefly I felt consistently pushed. Daniel’s one simple teaching idea is to make things a little better step by step, day by day. The result of four years of this incremental leading process being, I woke up one day and felt ready and prepared to start my own restaurant. Though starting my own restaurant was a huge commitment, I was supported and even further pushed by Daniel to succeed and prosper. The things I learnt from him, I still apply every day in Brio,” says Saroj.
“There is still a strong reflection of my time with Daniel not only in the in the way I do business, but also in the attitude of service that is reflected through our dishes and on the face of our customers.”
The small bar scene in Sydney is a fickle one yet Sofo has outlived the fads that come and go and by leveraging off this, has become an industry go-to person for advice on opening a new venue, for the next generation of hospitality entrepreneurs. Although they might be in direct rivalry,Sofo feels it is necessary to support and mentor those starting out in such a difficult environment, where new competition appears on a daily basis.
His five key tips on starting a new venue are:
1. Make your own mistakes on someone else’s dime before you start your own venue.
2. Establish what you are passionate about and why you feel the need to open your own venue in such a crowded and competitive environment.
3. Hospitality is all about people. How will you attract, train, and retain great people? Figure out what your unique point of difference is.
4. How are you going to tell the world about your great venue? Become a marketing guru or find yourself one.
5. Objectively assess your level of commitment and notion of hard work. Being a restaurant owner is physically and psychologically tough.