“When you see a team thrives under pressure you know you’re in good hands!” Table Talk with Sofi Nipper, St. Alma, Sydney

Group Operations Manager of Alma Group, Sofi Nipper

Sydney – St. Alma of Alma Group, with a focus on authenticity, is a wait-list worthy diner that exudes a down-to-earth charm paired with upmarket dining, delivering an elevated take on Mexican dining.

Founders Jack Leary and Executive Chef Tim Christensen, along with Group Operations Manager Sofi Nipper, have a built a team of 50 staff that work across their Alma Avalon and St. Alma venues. “Both Alma and St Alma are found in heritage listed, converted buildings. The team passionately restored and updated the spaces for the restaurants. St Alma is housed in a converted heritage bank building in Freshwater, while Alma is found in a charming beachside heritage (formally) residential villa,” says Sofi.

Sofi has spent over 15 years working in and managing food, beverage, and high-end events in Sydney and London. Sofi’s previous roles included General Manager at Brunswick House London, Three Hatted restaurant – The Bridge Room, and Reservation Manager at Quay, Sydney – a modern fine dining restaurant with three hats that was awarded number one Fine Dining restaurant in Australia by Gourmet Traveller during Sofi’s time there.

How did you get your start? 

I actually started waiting tables in primary school! My Dad was a financial advisor and would assume operational duties while restaurants/bars were in receivership, the businesses would either be bought, liquidated or as happened a few times – run by our family.

We ran a Chinese restaurant in Broadway, a steakhouse in Birkenhead point, a theatre restaurant somewhere near Chippendale. I finished my HSC. I did an apprenticeship at a bar in Annandale, from there I moved to Melbourne chasing the bar scene.

I just wanted to learn more, I was the first to arrive and the last to leave, attended all the training, trained to be a trainer myself. I worked in boutique bars for a few years, moved over to restaurants, Accor, back to restaurants then over to London chasing produce and all things hospitality. 

How has a failure set you up for later success? 

Like most people, especially in hospitality – I have worked with people that didn’t share my own values and philosophies which leads to a disconnect between goals, communications and priorities… and sometimes, it can breed toxicity.

I’ve learnt that it really is the most important part of selecting a role or a person to join the team – understanding and respecting company and individual values is absolutely essential.

Interiors of St. Alma

What is your definition of remarkable service? What are Alma Group’s guiding principles, and how do they impact your outlets?

At Alma Group, we acknowledge the labour shortage is not going anywhere, while we absolutely desire experience, what we focus on is the 51 percenters.

So, what is a 51 percenter and what do they bring to the experience?

Quoting Danny Meyer: A 51 percenter is somebody whose greatest pleasure in life is doing a job really well in a way that makes you feel good and that last part is not common to a lot of people. Hiring on personality and committing an extensive training program.

What do you put in place for your team to create an experience with remarkable service? 

Once a month we share an evening of training, with the mix of students and full time team members we find the best attendance comes outside of conventional training days.

This week we are focusing on FOH – sequence of service, sales techniques etc. Getting the team together and discussing all the finer points always leads to great conversations and brings up all the queries that get put to the side through busy services.  

Agave Glazed Halloumi by Executive Chef Tim Christensen, St. Alma

What are some of the systems or methods in place to evaluate your own staff’s performance and service level?

Resy OS (our booking software, owned by AMEX) sends a survey to every completed reservation, once completed Resy compiles these and sends them out at 5am, it’s the first thing I read in the morning and I’m sure rings true to the extended management team.

We have alerts set for Google/Facebook etc, we don’t get too many through those avenues. It’s always great to receive feedback, especially negative, they are so rare for us but it means the guests has given us an opportunity to right our wrong.

We are super proactive at reaching out to guests and genuinely value them as a temperature check on how our restaurants are performing. 

“Our guests are instantly welcomed into our establishments, surrounded by positivity.”

What can other establishments learn from Alma Group in how to deliver remarkable service? 

At Alma, we look after our team first and foremost, we know that if they feel supported, they support us and go the extra mile for our guests. They have the autonomy and desire to provide bespoke experiences.

We take pride in tailoring the experience and sharing that genuine connection with our guests. Our guests are instantly welcomed into our establishments, surrounded by positivity. This rings especially true through our busiest services,

When you see a team thrives under pressure you know you’re in good hands!

We call it our mongrel mode, our team digs deep and is rewarded in equal measure.

How do you manage your team, and what is your leadership style? 

My leadership style has evolved over the years, there are patches where I was treated poorly and as a consequence ran teams in the same spirit. Referencing Meraki again, that’s not how I am in my personal life.

I now bring my softness into the business and operate from the heart. These teams are part of my family, I have a genuine interest in not only their professional growth but their personal development as well.

I offer flexibility and in turn have the most dedicated team to date. I get in the trenches with them everyday, leading from the front but also knowing when to follow. There’s little point training these legends and then micro managing them into submission. 

How do you keep your team inspired and motivated to love what they do? 

We offer incentives based on performance, these incentives multiply when the whole team reaches these targets which installs that competition but also comradery. The front of house team have a spend per head target which encourages them to order effectively, keep an eye on beverage levels, add on etc, the bar & kitchen team have incentives based on COGS, measuring stock, recording wastages and generally being aware of how they control our bottom lines.

Our annual staff party has a life all of its own, that’s all I will say on that. 

If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?

I think as women you need to find the right employer, having 2 small children and managing 2 restaurants has a whole set of challenges attached. I am gifted with so many allowances that in turn allow me to pour into the business in a way that I haven’t before.

Working from home, bringing the kids to meetings, these aren’t detractors, the directors have a great relationship with my children and in turn they absolutely adore Jack & Tim.

This doesn’t mean it’s not a challenge but if you’re working or someone who can’t be flexible, you will always feel that you’re making a sacrifice, we want our team to stay for the long run and if we need to accommodate that person, we will.

We have a mix of 18 year old, single parents, students, hospitality veterans, they all need something tailored to them.

What learnings and advice can you share with younger female peers? 

  1. Be selective with your employer
  2. Find a mentor 
  3. Surround yourself with people who take an interest in your development

And one last question…

How do you find work-life balance? 

Part of Meraki is not separating the two, finding a way they can thrive together. There’s an analogy I reference to assess how my days will run, basically, you have an infinite number of balls to juggle daily, these are all in play and you can only juggle so many at one time.

Some of them will be dropped – deciding which ones? That’s the contentious part!

Of these balls some are rubber, some are glass, this changes daily sometimes hourly. Glass balls when dropped shatter, can’t be repaired, rubber balls, will bounce when dropped.

Located in Sydney, Australia, St. Alma is truly a reflection of Executive Chef Tim Christensen’s journey in the kitchen. So while a focus on fresh, locally sourced seafood will once again feature, you can expect a heap of different techniques being utilized (from week-long dry aging to curing) to highlight the depths of flavor Australian seafood has to offer.

The produce will then feature flavors of coastal Mexico and ingredients found on the east coast of Australia to provide you with a dining experience like no other.

Visit here to learn their story and follow their Instagram to keep up to date!

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