Society Affairs - Café Society owners on overcoming pandemic blues
As we slowly roll into summer with a mojo pumped by the Mediterranean sunshine and salty skin, it becomes very easy to forget that the world is still battling a pandemic and our weekend outings can’t be planned as they used to. It doesn’t matter if you’re a regular barfly or a casual explorer - with bars and restaurants still firmly shut, the streets of Maltese towns do not feel the same.
During one of those long stay at home evenings, just when we were about to get really sentimental over the lost paradise of socialising, a great piece of news hit the phone screen. Café Society launched a virtual bar! Wait, what?!
Locals do not need any introduction to Café Society. When in Valletta, at some point during our night around town, we all find ourselves there, whether it’s for the lively chats, the charming stairs of St. John’s Street, a good view over the Grand Harbour, the vibes, or the tunes that always hit the spot. And now that we can’t physically do all that yet, we’re very interested to find out more about this new virtual bar experience and what the Society team are up to right now.
With some help from bar manager Jake Page, we reached out to Tom Dev, Mike Carbone and Alex Zicotron, owners of Café Society, to learn about their entrepreneurial story, DIY-Society-style cocktails and how to support local performers during this surreal plot twist in the story of one of Valletta’s most looked for hangouts.
il-lokal: OK guys, what’s in your glass right now?
Mike: Basil Fawlty - that’s gin, lime, sugar and basil.
Tom: My glass is half full.
Alex: Cuban Gringo with rum, ginger, lime, chili, topped with ginger beer.
il-lokal: How did it all start? How did you come together and what led you to open Café Society?
Mike, Tom, Alex: Tom and Mike used to work together and shared a passion for music. On Notte Bianca 2008, they (somewhat illegally) set up some speakers in an empty square in Valletta, along with a case of beers to flog and called their makeshift bar The Drunken Donkey Bar. Alex was out for a walk, stumbled into their “bar” and ordered a drink. The three of them went on to organise parties and music festivals, and played their electro-swing style in bars and clubs across Europe.
The next logical step for the trio was to open a permanent venue, though it was more of a pipe dream than something that was ever going to really happen, until one fateful night when Mike and Alex were walking around Valletta and noticed two things.
First, the unparalleled view from St John’s Street. How cool would it be to have a bar with that view? Second, in that very spot, on a rickety shutter, in barely visible green paint was a phone number. A few phone calls and some convincing of Tom (It wasn’t hard), we had the keys and were moving in, before Tom had even seen the inside. Fast forward a couple of months, after (quite) some blood, sweat, and beers, Café Society was open. The rest is history!
il-lokal: There's a great framed photograph in the bar's toilet showing the place before it was remodelled. The work you did is impressive!
Mike, Tom, Alex: This bar was restored from the ground up, we did everything ourselves. But first, we had to remove generations worth of tiling and facades until we reached the original tile you see in Café Society today - over 400 years old. Tearing each layer apart was like peeling off layers of history, and that gives you a real look into the story of Valletta from one space. That was the excitement (and exhaustion) we were feeling in that photo in the toilet.
il-lokal: How do you split responsibilities between the three of you? Is each of you focusing on a particular part of the operation or do you make every decision together?
Mike, Tom, Alex: Well, our opening night was basically Mike and Tom and the name of 6 cocktails written with a marker on the wall. We were completely unprepared but ready to adapt to how popular the bar would become.
Since then, we have divided the responsibilities based on our individual strengths and each plays a vital role in keeping Café Society running. We make all decisions together, usually agreeing unanimously, and always over a drink.
il-lokal: Did running a business together change your personal relationships with each other? How do you maintain that balance?
Mike, Tom, Alex: We’ve always taken the position that our personal relationships are more important than the business, and that extends to our relationship with our staff, and to a large extent, our customers, which is probably why people feel so at home when they are at Café Society.
We feel the bar is an extension of our living room. It’s where the three of us hang out most of the time, so our history of friends-turned-business-partners has only made us closer.
il-lokal: We truly miss hanging out at Café Society. How can your regulars support you while you are closed due to pandemic prevention measures?
Mike, Tom, Alex: It’s no secret that the hospitality and entertainment industries are taking a huge hit with the current situation that they aren’t likely to recover fully from anytime soon. We have always prided ourselves on connecting and giving a platform to up-and-coming musicians and artists and all of Malta’s local talent.
That is why we have started the “Society Affairs” Facebook group, Malta’s first online pop-up bar. It’s a space where all our loyal customers can connect and have a chat, and where we can still give a platform to the artists that make Malta special. We host live streams of DJ sets, live bands, comedians, and other performances, and encourage everyone to tune in and enjoy. And if you are financially able, go ahead - tip the artists via Revolut. Let’s support our local talent now so it’s still around when we can finally go out and enjoy it! Finally, for those who miss our drinks, we are offering DIY cocktail kits containing everything you need to make your favourite Café Society cocktail yourself at home!
il-lokal: Great! Could you suggest a nice simple cocktail from your DIY list?
Mike, Tom, Alex: You can’t go wrong with a Basil Fawlty made with gin, lime, sugar, and fresh basil. It’s a Café Society classic that has been on the menu since day one and will remain on the menu till the day we close.
il-lokal: Hopefully the global situation continues to improve and we can see you at the bar really soon. Since you’re based in Valletta - a tourist hot-spot, how do you think the bar scene will adapt to much lower tourist traffic this year?
Mike, Tom, Alex: History has shown that Valletta has one of the most resilient spirits in Europe, and is a city full of beauty and talent. Yes, the upcoming period will be financially challenging due to a lack of tourism which we usually rely on, but the Maltese have an adaptive spirit, and locals are our best clients. We are confident that local solidarity will see the industry through.
il-lokal: If you had to give a piece of advice to someone who wants to open a bar, what would it be?
Alex: Start by drinking. Know your booze before you sell it.
Mike: Don’t get distracted by “the concept”. A bar is built with a hammer and determination. Do what you love and people will enjoy it.
One book every aspiring entrepreneur should read?
Little Book of Calm by Paul Wilson
Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Which are your 3 favourite independent businesses in Malta and why?
Growth Gurus - They have been great at advising and helping out small businesses during the current crisis.
Te Fit-Tazza - Fantastic art, super original and just a great group of guys.
Gazed - We love their eco-friendly, creative dynamic.
Why is it important to support local businesses?
Those are the businesses that give Malta its identity.
|Location:||13 St Johns Street, Valletta|
Edited by Manuela Zamit.