you feel privileged to have a seat but it’s not designed for you to settle in for the evening
Frenetic Tokyo micro madness descends on leafy Sydney suburbia.
146 Queen St, Woollahra NSW
(02) 9363 0219
Story: Christopher Holder
Photography: Murray Fredericks
What to do with a undersized tenancy? Make it smaller.
I know that seems insane but when Paul Kelly and his client Nick Diamond sat down to discuss some options for a Woolhara shop front, Paul made his pitch: chop the site in half. Create a luxe sushi bar at the front and then a secret restaurant and bar at the back.
This wasn’t entirely a hair-brained hail Mary, Paul Kelly has done the hard research ‘yards’. He’s scoured the nether regions of Tokyo: descending in and out of izakaya and yakitori bars and restaurants, taking the pulse of some tiny venues that nonetheless teem with life.
BLACK BELT SUSHI
The Kenny Raw shopfront is relatively conventional. High-class sashimi is conspicuously prepared by a Japanese sushi master and served in gorgeous balsa wood boxes embossed with the Kenny Raw logo.
Come nightfall, those in the know can walk through to the back of the sushi restaurant to a burnt timber panel featuring an intentionally anonymous bronze plate with the Kenny Rens logo inscribed.
Slide the timber panel aside and instantly you’re transported to a another dimension. Kenny Rens is an assault on the senses. The star of the show is a wood-fired robata grill spitting flames and smoke. Close enough to scorch your eyebrows is an array of bench seating. The 25 seater is crammed. Paul Kelly puts it this way: “The benches are small, the seats are hard, the grill is hot and smokey; the drinks are cold and the food is amazing. Sounds like a great restaurant!”
And that about encapsulates Kenny Rens: it’s brash and unapologetically so. Everything is cranked to 11, including the music belting out through a high quality Bose sy stem.
“It’s loud,” notes Paul Kelly. “You can hardly hear yourself think over Living on a Prayer or The Final Countdown. That’s the intention: high turnover. As a customer you feel privileged to have a seat but it’s not designed for you to settle in for the evening.”
Paul Kelly’s Kenny Rens concept brings crazy-cramped, totally bonkers Tokyo hospitality to Sydney. The ‘why’ is based on the space restrictions of the site, not because Paul and Nick are on a mission to bring home an izakaya in their Qantas hand luggage.
For it to work financially you need people — lots of people; and you need alcohol — lots of alcohol.
Nick Diamond is carrying the financial risk on this full-throttle throw of the dice and already has his eye on another site that would otherwise be unworkably small: “Engaging Paul Kelly Design was more than hiring an interior designer. I totally trusted Paul Kelly to flesh out the concept and to build me a brand. Now, I have an opportunity to roll the concept out to another site, albeit on a slightly larger footprint.
“Getting the Kenny Rens concept right is a huge plus. It’s tight and intimate, yet fun and vibrant.”
ANATOMY OF SMALL SPACE
The Japanese have made an art out of the micro. In Tokyo, where space is especially at a premium, small bars and eateries are an institution and can remain so because of the pressure of population.
“There isn’t the luxury of space in Tokyo,” observes Paul Kelly. “The same applies here at Kenny Rens. It’s absolutely tiny and the design is about maximising the space rather than slavishly trying to emulate a Tokyo restaurant.”
With so much thought gone into making the most of the small footprint it’s resulted in a remarkably efficient hospitality operation.
“Because of the size limit the menu is concise, as is the drinks selection,” continues Paul Kelly. “There’s not much variety but it’s all of a really high quality. Operationally, the back of house facilities are carefully designed. The robata grill is central to the spectacle but much of the preparation and cooking is down behind the scenes.”
Turning everything up to a 1000 and churning through customers sounds like a hospitality version of pulling on a squirrel suit and jumping off a cliff every night — adrenalin-fuelled and intense but you know one day you’re likely to crash and it won’t be pretty. Getting Nick Diamond’s coalface perspective as the operator was instructive: “Turning a profit on a tiny operation like this is tough. You have to be a hands-on operator; be careful with your staffing; and watch every dollar. On those Friday and Saturday nights everything needs to be firing to make the most of those busy periods. Managing that demand is the challenge.”
For the foreseeable, Nick’s happy to keep pulling on the proverbial squirrel suit: “There’s one word to describe the feeling of running Kenny Rens: awesome! I love it. It’s a lot of hard work but it’s so rewarding when it’s busy. I love the intensity; I love talking to customers and I love talking about the food. It’s a very rewarding feeling.”
SOUP TO NUTS
Paul Kelly Design (ably assisted by branding work done by Folke Army) consulted on all aspects of the design: the interior architecture and design, the menus, glassware, aprons, signage, the planning applications… the artwork: “The artwork is a real feature,” continues Paul Kelly. “We engaged a local artist [Amy Finlayson] who used a royal blue and off white to layer paint, invoking a Japanese seascape. We took that and rolled it such that it cracked and crinkled. It really does look like a found piece of Japanese art. It’s intense, yet stunning.”