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Sneakers & Jeans’ Lachlan Howarth on new experiences, planning for 2021 and helping each other thrive

Bars and Clubs caught up with Western Australia’s Sneakers & Jeans General Manager Lachlan Howarth to talk COVID-recovery and planning, what to expect in 2021, how to provide a new experience and how the hospitality industry can help each other thrive.

Bars and Clubs: How has the start of 2021 been?

Lachlan Howarth: Since the start of the year things have been pretty good. We obviously had a bit of a scare in February with a five day mini lockdown over here. But all in all, we can’t really complain. WA has been living in its own little bubble since the shit hit the fan almost 12 months ago.

BC: How has Varnish on King recovered financially?

LH: We’ve noticed our spend per head is up. People are appreciating being out more. They tend to drop anchor a bit longer in the venue and, instead of getting a half glass of wine, they’re going for a glass of champagne or a cocktail before a meal. So we’ve been all good.

BC: Have you had any restrictions impacting your business operations?

LH: The government is giving us 75 per cent capacity. So we’re increasing from one to two square metres to filling 75 per cent so we can’t really complain over here. We’ve been free to stand in a pub for a long time so apart from the little speed bump that we had in February. We’ve just been super lucky.

BC: What has been the biggest trends you’ve seen from the consumer as a result of the pandemic?

LH: People want a bit more experience, that has been massive for us. They want a little bit extra service because they want to go top shelf instead of just what’s in the rail. They’re fortunate enough to be in a position where they’ve got a little bit of extra spending money in their pocket because they haven’t bought a trip to Bali or been able to go overseas. Even though there was a financial downturn, it didn’t really affect their pockets all that much.

So that is where we’ve definitely seen that uptake, with people looking at the top shelf and asking ‘what’s that all about’, and then it’s up to us to really sell the experience.

BC: How has your operations changed with larger group bookings?

LH: It’s the same for functions and events. Loads of loads of corporates are asking for what sort of interactive experiences can we tag onto their events. We just did Pirate Life’s sixth birthday at one of our venues. Part of the experience we offered included a tattoo artist and a barber in the corner giving trims. We had pinball machines and the old school buck hunter arcade game.

So just more of that interactivity things is what people are wanting and like I said, they still have a little bit of extra cash in their pocket, so they can spend a bit more on turning up their events.

BC: How did you cope and adjust your operations when the pandemic first struck around this time last year?

LH: For us when we first got shut down it was all about our people. Making sure that our staff and suppliers were looked after. We wanted to have a clean slate, which we were lucky enough to do. And then, it’s just all about not being stuck in the mud, just reacting to things and then going with it.  The pandemic happened so quickly. We didn’t have time to plan, we just all had to pitch in and execute.

So coming out of it, it was a little bit the same, reduced menus, reduce the amount of people in our venues, which reduced the amount of atmosphere. We literally had to change our floor plans so you could physically run a service with only two staff, so you could see where all your customers were. We had to get creative in changing the layout of the restaurant.

BC: What advice did you give your staff?

LH: One of the things we said to our staff was this whole thing is all about bend and flex. Service is not a usual service anymore. That real vibey atmosphere that we go for is no longer there. So we’ve got to do extra work to add that to the customer experience. It was all about being versatile coming out of lockdown.

BC: How did the community support you coming out of lockdown?

LH: Thankfully, they were all super understanding of it because they were just glad to be out of the house. So they were super appreciative of what we were able to do with very minimal staff. So it’s just about getting creative.

BC: Are you prepared should WA go into another lockdown? If so, how?

LH: From a business point of view, what is really important for us to understand is that this thing isn’t over. We’re going to see another round of lockdowns. So, let’s get the business prepared if we are to shut down again.

Our theory is, let’s get a bit of a war chest in place now, we know exactly what we need, because it is going to happen, and February was a perfect example of that for us, albeit a very short sharp five day lockdown.

We were ready to go and knew exactly what to do. We were on the ball with it, and luckily it only went five days but we were planning on it lasting for five weeks. We were mentally prepared for that, but like I said, we were luckily it was five days.

BC: Do you have any predictions for 2021?

LH: Now we’re at 75 per cent capacity you have your fingers crossed we can just keep getting better. However, what we’ve seen happen in Sydney and Queensland recently is just another perfect example that we are by no means out of the woods yet. This is going to be something that pops its ugly head up for a long time to come, so we just have to be ready for it. That bend and flex is what we need to be.

I don’t know if anyone can predict 2021, she (COVID-19) didn’t go away over New Year’s just because we said ‘we can’t wait to get into 2021 because 2020 has been such a bitch’. 2021 is going to be exact same thing, we’re not going to get into a new year and then all of a sudden this thing is gone.

BC: Are there any opportunities for venues to capitalise on this year?

LH: I think if we all do our jobs right there’s a benefit to be had here because you can’t go outside of Australia. For us, it’s about trying to create an experience that is more than just going out for dinner or going out for a drink. Whether that’s just simple things like customer service or whether it’s putting on events, that’s what we need to do.

Maybe it’s about trying to bring some of that international flavour here to our venues so people can have a little piece of that ‘I’m on holidays’ feel while they’re still within their own state. I think that’s going to be the big thing for us, there’s not going to be a tourism market for at least another 12 months for us to tap into, so it’s about staying fresh and staying relevant for the customers that are here locally.

BC: Finally, do you have any advice for your fellow hospitality industry leaders?

LH: For me, the really important thing is just to remember our sense of community. We’re all one big bartending and hospitality community. It’s about trying to help each other out through this fucking thing. It’s not all about one, it’s about all of us. So, lean on those around you.

And the other thing is to let go of certain expectations of what we believe service to be and just get the doors open. We need to get people back to work and then get people out of their house and back around other humans. That idea of community is so important and hospitality is such a vital aspect of it.

If the main thing you have to do is sacrifice a little bit of past normality, then that’s what you have to do, just have that bend and flex mentality. Get the doors open and the lights back on and create an atmosphere where people want to be around each other again.

Sneakers & Jeans bar Varnish on King
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