Struggling Melbourne nightclub successfully converted into bar

Sri Lankan best friends Sam Silva and Indy Weerakoon have converted a struggling nightclub into successful Collingwood bar and restaurant Sixty Smith, despite enduring three lockdowns in its opening months.

In September 2019, the best friends decided to transform Sam’s struggling nightclub (formally Blue Velvet Bar & Nightclub) into a bar, with the sole purpose of delivering top service to its visitors without it costing patrons “an arm and a leg”.

The Sixty Smith co-owners combine Sam’s 25 years of experience in hospitality and Indy’s love for food and drinks to launch the bar in November last year. However, the three lockdowns Victoria has experienced in that time have prevented the bar from gaining popularity in the community.

Bars and Clubs recently spoke with Sam and Indy to chat about how they nearly closed the bar but thankfully chose to endure.

Indy said: “Everything we wanted is exactly what we have here and every week it’s pleasing to see our growing customer base. Which is the best feeling, we take a lot of pride with our repeat customers.

“The most difficult thing is getting people to come in. The front of the venue is deceiving from what’s inside. We have incredible drinks, a restaurant that makes really amazing food with four different rooms.”

Sam added: “Getting the name out there is difficult, for people to know who you are and what you’re doing. This place has changed hands a few times so I think there’s a bit of distrust and unfamiliarity from the customer.

“In February and March this year we were questioning ourselves, it was difficult with little foot traffic coming through the door. By mid-march however, we thankfully started getting more in.”

Sixty Smith upstairs bar.

Securing its longevity

Indy and Sam believe the key to its long-term success and cementing itself as a popular bar in the area, lies with creating an environment where customers are interacting with people, not with a business.

They said: “We also follow what you see in Japanese restaurants where staff greet and farewell patrons three times. So we want to create something like that. The server, bartender and our manager all need to say goodbye to each customer as they leave.

“We want the customer to feel special and welcome at any time and to know we appreciate their business.

“That’s why people go out, because they want that attention. If you’re kind enough and polite enough to say ‘thank you so much, come again’, it sticks with people and they come back.”

A winning combination

Sam and Indy also co-own the Fitzroy Beer Garden, which offers a popular nightclub scene one block from Sixty Smith. They said creating differing experience offerings has been well received by the community.

“We didn’t want to be doing the same kind of thing this close to each other. So we thought about how to differentiate ourselves. The food we do here is different to any place around here,” Indy explained.

“You don’t have the pompousness [like at restaurants in Spain], you don’t need to spend an arm and a leg to have good quality nice and aesthetic food. And I said why don’t we have a place like that?

“At the end of the day we’re in business, everyone wants to make money, but we’re not here to rip anyone off. We hate complex, over catering, over engineering, we’re very simple guys.”

Sam added Sixty Smith’s customer service ideals are simple, and they have had feedback that reflects that, stating: “We operate under the four pillars of a venue, which is the food and drinks, your service, the ambience and the pricing. And we like to think we do all of these well.

“If you do right by the customer then they come back. From our Google reviews we don’t have anyone that’s disappointed. The only customer feedback that was slightly negative was that the food came out too quick. So if our problem is how efficient we are, then we’re doing okay.”

Sixty Smith beer garden.

A back seat approach to creativity

While the owners’ influence can be found in many areas of the business’ ideals and functionality. It isn’t however, found in the menu or behind the bar.

Instead, they have left the originality to head chef Three Phadungkarn and bar supervisor Johnny Kinnaird who have worked together to create a menu where the food and beverages complement each other.

“In terms of the creativity behind the bar and kitchen we give full rein to our team. They’re very creative guys, it’s unfair for them to get told what they can and cannot make, especially from me since I’m in finance,” Indy said.

“We sit down with Johnny our bar manager who’s Irish and he pitches his visions, so we’re currently doing our Irish cocktail appreciation theme and Irish drinking night.”

Johnny also told Bars and Clubs that his idea of the best cocktails is to take the classics and add another layer of creativity to them, as well as creating his own stand-alone inventions.

“I’ve always been big on the classics but doing a spin on them, making them taste the same as the classics but with a bit of craft with the ingredients.

“Our cocktail menu is divided into six twisted classics and six of our own. Which gives us the creative freedom while not changing our classic twist options.

“It’s amazing to see like how fast the people are liking what we do so far.”

Three added while there are challenges between front and back of house, ultimately their goal remains the same: “It’s different from where I used to work where I will have a budget but now I have a lot more freedom. We’re always challenging each other but we always find middle ground and respect each other and we have one goal at the end of the day and we both want to achieve that.”

Trending towards to top shelf

Indy and Sam have seen a shift in consumer spending since venues have started opening in Melbourne. They said for Sixty Smith, people are extending their stays and are willing to spend extra to have the best quality available.

They said: “People are happy with our prices, they’re happy to get outside. I think people have realised that freedom is a precious thing.

“So when they’re out, they’re staying out longer, they’re happy to pay that extra two or three dollars for the top shelf. And people’s expectations are higher with service.

“They could go anywhere, everyone needs the business. But there has to be a point of difference. So we said we need to look after everyone who comes in here.”

Sixty Smith’s bar is located at 60 Smith Street and is open Tuesdays to Thursday and Sunday from 4pm to 11pm, Friday and Saturday from midday to 1am.

Pictured: Sixty Smith’s front bar.

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