Buddy’s Bar, located in the old Lentil as Anything site on Newtown’s King Street, employs an innovative self-service beer wall.
The idea for a self-service bar first came to Co-owner Duncan McGeoch at a music festival.
“I was waiting line and thought, ‘this fucking sucks’ – like festivals are nice, but here I am 10 people deep in a line not moving,” Duncan says.
This revelation led to Duncan working for a company in the US that specialised in self-service bars, where he helped bars in America operate their own systems.
Following COVID, Duncan returned to Australia, and seeing that very little in this space had been attempted before, decided to open a bar alongside business partner Jimmy Roe (who has previously worked with many Sydney venues and breweries while working as a Sales Rep at Good Drinks Australia).
“When we first started out, we really wanted something that’s obviously unique, with a different offering, and somewhere where people can come in and make buddies – that’s the idea of the name,” Duncan explains.
At the venue there is a wall of 30 taps, including natural wines and housemade cocktails, alongside local brews and non-alcoholic kombucha. Drinkers can access the taps themselves under staff supervision and with a prepaid card.
“This beer wall – once you see people interact with it, you end up talking to strangers. So it really is an inviting space where hopefully you can chat to someone else, and talk about a product you haven’t tried,” Duncan adds.
Jimmy too has noticed this dynamic at the bar.
“It’s kind of like a house party bar – we try to make it super, super welcoming. You come in, you might be at a table with your friends, and when you want a drink – it’s almost like when you walk into the kitchen and grab a glass in doing so you end up chatting to some random people that you’ve never met before and sparking up some really cool conversations,” Jimmy says.
“We’ve designed the space so you walk around, passing through tables and end up chatting to a whole bunch of different people, and having the whole venue engaging with each other.”
Accentuating the house party vibe are DJs, on every weekend, with the owners looking to expand the entertainment to Thursdays and Fridays soon, with a vinyl night on Sundays also in the offing.
Explaining the self-service system
Self-service of alcohol obviously raises some questions, both for consumers and for regulators. Bars & Clubs asked Jimmy and Duncan to talk through the process of buying a drink at Buddy’s.
“We’re trying to make it as seamless and quick as possible, we really want that kind of Uber experience. No lines was my whole point [when I started] eight years ago,” Duncan explains.
“If you were coming in off the street, you’ll be greeted at basically a ticketing desk, and there’s one or two staff members here, saying hi, obviously checking ID and sobriety. That person would then be like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna load you up with a prepaid card.’
“So we’re all prepaid here. There’s no set amount of five bucks and usually, you can leave 50 bucks if you want to have a session but yeah, it’s basically like buying a prepaid gift card.
“The first step would be loading the card now. We actually have a kind of cool, unique QR code system on the back of the card. Scan the card and using your mobile phone, (there’s no app) it’s just like this like me&u or Mr. Yum – super quick and very seamless.
“It just says hey, how much would you like to add five, 25, or 50 bucks or a custom amount. Click next. And with Apple Pay, you can just quickly chuck on that money. And within that, say, 30 seconds, you can go over and be greeted by one of our staff over at the beer wall who will sort of explain how you tap on here whenever you pour yourself a beer and once you’ve done it once, and you pretty much get the hang of it and you can go up and sort yourself out,” Duncan continues.
To ensure adequate RSA is being maintained, each prepaid card is limited to three standard drinks, determined by millilitres of drinks poured.
“You pay for the mills that you pour, it’s all about sampling,” Duncan adds.
Once a customer hits three standard drinks, a message displays on the system’s screen, and it will pause the card, while the staff undertake a quick sobriety test of the customer.
“Our bartenders, they’re more like an experience guide, but they are also RSA people who have the power to reactivate someone’s card, or say, ‘hey look man, maybe just a glass of water for this round,’” Duncan says.
Bars & Clubs asked how this system had been received by guests at the bar during its first weekend.
“The way I’ve explained it is that it’s just like buying a jug of beer at the cricket – we allow you to buy the equivalent of a jug of beer, which is three standard drinks, and everytime you finish that jug, you’ve got to go to the person selling you the beer, and you’re essentially getting RSA checked at that point,” Duncan outlines.
Finally, the pair explained the design and build process behind the venue, and why they chose this site.
Initially, the pair had looked at a location further north along King Street, around 18 months ago, before deciding upon the former Lentil as Anything location in February of last year.
The bar, which has outdoor seating and large windows opening directly onto King Street, was more or less designed (from a rough sketch after they’d first seen the venue) and built from scratch by Jimmy and Duncan and their friends.
“It was really fitting with the name of Buddy’s because like literally, Buddy’s was built by buddies – like all our friends came out of the woodwork and chipped in,” Duncan comments.
There’s also a sustainability to the way the place is designed and furnished, with many of the features and fittings found on Facebook marketplace. The same commitment to sustainability drove the decision to use self-service kegs, rather than bottles and cans.
As for what attracted them to the suburb – it’s all about the locals, both customers and producers.
“I just love the area and the energy around like people wanting to get out and have a bit of fun every night of the week.” Jimmy says.
“Monday night, there’ll be venues with a line around the corner.”
Duncan sees the bar as playing a key role within the local ecosystem of drinksmakers.
“We want to be a part of the community. We’re a small business and we want to help other small businesses. We’re trying to showcase all the breweries that are just down the road.
“This is kind of like a food hall for beer.”
Buddy’s is located at 391 King St, and is open from 4pm Wednesday to Friday, and 2pm on Weekends.