Jared Merlino on the year so far and the new normal

Jared Merlino

Bars and Clubs spoke with Jared Merlino about how business is going at the moment, and he shared his insights into what Governments can do to help, and to make sure the hospitality industry survives.

Here’s what he had to say, (NB: this interview took place before the latest clusters were recorded in NSW):

Bars and Clubs: Jared, how is business, how are things going?

Jared Merlino: It’s been a very positive last couple of weeks, now that we’re on the other side of the second spike. We’re starting to see trade return consistently, which is really good. Obviously, we’re still hampered by the restrictions so we’re having to spend a lot of people away, unfortunately. But, we’re doing well, it’s all positive at this point.

“We’re lucky that we didn’t end up in a second lockdown. So it is all looking very positive. We’re just hoping now that we can work with the state governments to try and get the restrictions easy a bit further for, say, two square meters and reduce distances between tables, especially as we lead  into the warmer months.

“On the whole, it’s been pretty positive in recent weeks, as we continue to grow and get back to where we were, let’s just hope that we can keep transmission down and and keep building from here.”

B&C: Would the two square metre rule make a significant difference for you?

JM: “For some venues that would, for us, it would make a significant difference at our biggest venue, Kittyhawk bacause it’s a much larger space. But the smaller venues, say, like Lobo and Bartolo that only have, say, 100 square meters the 1.5meters between tables still cripples us.

“If you don’t have the space to play with, then the two square meters doesn’t really affect you. But the Independent Bars Association that I’m a part of, Karl, the President, is pushing hard for that with local MPs. So we’re hopeful that they continue to just have a look at it and wind things back.

“Unfortunately, we bear the brunt of it all, in the hospitality industry, we get the hardest, most strict rules. Whereas I can I can walk past a shopping centre, or cafe in the morning and there’s people everywhere, whereas the bars, and the booze-driven venues are the hardest hit.

“We are just hoping that as we continue to do well, keep transmission down, that they’ll continue to ease restrictions, and that we can capitalise on that of November, December trade.”

B&C: We understand the two square metre and 1.5m rules, those aside, is there more that state and federal governments can be doing to help make the hospitality industry gets through this, and survives?

JM: “I do think they will have to, as they have already done once, the federal government will have to re-look at when JobKeeper comes to an end and how businesses are travelling at that point in time. Obviously, tourism and hospitality have been by far, two of the hardest hit industries. At the moment, I know a lot of businesses that are surviving solely based on the government support, and without that they would be closed. It’s good that they’re trading, and they continue to do well. But, we’ve just seen a 20 per cent drop [in JobKeeper payments] into this quarter, and we’ll see a 20 per cent drop into the next quarter.

“The hope is that they will re-look at it, see the state of where we are at, hopefully have some open dialogues with people in the industry, and the right associations, so that we can make sure that these businesses survive. Because, most of these businesses, most small bars, most small restaurants, etc, who are purely food and beverage driven, and don’t have the supplement of pokie revenue. We really struggle to make even a small margin best of times.

“I’m really hoping that there is an open dialogue as we come to the end of March next year. And again, if everything’s moving along well, and we have a vaccine or we have a solid plan or a road to recovery, then that’s great. But I really worry about how many people are just purely holding on now based on based on that current support and once we see that end we might see a lot of our favorite little spaces disappear unfortunately.”

B&C: It’s frightening to think about how many bars and other venues might not make it through this.

JM: “Yeah, and through no fault of their own, and places that have held on. I just read that Lucio’s n Paddington, which has been an Italian institution for 37 years or so, they are disappearing in January because of the impact.

“It will look very different on the other side of this. The strong will survive, and those who have been able to manage their way through this will survive, but some people who won’t survive it, it hasn’t been their fault. It’s not down to poor management, it’s simply you cannot weather the storm, unless you get the support of your landlord, or your suppliers are understanding, they’re not hounding you for money, while you have no cash flow, etc.

“If people have the right set of circumstances, and they’ll survive, but a lot of people, you know, they landlords are struggling, suppliers are struggling, everyone’s struggling. So it’s just a matter of whether you can weather those storms and get through it.”

B&C: Let’s look more positively, how are you seeing people’s behaviour now, are they getting better at accepting and understanding the new normal?

JM: “I think people are starting to accept this is our new normal for the foreseeable future. You still get the odd one or two every now and then who want to argue with you, who refuse to sit down and you’ve then got to ask them to leave the venue. But, on the whole I would say 95 per cent of people get it. People understand that we’re struggling, they look around and see that all the great bars and restaurants down in Melbourne are still shut down. We’re lucky to still be open and trading people being able to go out and enjoy the bars and restaurants.

“I think people are feeling more grateful now that that we haven’t slipped into a second lockdown. They are understanding but you still get those people who think that it’s us enforcing it. Like we want to be to be one of the 37 per cent capacity or and some people won’t change.

“But there’s an awesome new campaign out that the Night Time Industry Association have pushed forward. It’s called Check.Check.Check. and it’s great.

“The more that we can make people aware that it’s them who are going to help us stop this. As we said before, hospitality venues cop it the hardest. We are the most highly legislated industry in the country in the sense that as soon as something goes wrong way we are the ones who get all the rules.

“So if the customers can help us stay on track and meet our COVID safety plans, then we can show the Government’s that we’re the safest places to be, and hopefully we can increase our numbers sooner rather than later.”

B&C: And what about in the venues, are you noticing things working differently because you’re not at capacity?

JM: “I’m really lucky with the two bars that I do have open, they have a really strong following. So when we did reopen we did test the waters and introduce a minimised cocktail menu, but we saw we were doing the revenue so brought it all back up to scratch very quickly.

“From a consumer’s perspective I would say they are almost getting a better experience these days, because instead of a waiter having four tables in their section, they’ve got two. So the consumer is getting more of your time, which is ultimately what you want in a hospitality setting if you want to engage with the product.

“From my perspective, at an operator’s level some days just feel like a constant battle, it’s been tiresome at times. But I know we are very lucky that we are turning over, we have got people coming through the doors and I worry about some of the smaller guys, or people who have put their life savings and all their effort into building something new and then COVID hit.

“But it has been amazing to watch operators pivot, make new offerings, change their product and change how they are going about business. Build websites, build delivery services – to create a whole new business overnight is not an easy thing. But there have been some really strong operators out these who have really decided to push forward.”

B&C: And are you seeing the different customer service starting any new drink trends?

JM: “What’s actually good to see is that a lot more people are differing to our knowledge now, people are being a lot more trusting I feel. We’re getting a lot more people in Poppers asking for our opinions on what wine they should drink, so that’s what we’re focusing on is making sure our knowledge is there so we can give people the best experience they are looking for.

“People will have missed their summer holidays in Europe so they are going to be looking for those nice, clean, simple, easy summer drinking cocktails, and that’s what we’re going to focus on and hopefully keep people happy over the summer.

“In places like Lobo where 80 per cent of what we do is cocktails, you’ve got bartenders who were usually behind the bar all night, now talking to every table. You were getting the bartender’s attention before but it’s definitely a lot more personalised now. So we can talk through the drinks and really focus on making sure that experience is second to none.

“Venues, bartenders and operators can win customers for life right now by spending a little bit more time on focusing their energies on delivering an exceptional product.”

B&C: Thanks for your time Jared, good to chat and all the very best for the summer and 2021.

JM: “Thanks brother.”

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