In an exclusive session curated by b&c magazine, five leading Sydney bar operators came together to discuss a range of issues, including their new business ventures that are designed to work around the new reality of living with lockouts.
Applejack owners Hamish Watts and Ben Carroll, who hosted the session at their new Oxford St venue Della Hyde, have been vocal over the almost total lack of foot traffic after 10pm since the laws were introduced and the need to diversify their business model.
“Most of our venues have heavily invested in food, which with the lockouts is a safety net,” says Watts.
Carroll adds: “And we did just open a bar on Oxford Street. So here we really targeting the after work crowd in the area, which we’re really getting, but we’re not really seeing anything past 11pm. But again, we’re accompanying great cocktails with good food. You really need to have food now unless you’re already established.”
The need to have a solid food offering was a consistent theme during the discussion, with Anton Forte, of the Swillhouse Group, commenting on how his bars have had to compensate for the revenue lost due to shorter trading times.
“Food is imperative now and I believe that if you have a really strong offering then you can get your punters in early,” he says. “With us at Frankie’s we took a really big hit on revenue, probably about 20 per cent because we lost all of the bartending community that used to come in after 1.30am then the extra hour of trade throughout the whole week, so it was a big hit.
“We had to make a few of our staff redundant and a few of our managers redundant because we weren’t doing the same revenue. We had to pull that back, be a bit smarter with our costs and try and focus on entertainment and food and still driving the same model but I guess just trying to extract more out of it and be leaner with the company. Not as much fun.”
Jared Merlino, of the Lobo Plantation, is currently in the process of opening two new venues within the lockout zone and agrees that food has become a priority through necessity. Big Poppa’s is a 3am restaurant licence with a PSA, and as restaurant licences are exempt from lock outs the authorities are cracking down on anyone trying to run a restaurant as a bar, something that is categorically not on Merlino’s radar – the kitchen will be open until 3am for all those wishing to have a glass of wine and cheese platter set to a hip hop soundtrack.
“We’re redesigning the space so that the Oxford St level actually gets utilised, at the minute with Hello Sailor everyone heads downstairs and stays there. We’re making it much more comfortable and it will be a place that you want to come and eat and drink at one or two in the morning.”
Mikey Enright, of The Barber Shop, has gone so far as to open an actual barber shop in the Barangaroo precinct, where punters can have a cocktail while their hair is trimmed, as a way to create new, workable venues in the lockouts climate.
“It’s a bit of a cultural change, don’t you think, with people and their mindset when they go out,” he says. “People have had to adapt themselves.”
Forte went on to comment that the old models of running venues have had to be tossed out.
“It is good money from 6pm until midnight, people are out, they’re hungry, they’re meeting each other. It’s a good yield. I think a lot of people were complacent with their late night model,” he says. “They just ran it as a nightclub and essentially the offering wasn’t that good – there wasn’t delicious drinks, there wasn’t much service, it was just open late.
“I think for any operation, you have to be passionate about it and do something that is interesting to a large spectrum of people and not just the late night people who are already smashed and just need more.”
Merlino agrees, adding that Big Poppa’s will also cater to the other after work crowd – hospitality workers.
“Like Anton was saying, you get the after work crowd,” he says. “But my guys finish at Lobo at 1.30am and they want to go out and they just end up at Golden Century because you can’t go and eat and drink somewhere. So we want to tap into that.
“There aren’t many small bar places you can get into after 1.30am so that will be us. So for us you look at that and that 12-3am trade is a very valuable part of the model, but you can’t live on that alone, so we’re building it so that we get the dinner trade – awesome Italian offering, with lots of cheese, and build it so that people can come at 6pm and stay. I think the models that are surviving the lockouts, everyone that is growing, is looking at the after work crowd.”