IBA founding member Tim Philips-Johansson on Sydney’s uphill battle

Tim Philips-Johansson, one of the small bar industry’s leading figures, has detailed the “rapid” and “drastic” decline in trade that his bar experienced in the wake of the controversial lockout laws introduced in Sydney in February 2014.

Following the recent launch in NSW of the Independent Bars Association (IBA), three industry experts in Michael Rodrigues (MD of Time Out Australia), Stu Gregor (Four Pillars co-founder and President of the Australian Distillers Association) and Philips-Johansson (owner of Bulletin Place and Dead Ringer), led a panel titled ‘Why does an Independent Bars Association matter?’ at the Drinks Industry Show held in Sydney this week.

Philips-Johansson’s impassioned response to a question from panel chair and Editor of TheShout, Andy Young, about the effect of the lockouts on night-time trading at Bulletin Place revealed the extent to which his highly-awarded bar has been negatively affected over the last four and a half years.

“Over the years once lockout came in, the initial hit was fairly rapid and drastic,” he told the audience. “We noticed about a 30-40 per cent decline in trade within the first year of the lockout, and just felt like people weren’t coming out.

“We were still winning the awards and we certainly prided ourselves on keeping the same standards –and the nucleus of our team had stayed the same so the standard of service was the same as well – but the change was still drastic.

“Now we’ve clawed back a little bit more, but in saying that the trade is still down about 20-25 per cent.”

Opening its doors in December 2012, Bulletin Place quickly established itself as one of Australia’s leading bars, with a fresh, seasonal approach to cocktail creation. However, its location at the northern end of the CBD – accurately described by Philips-Johansson as “right in the guts of the lockout zone” – was nonetheless felt deeply.

“There was a big change of legislation in 2008 which allowed us to open this style of small bar,” he explained. “So we were excited when we opened – Sydney hadn’t quite got the ‘eating a cheeseboard at 1am’ thing just yet, but they were enthusiastic about it and we could sense that in patrons.

“We were getting great trade for the first few years, at all times of night [until the lockouts].”

Philips-Johansson also pointed to the fact that many other businesses in the area surrounding his bar have fallen on tough times.

“Some of the businesses around us at Bulletin Place are doing a lot worse and we’re very fortunate that we still get a lot of PR, we still win awards, and business is still good; we still employ the same amount of people as we used to, and there’s other arms to our business now which means we haven’t had to let go of any staff, which is hugely important to us.

“But on the whole, it’s down; it’s different. It’s a sad thing but we’re hanging in there.”

Nonetheless, with the launch of the IBAmany in the industry are indeed hoping that the tide may be starting to turn, optimistic that Sydney can earn back its reputation and become – in the words of Philips-Johansson – “that exciting, beautiful darling that we always saw it as during the day, but even after the sun goes down.”

“I’m a naturalised Sydneysider now, I love this city and I’m very passionate about it,” he concluded. “I’m passionate about the nightlife, the musicians and artists, the restaurant owners, the waiters, the bartenders and baristas, the hospitality and tourism workers, who all want to make this city the best it can be.

“That’s what really lies at the heart of the issue: this city is not doing everything it can to be its best and it’s a real shame.”

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