2020 has seen a lot of hard times and bad news for the on-premise industry in Australia, but for iconic Manly mainstay, InSitu Bar and Restaurant, it also marks 20 years of operation.
Twenty years is a big achievement for any small bar and restaurant, and InSitu has stayed physically the same all that time too.
Before the pandemic, InSitu’s operator MJC Group had always planned that the twenty year mark would be cause for a refresh and a relaunch. But as group Director Matt Clifton said, the COVID-19 shutdown gave them the unique opportunity to explore a redesign even further, and make the best of a hard situation.
“The catalyst or straw that broke the camel’s back was COVID – once we got shut down it was a really good opportunity to try and get in and get it done,” Clifton said.
“We started off thinking we’d just do some walls and do a bit of a refresh, repainting and recladding, then ended up pulling a small piece of the floor up and then the entire floor of 130 square meters ended up coming up. Then we thought we’d do a little bit at the back end by pulling off a piece of the bar, and then the whole bar ended up coming off.
“So we continued with that and then thought, ‘stuff it’ and we kind of gutted the entire venue and started pretty much from scratch, giving it a nice mid century modern feel but still paying homage to that 70s and 80s, rock and roll retro.”
The end result after five and a half months that has just relaunched the venue into its 20th year includes standout features like the fifteen-metre rainforest green marble bartop, handcrafted banquet seating and a 70s inspired live music corner.
Staying true to its roots and what InSitu has been known for over the years, live music will continue to be a big part of the offering at the venue, as will several core components of the menu like the Apple Crumble Martini. However, the menus are also being built upon by new executive chef Rob Phillips, alongside new occasion based promotions for bottomless brunch and Sunday sessions.
So far the relaunch has been going well even under restricted trading circumstances, and Clifton called the response “sensational.” He feels similarly about another MJC Group bar, The Cumberland, which opened just under a year ago and has been received incredibly well by locals.
“It’s an incredibly impressive little bar for the size that it is. It was a little disappointing because we were definitely hoping for a winter trade – it’s definitely a winter style bar being a basement underground speakeasy – we missed out on winter pretty much all together. We’ve only just opened back up, probably about six weeks ago for that one. For the numbers we’re allowed in there, it’s doing fantastic,” Clifton said.
In the months following the opening of the bar last year, there was an average of 45 minutes to an hour wait. And people were spending that wait just lining up outside rather than going somewhere else, that’s how much they wanted to get in.
“There was one poor couple that was that willing to get in a couple months after we opened that they waited an hour and 45 minutes outside. They’ve been back many times – there’s a lot of things in there that you miss the first one, two, three times around. The experience is in the fit out and the product and offering down there,” Clifton said.
Both in the Cumberland and InSitu, a common theme is a connection to the locals and offering something that really resonates with them. That’s why people keep coming back and why they know its worth waiting for.
It’s also why, when venues shut down at the start of the pandemic, Clifton knew he had to do something to help the local industry. Seeing how many hospo staff were out of work, and how many of them were without support networks, Clifton was pushed to help.
“It was quite difficult hearing some of those stories at the time, so it provoked a little bit of initiative, so I got some support from other local businesses and the local business chamber, and put together a bit of a plan about how we could potentially feed or provide meals to out of work hospo,” Clifton said.
“We ended up coming up with a delivery program where we created just shy of 5000 meals for Manly and the surrounding suburbs over the course of two and a half months. We delivered ourselves, we social distanced, proper practice, you could jump online and we had a subscription form which you could put in your choice of meal every day and it would be delivered to your door.”
Now that the local industry is beginning to recover in the area, even with the restrictions, Clifton said he hopes to see it flourish.
He said: “It’s an interesting time for hospitality to come alive at the moment. Summer’s coming now so hopefully we can open our doors a little bit further than where they are now and continue trading.”