With so many venues fighting for their lives in 2020, it’s refreshing to hear a story of success in the hospo world. Thorpe Hospitality, the group behind Sydney good beer venues The Taphouse in Darlinghurst and Oxford Tavern in Petersham, have managed to weather the storm better than many and are now adding a third venue to their portfolio: The Duke of Enmore.
As well as renovating the 150-year-old inner west pub, THG are breathing new life into The Duke by pouring only independent beer through the taps. They'll also be serving up an Australiana-influenced menu, and ripping out the pokie machines to make way for a Buck Hunter arcade game and a pool table. The plan is turn The Duke into a character-filled venue suited to the whole community.
“You’ve got a very eclectic style of humans that go out [in this area],” says Sabrina Medcalf, new general manager of The Duke. “You’ve got your family, you’ve got your dogs – fur kids – you’ve got your groovers, oldies, all that kind of stuff.”
Sab believes the shutdowns during COVID-19 have reshaped how Aussie drinkers view going to the pub.
“The luxury of going to a pub was lost,” she says. “For the last couple of years it’s been about small bars… Now I think: pub is back.”
As part of emphasising that traditional pub feel, The Duke will pride itself on “humble, honest hospitality” with “huge portions, and you don’t just get it dumped down – you get really good service as well.”
On the beer side of things, The Duke will be serving up twelve taps of indie beer. While there’ll be the occasional beer from out of state and overseas, the majority of beers will be from breweries in the local area.
THG director James Thorpe says: “We’ve got great relationships with particularly the breweries super super close to here, like Young Henrys, Wayward… One Drop… obviously Rocks, who are making amazing beer at the moment.
“We’re not going to do the stupid events that we run at Taphouse, where we tap like twenty different barleywines! … [but I] can definitely see us doing a few really cool beer product launches here for local breweries.”
The revitalised Duke will be opening its doors on Thursday, October 22.
SURVIVING AND THRIVING IN A PANDEMIC
It’s a little strange talking about growth and success when so many venues are doing it tough. But with Sydney’s intense period of the COVID-19 crisis hopefully over, THG’s acquisition of The Duke is proof they emerged from the challenging time stronger than before.
“This is our reward from COVID,” James says. "All the hard work the team put in.”
Even before the government announced the venue shutdowns of March 23, James says he was looking into what their options were within licensing rules; “Can we deliver cocktails to people’s houses? Can we deliver shots? Can we sell cartons of beer through Australia Post?”
Then, when that fateful Monday did hit, rather than standing down staff, Tav and the Taphouse started straight away with a takeaway and delivery model for food and drinks, and found that there was plenty of work to be done.
“We were in the kitchen, we were cooking, we were washing dishes, my partner was running the pass in the kitchen, I was doing delivery driving… no one was doing the jobs they were employed to do.
“We wanted to come out of the other side of this with our full team. We don’t want to have to rehire people… we have the best people.”
While the group was expecting to tread water – or even fail – they were pleasantly surprised. Thanks to social media marketing and the residential location of the Tav, the delivery model was popular and revenue began to rise steadily. And, when shutdown lifted, even though delivery dropped off, the venues were still doing more food and bringing in more money than the previous year. As well as enabling THG to buy The Duke, it also allowed the group to keep hiring people.
“I was saying a month ago that our team’s roughly double the size that it was, but I think we’re almost three times the size of what we were pre-COVID now."
The uphill battle that venues faced of 2020 is going to have ongoing impact on the beer and hospo industry, beginning with the tough reality that not all venues have come out stronger on the other side.
“A lot of people are going to go broke,” James says. “There will be a lot of good operators who will fail.”
For businesses still facing difficulties from the pandemic, and anyone thinking about future-proofing, it’s going to be key to adapt in order to move forward in a post-COVID world.
James credits THG’s changing business model for their survival in this chaotic time.
“You have to diversify or you die,” he says.
“That’s what we did in a nutshell. We were like, ‘We can’t sell beers over the bar in pint glasses. What do we do? We’ll deliver them to people’s house same day, with food. We’ll open oddculture.com.au.’
“Anyone who diversified to having bottleshop was somewhat insulated."
Optimistically, James believes some of the changes in licensing regulations during COVID-19 will have lasting effects into the future, giving venues more creative flexibility.
“All of the freedoms that have been extended to everyone with small bar licences in particular are things that have never been permitted. Things like minors in small bars, things like takeaway sales from small bars and restaurants with on-premise licences. I think there are going to be a lot of questions for the government about why they have been prohibited from doing that in the past.
“Because essentially we’ve had a case study for the past six months about how you can have solid harm minimisation and still have these things.”
But with two remodelled businesses, a staff that's tripled in size staff, and a rapidly renovated pub, there’s one main thing James thinks of when he thinks of the future.
“We all need a holiday!”
As part of the #keepinglocalalive campaign we've been running Postcards from the Edge stories, highlighting the ways in which people are adapting to survive. If you've got a story you think is suitable – or have something to add to the campaign resources online – get in touch.
You can find The Duke and THG's other venues plus hundreds of other good beer venues around Australia in the free Crafty Pint app.