Back To The Bar – For The Last Time?

Today is Sydney’s day. It's tagged Freedom Day, but maybe don’t call it freedom day. The pub is back and so is the brewery taproom.

All of this is only for the fully vaccinated, of course. But, after more than three months away, venues are open again.

Wayward (pictured above) are among those throwing their doors open today, with the inner west brewery welcoming guests back from 4pm. Pete Philip, the brewery’s founder and chair of the Independent Brewers Association (IBA), says it’s clear the people of Sydney, and the other parts of NSW reopening today, are keen to be back; their taproom is booked out for some time to come, although they are putting some space aside for walk-ins.

“People have just been contacting us like crazy making reservations for the week," he says, "and people are just desperate to get together and party with their friends."

While the indoor one person per four square metre rule does reduce their capacity significantly, past experience with other periods of restrictions in any part of the country have shown people tend to be keen to spend a bit of money, and Pete says he and the team are hopeful as to what the future will bring. As the state – and the rest of the nation’s – vaccination rates continue to rise, his expectation is that this new normal won't be another flash in the pan.

“We’ve done the hard yards getting the vaccination rates up and we just can’t go backwards now," he says. "It’s just got to be about opening up."

Compared to previous post-lockdown reopenings, there’s a clear point of difference this time around, however: the open economy is for the fully vaxxed only, at least for now. For hospitality and a range of other businesses, it places another responsibility in their hands: checking the vaccination status of guests.

The NSW government is working on an integrated Service NSW certificate to help ensure the check-ins are straightforward enough, but despite venues being required to use check people's vaccination status from today, the system isn’t yet in place.

Pete says given the capacity restraints and the fact they’ve been shut for so long, not having a simple and integrated system does make things harder for both breweries and the staff tasked with implementing the system.

“It’s a real challenge for business; putting us in the position to enforce all of this,” Pete says.

“They’re scrambling at the end – that’s what’s unbelievable. This work should have started more than a year ago on vaccine passports.”

 

The Oxford Tavern will be among the venues reopening in much of New South Wales today.

 

For James Thorpe, general manager at the Odd Culture Group, the vaccine mandate adds another level of complexity, but he says they’re used to operating in a complex compliance environment. They already have to make sure people are checking in to their venues, and licensed venues have a range of obligations to meet due to the simple fact they serve alcohol.

“We are used to checking people’s stuff on the door, so it is kind of second nature,” James says. “Hospitality have done almost the most out of any industry to stop COVID, so we’ll do this tiny and extra bit more, and hopefully by the end of the year the whole mess of the last two years is behind us.

“We’re just going to have to do the best we can in that situation; our staff aren’t doctors and they aren’t used to checking medical information. It’s a strange situation but it will be all good and we’ll get through it.”

James says all of the pubs in the Odd Culture group – The Oxford Tavern, The Old Fitzroy Hotel and the Duke of Enmore – are opening today and are largely booked out for the next few weeks – walk-ins aside.    

“We’re big believers in people being able to walk down to the pub and have a beer without a reservation,” James says.

Since the latest Sydney lockdown commenced, the hospitality group has been finding ways to keep staff employed. As well as working on their new Odd Culture venue (of which more below), they’ve also been keeping locals fed with takeaway options from the Oxford Tavern.

“We weren’t doing amazing revenue but it was still up there in terms of what we could expect in the pub,” James says. “The great part of it was we were able to keep all of our staff working through the lockdown, even from the other venues.”

It wasn’t a prospect that worked at their other venues, however, even the Duke where they had a new kitchen and menu they were keen to show off.

“We just didn’t have the chance to have the engagement with the community and have the momentum behind the food there,” he says. “We don’t want to list on UberEATS or anything like that because it’s really bad for the industry and they take basically all of your bottom line.”

 

James Thorpe (right) and team when they took over the Duke of Enmore last year.

 

Although lockdown's been tough, James says there’s much to be optimistic about in the coming months, not least as New South Wales looks set to be one of the most highly vaccinated places in the world.  

“If that’s the case, then we’re going to be in a much better position than other countries like the United States where they have tried to do these grand reopenings that haven’t worked properly because case numbers have skyrocketed and hospitals fill up," James says.

“I’ve got a lot of confidence that we’re going to do well between now and the end of the year and next year is going to be a really good year.”

James has further reasons to be optimistic about the future, with the new, two-storey Odd Culture in Newtown's King Street set to open, complete with expansive bottleshop. Like the bar inside The Taphouse in Darlinghurst that originally bore the Odd Culture name, the focus is on sour beer and natural wine, while the menu will share a focus on fermentation too.

“It’s a full realisation of the project we tried to accomplish inside The Taphouse,” James says, adding that thanks to a licence that runs from 7am to 2am, they’re unsure whether it’s a bar, restaurant or café. What is clear is that it’s a massive undertaking – one that will require 20 full-time staff.

It’s potentially the kind of launch you might postpone given the state of the world but James says they’ve been lucky with their staff throughout the pandemic, retaining and training them, thus putting them in a strong position.

“It was a really scary proposition opening a new venue – especially one that’s as huge as Odd Culture Newtown – in this time," he says. "I know of people who just can’t open their kitchen because they don’t have a chef.”

Pete agrees almost everyone in hospitality is in a similar situation, with many having left the industry during the tumultuous time, as we addressed earlier in the year. He recently took a look at a Sydney bartender group online and saw around 30 jobs listed; without the backpackers and tourists upon which the industry has relied, those spots are harder than ever to fill.

“Everybody is looking and it’s nearly impossible to get casuals,” Pete says. “It’s absolutely dire to try and get staff.”

Pete shares concerns about the future of Sydney’s CBD too; he says it's unclear if that area – and the small bars there that often promote indie beer – will ever truly recover. It's one reason the IBA will be training a greater focus on tap contracts.

“Sadly, the reduction in small bar taps is just going to damage that part of the market even more," Pete says, "and make it even more challenging. It just points the finger at us needing to revisiting the uncompetitive nature of tap contracts.”

 

Pete Philip (right) at a past event at Wayward's brewery.

 

That said, there's still plenty of growth. At the end of Victoria's second lockdown in 2020, it became clear many had been using the period to work on new projects, with Jetty Road launching their Lorne venue and Blackman’s opening a larger production site in Geelong. In recent weeks, The Mill have opened a second brewery too despite the challenges facing businesses in Melbourne.

“You’ve just got to plan for success and positivity, and independent is still growing strongly, so I think we’ll be okay,” Pete says.

“We doubled our capacity over the last year and we didn’t know we were going into another lockdown so that was a hit. But I do think things will bounce back quickly and we’ll have a cracking summer.”

For Jess McGrath, co-owner of The Palace in South Melbourne and the Retreat in Abbotsford, there's still a bit longer to wait before the team she leads with Mark Pratt can welcome people back into two of Melbourne’s finest pubs. But she's still looking forward to summer, even if much about the future remains so unclear.

“We’re just rolling with what’s in front of us,” Jess says. “Taking stuff on board, implementing things and making sure all our COIVID plans are in place.”

Like Pete and James, Jess has some concerns about vaccine passports which are currently being trialled ahead of reopening.

“I just hope it’s a pretty streamlined system and it works, but it just needs to be clarified before we open and then we’ll all feel a little more comfortable about it,” Jess says.

“I’m concerned about policing it. I feel the government is hand-balling it a bit to businesses and we’ve already got enough to worry about. But I do think it’s something we’ll just have to get used to and will do.”

Aside from that, there’s the ever-present Melbourne concern about the weather, with the first stages of reopening at 70 percent double vaccination rates – earmarked for October 26 – only allowing service in outdoor areas. So, while they’ve been getting their outdoor spaces ready, Jess admits there’s only so much to you can, pointing to the hail storm that ran through the city a week ago today.

“We live in Melbourne," she says. "What do you do? ‘Sorry everyone, have some hail with your parma.'.”

Both The Retreat and the Palace have been offering takeaways through the most recent lockdowns – from cocktails to morning coffees – although the level of sales along with government support still means they’re only really treading water.

“We decided to roll with it and put a bit more effort in, and added to our takeaway offering with different elements,” Jess says.

“It’s just about keeping the brand alive and the employees engaged with the business so when we do open they’re there. And keeping everyone sane and get through produce to support our suppliers.”

 

Jess McGrath will be hoping to see The Palace back like this in the coming months (albeit without the COVID exposure that sent everyone pictured into 14 days quarantine).

 

With The Palace declared a Tier 1 site at the tail end of Good Beer Week, when The Crafty Pint was hosting a Pint of Origin blind tasting at the pub, the team really has experienced every curveball COVID has to offer. Although despite describing it as a “scary situation” for the business – not to mention the challenges of having to isolate at home – the government did provide support, even putting some of their staff up in hotels.

“It’s a weird feeling and we’ve just been stuck in limbo, frozen like in The Matrix," Jess says."It’s hard to know what to expect and prepare for and if you were starting a business now, you have to factor lockdowns into your business plan. But there’s a lot of excitement to get open again and a little bit of hesitation about how it will look.

"I’m just excited to be back serving pints and seeing people again.”

For the Odd Culture family, despite the lockdown and the pandemic, James says he’s confident about their pubs and for their new Newtown venue.  

“Every time I come here and look at what’s been achieved and think about the future, not once have I regretted any of it or been really worried," he says. "I mean, of course I’m nervous because we’ve committed to a million dollar development and we have no revenue right now, so I’d be stupid if I wasn’t worried or stressed.

“But I have no reservations about it whatsoever – for me, it’s just a matter of time. We’ve just been waiting out this latest lockdown that has gone on way longer than any of us had expected it would but we’re almost there.”


You can check out the experiences of two of our Sydney writers as they headed back to the bar on day one of reopening here.
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