At Time Out Sydney’s ninth annual bar awards, a Spritz bar with a low-alcohol cocktail list and a focus on personalised table service took out the top gong. Time Out CEO Michael Rodriguesreflects on the impact of lockout on the bar community over the last two years, whether the January changes will help the cause, and where new premier Gladys Berejiklian’s focus should be in 2017 to make Sydney late again.
How we got here
While the small bar licensing changes were first promulgated in 2008, it wasn’t until 2010 that the scene really got going. In those early years, what we called ‘small bars’ were bars opened around a certain ethos: a diversity of product choice, personalised service and more often than not, quality cocktails. But while reflective of a small-bar vibe (with the ready reference being Melbourne), the license terms on which these venues were operating were most commonly a general bar license, a hotel licence or a restaurant licence with a primary service authorisation. And that remains the case today.
Between 2010 and 2013, the scene really got moving and the number of new bar openings accelerated. Bars became as diverse as the personalities of the owners creating them. And by 2014 we started to see small bars opening in areas outside of the historic entertainment precincts of the CBD, Surry Hills, Darlinghurst and Kings Cross.
But in 2014 lockout came into effect and in 2016 the impact of these laws began to be felt more acutely. As bars closed, they weren’t always replaced with newcomers.
The lockout’s evil twin
Understandably, the 1.30am lockout has attracted all of the attention. It’s been the stuff of rallies, campaigns and media focus. But the silent killer introduced before the suite of reforms that were enacted in 2014 was the lockout’s evil (and potentially more damaging) twin, the liquor freeze. This freeze has flown under the radar, but businesses are feeling it badly.
The liquor freeze put in place by Liquor and Gaming NSW has now been extended until 2018, and it restricts the granting of new Hotel, General bar, Club, Producer/wholesaler, Packaged liquor and On-premises licences for public entertainment venues in the Sydney CBD entertainment precinct and Kings Cross precinct. The freeze also “prevents the approval of … the following applications if it will increase the number of people entering a precinct to drink alcohol or increase the patron capacity of a licensed premises: an on-premises licence (other than a public entertainment venue); an extension of trading hours; a variation or cancellation of licence conditions; a change in the boundaries of the licensed premises.” You can read more about the freeze here.
This prohibition, combined with the lockout, has created a poisoned cocktail for bar owners. No changes to existing licence terms OR scope to apply for exemptions means no room to grow your business, experiment with new ideas or spin one success into another.
The lockout rollback
In December 2016, the Baird government announced a few relaxations to the lockout:
- A rollback of entry/re-entry times from 1.30am to 2am, and closing times from from 3am to 3.30am, for live-entertainment venues
- Bottle shops closing time rolled back from 10pm to 11pm
- Increase small bar patron capacity from 60 to 100 and provide automatic extended trading to 2am for small bars in the CBD and Kings Cross
The overall response from industry has been that the first two of these are welcomed but don’t go far enough, especially given the shaky definition of a “live entertainment” venue. But not much has been said about the last of these reforms and whether this change will make life easier for your average bar owner. Definitely there was no thawing of the liquor freeze.
What do the small bar reforms mean in practice?
I see this as a bit of smoke and mirrors:
- There are very few bars actually trading on small bar licences, because trying to run a profitable bar for 60 people is a difficult task – some would say a fool’s errand. In the whole state of New South Wales, there are only 50 venues trading under a small bar licence.
- While the right to trade through to 2am might exist, venues would still be limited by the terms of their DA. In a number of cases this will be stricter than 2am, which renders the extended hours useless
- It’s an almighty dilemma if you are a bar owner whose licence currently permits 100+ patrons, but is licensed only to midnight. Do you trade in and reduce your capacity for a chance at a later finish which is contingent on DA approval?
Finally, the government is offering “free transition to a small bar licence”. In circumstances where the small bar community has been royally rogered by a highly controversial and arguably ill thought-out regime, trust is at an all-time low. You could forgive the bar community thinking this might be the NSW’s government’s attempt to round up all the troublemakers onto one license type so it can better manage them. Come into my web, said the spider to the fly.
Time Out believes few bar owners will take up this ‘generous’ offer. Reducing your bar’s capacity for the chance to trade a little longer, assuming you can acquire a new DA, doesn’t make sense. The added risk of being cattle crushed once all small bar type venues are on one licence is a further disincentive.
And of course, with the liquor freeze still firmly in place and formally extended, we will continue to:
- Suffer with absurdities like not being able to drink a single malt whisky on the rocks after midnight, unless you add Coke to it or it is otherwise made into a listed cocktail (in which case, you might well be having a double)
- See security guards standing watch outside venues like our Bar of the Year, This Must Be the Place, a venue that specialises in low-alcohol cocktails, provides table service, and serves a glass of water alongside every drink as standard
- Witness the asphyxiation of what was, for a brief time, the envy of the country if not further afield. We’ll continue to see more bars close and fewer open. Deprived of outlets that celebrate diversity, our booming local craft distillers and brewers will suffer too. Their first opportunities usually come through small bar distribution, so we’re suffocating a potential export industry at the same time.
An invitation for Gladys…
Policies like the Liquor Freeze create a vicious cycle. It means there are fewer new openings, and new openings in an area always serve to remind punters of old favourites nearby too. They create a sense of buzz. In Time Out’s City Index, our readers reported that Sydney feels like the least dynamic city in the world right now. And it’s no wonder. You need a lawyer and a treasure chest of gold to open an envelope in this town at the moment.
Combine that with the number of venues closing their doors, and you create a perception of stagnancy. That perception alone is enough to keep people out of the city and on their couches instead. There are still great places, but if people don’t have them present in mind, they won’t go.
It’s great to see the work that the Keep Sydney Open movement has done, but it is time for Sydney’s bar community to unite and rally specifically against the liquor freeze.
In her first statement on the lockout since becoming premier, Gladys Berejiklian said: “[The lockout laws mean] people can enjoy live music at a reasonable hour but also protect young people. Mums and dads in the suburbs are worried about what their young kids are doing when they’re having a good time, and you don’t want to stay up – well I mean, parents stay up worrying anyway – but you want to make sure you’ve got a government in action that’s really thinking about what we can do to keep kids as safe as possible.”
Well Gladys, this 41-year-old, father-of-two “kid” would like to take you out and show you what your government’s attempt to keep “mums and dads” in the suburbs happy is really doing to our city.
We’ll start at 9pm at the Lobo Plantation. This bar picked up top gong at the 2016 Time Out Bar Awards, and is everything a small bar should be. Of course, it holds more than 100 people, so by your standards, it isn’t a small bar at all. Then, we’ll move on to the Barber Shop, which has become a pillar of support for Australia’s burgeoning local spirit industry. Our tourism folk are quick to claim victories when a Four Pillars, an Archie Rose or a Sullivan’s Cove receives international acclaim. But where do they think these independent businesses first got their start? I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t a national chain of bottle shops.
We’ll enjoy a snack with our gin and tonic, like adults do, before popping in to say hello at Papa Gede’saround 10.15pm. It’s a city bar built off the back of regulars. Folk who get in there one or more times a week, converse, see old friends and meet new ones. It’s presence on this list gives me the opportunity to shine a light on another hidden cost of lockout – namely the plight of our creative industries. I’ll surprise exactly no one (except perhaps NSW Parliament) when I say that the hospitality sector provides income and employment for a number of our artists and creatives. One of the co-owners of Papa Gede’s, Lara Dignam, is an actress, bar owner (and mum). Her livelihood and her ability to pursue and develop a career in the arts are indelibly linked.
Around 11.15pm, we’ll head to what was once the soul of Sydney’s nightlife, Oxford Street. City traffic being what it is, we’ll likely get to our next destination around 11.30pm. This stop, at our current Bar of the Year This Must Be the Place is mainly to demonstrate the absurdity of the current regime. The bar was opened with the mission of changing the way Australia drinks – to take the focus away from drinking to get drunk by providing a comfortable place where people can socialise and talk, with ambient background music in a well-lit space with lower alcohol spritz cocktails, natural and small producer wines and a select, curated list of premium spirits. On Friday and Saturday nights, this genteel little table service-only venue has to have security on the door (adding to the cost of running the bar). Oh, and by the time we arrive, last drinks may well be called already. It has to shut at 12am, given its current licence, the terms of which can’t be changed while the liquor freeze is in place.
On our tour of short-sightedness, I’ll be very surprised if we run into anyone under the age of 25. Gladys, you’ve said: “It’s not OK to have a culture where people think it’s cool to get drunk and hit people. I think the lockout laws have really forced people to think about those things and say ‘why have we accepted this for a long time, that it’s OK as a culture to do this?’”
Do you know how to change a culture? It’s not by stamping on it. It’s by showing people there’s a better way. By giving them good options. The trend in Sydney towards a better drinking culture was well under way before lockout or liquor freeze. Venues like This Must Be the Place and Papa Gede’s are both strike free, over a combined six years of operation. They are the solution, not the problem, and the liquor freeze is hurting them hardest.
Of course, even if Gladys does want to join me on a bar tour, change won’t happen unless it’s demanded. I applaud the tireless efforts of Keep Sydney Open, but it’s time for bars to join the fight. They need to concentrate their efforts on thawing the freeze. Because you know what goes well with being open?
Warmth and hospitality.