Interview by Tom Lazarus
Photography: Courtesy of Luxe Bar
In 2001, famed WA operator, Geoff Hayward opened a new type of cocktail bar for Perth. It stood out like a dingo’s nether regions in the isolated state capital, offering truly international quality drinks, chi chi interiors and a very cool, music-driven profile. It even had its own CDs, Buddha Bar-style.
Michelle Freeman was GM and Andy Freeman tended bar in those early days, before Andy branched out to set up bar consultancy, Venue Vision with fellow ‘tender, Sam Astbury. Five busy years later, Michelle was approached to take on full ownership of the bar, and she went to Andy with the proposal, the pair in agreement that bartenders know bar business better than some pin-striped pen pusher.
It’s a rare thing when two people with such a personal love and operational knowledge for a business get to write its next chapter. We caught up with the duo while over in Perth, our heads still throbbing from flying over all that desert with little more than lukewarm beer and peanut grease for lubrication. As we soon discovered, these first time bar owners have done quite a bit to their new home already…
How did you both start out in hospitality?
Andy: Sardi’s, the place for ribs! I started as a drink waiter.
Michelle: Fast Eddys Cafe, in 1988. I was a restaurant waitress on the weekends, while still in Year 11.
What lessons did you take away from these early years?
M: The entire staff team was exactly that – a team. We all got on really well, and were such a motley crew of people. It really opened my eyes as a 16 year old to the real world.
A: I learned that hard work does pay off.
Tell us how you came to be involved with Luxe Bar and why you decided to take over the business.
M: Within months of Luxe opening, I was invited to become a partner. It was my first time in business and with Geoff as my partner and mentor, the experience was priceless. After I came back from a year traveling around the world, Geoff and the other partners approached me to buy Luxe. It had always been spoken about, but I was never sure I was ready to do it.
A: Having worked there on and off through its early years, and having known Michelle for 14 years, when she approached me to see if I would be interested in being a partner, it seemed too good an opportunity to let go.
So the bartenders took over the bar! Was it a difficult transition?
A: I suppose we both had the luxury of seeing Luxe perform intimately over the past half dozen years, so we knew what we were getting into. It is the dream of all bartenders – and a lot of other people too – to own a bar. To be honest, it wasn’t a difficult transition. We were both ready to work for ourselves, and Luxe was the perfect avenue for us to be able to reach this dream. We just get paid better than before!
How has the Perth scene changed in Luxe’s lifetime and are you conscious of the need to keep innovating?
A: Sure. The scene has changed. The consumer is a lot more knowledgeable than they used to be – they are travelling interstate and overseas and seeing what is happening around the world. When they come back home to WA, they want the same experience. So we are constantly trying to see what we can do to stay in tune with that.
M: Perth consumers are definitely more discerning now than ever before. Our Luxe vision of educating and challenging the public is welcomed by our customers. They notice when a new spirit is on the gantry, and they are hungry to be taken on a ‘drinks journey around the globe’ if you like. Our staff help with that evolution.
Tell us about your new BamBOO bar at Luxe.
A: When we took Luxe over, it was always a number one priority to capitalise on the dormant space, the amphitheatre, and make it a sexy haven of an outdoor drinking space. Venues that can offer indoor and outdoor spaces do very well in our climate – it’s an Australian way of life!
M: The amphitheatre is such a seductive space. It’s an extension of Luxe Bar, so whatever we put on is in line with our vision of quality. With our balmy evenings, who wouldn’t want to sit outside with a cocktail watching a flamenco band, fashion parade, or aerial performance?
A: The aim is to expand BamBOO into an outdoor cultural space, where we are open during the week and offering live entertainment, and capitalising on our long summer with longer trading hours on the weekends.
The Luxe music compilations are a big part of your branding. How do you manage this and do you sell or give the CDs away?
A: Yeah, our CDs have fast become an important part of our brand. We give them away to our regulars and partners. We try to share the love and allow all of our resident DJs a chance to record an album when we feel their music will suit the particular CD, which all follow music briefs, and seasons.
M: Andy and I give a brief of the mood we’re after. The first CD we get is just a collection of songs, like a quick sketch. We go through the tracks and veto any that we really don’t like. Then we get the first draft mixed, and often, the DJs nail it first time. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have them on as residents! Music is very important to us. We may not know the jargon, but we know what we want it to sound like and feel like.
A: Every quarter we do a seasonal party – Luxurious. These are themed and that’s when we give out the Luxurious CDs.
M: As well as the Luxurious party attendees, the CDs also go out to select retailers around Perth; groovy fashion retailers, hair salons, design offices and even other bars and restaurants… the Luxe vibe is spread around. The CDs have become collector’s items here – because they can’t be purchased, they are sought after.
Do you see the current climate of late night lock-outs and crack-downs on ‘binge drinking’ impacting on your business?
A: I don’t feel that they will affect Luxe Bar directly. Most of the heat is directed at Northbridge, and venues that attract a younger crowd.
M: It will be interesting to see how the 2am lock-out policy will affect venues in Melbourne – currently in WA, Northbridge is being threatened with it. It does not directly impact on us, as we are not in Northbridge, but a lot of our customers go there after Luxe, so they may choose to end the night with us, or alternatively, leave Luxe earlier to get into those venues.
Any gripes with the powers that be?
A: Negative – touch wood!
M: We have a pretty good relationship with the Authori-tah!
If you quit the bar industry, what would you do instead?
A: Focus on our other investments, in hair salons… and family.
M: I always joke to Andy that we should have bought a pet store! No really, I would probably focus on other creative avenues like my long-neglected art degree, or open a little beachside café serving organic things. And most definitely having babies.
Which other operators do you admire?
A: Geoff Hayward has always been a mentor of ours, both having worked with him over the past years. Every day was another lesson.
M: Yes, Geoff has done such fantastic things for hospitality in WA. Vernon Chalker in Melbourne is quite an original and always so inspiring. Babs and Josh (Collins) at Hula Bula (Bar) and DeVille’s Pad are always wowing us with their energy and imagination.
Are you both maintaining a presence behind the stick at Luxe?
A: Yes, we share the load quite nicely between us. We are working towards other things in the future. Things that take up most of our time would be staff mentoring and training, and marketing and events. We are constantly doing things with our team and parties… we love to party.
M: I think it’s important to connect to staff and customers, so Andy and I are very hands-on and always front of house, mingling and talking to our customers who have become friends.
Any advice for bartenders and managers looking to buy a bar business?
M: Be patient. There’s no need to rush your first venue. Make mistakes at someone else’s expense for as long as you can. And choose your partners wisely.
A: Partners can make it so easy… or so, so hard! Ultimately, who knows how to have a good time – a bartender, or an investor? Do it with confidence!
How many staff do you have at Luxe?
How easy is recruitment in Perth? What’s your secret to making the good eggs stay?
A: We invest a lot in our staff. Recruitment is tough in Perth, because there are only a few venues that offer anything similar to Luxe. We hire on mainly on personality. We do so much training that eventually they will be up to scratch and able to work to our standards. We have a good mentoring programme.
M: But on the whole, we have always attracted the right people because of the simplicity of our vision. We make great drinks. So we have rarely had to advertise in the past. With recruitment, this has been the scenario for us in Perth – professional bartenders get off a plane and come straight to us and say ‘I hear this is the best cocktail bar to work in Perth’. And that is enough for us to know that they are serious bar professionals. I know we can learn from them as much as they can from us.
What would you like to see change in the industry in the next 10 years?
A: More bars and more selection for WA consumers.
M: More relaxed licensing laws in WA, so that the general public can make their own decisions about what time and where they drink, and not having to buy a meal to have a drink. To be more like our Asian neighbours and European counterparts.
Are the new small bar licences starting to deliver this diversity?
A: Not yet. The licences are still taking their time to pop up. There are only a couple of venues with small bar licences that are trying something different. It’s taking a while for more of the applications to come to fruition. There’s still a lot of red tape.
Visit Michelle and Andy at Luxe Bar, 446 Beaufort Street, Mount Lawley, Perth, 08 9228 9680