Small Bar Realities

Ezra Pound - inspired by a revolutionary poet
By Dan Knight

Dan is the General Manager at Bondi’s Corner House, and a prospective small bar owner currently planning his own venue. He shares his industry tips and insight at He penned his thoughts and tips for this feature in Bartender magazine.


Sydney’s ‘Melbourne’ Revolution

Not so long ago if you wanted to go for a sophisticated drink in Sydney, you were often forced to go to some mega venue where you inevitably bumped your way awkwardly through the crowd of 500 plus drunk teenagers just to get to the bar. Thankfully, those days are gone and the small bars are finally starting to appear.

This proliferation of smaller venues is a process of bringing out the cultural finegrain of the city. If Sydney is a bottle of Champagne, then these small bars and ‘quirky’ venues are the brandy, sugar cube and bitters that make it a cocktail. Essentially, as a drinking society, the popularity of the small bar movement is a step toward growing up.

Not only are small venues great from the perspective of adding variety, or a certain ‘spice’ to the night scene, they are also socially responsible. Since there is a direct relationship between the owner/operator and their customer they are on hand to provide a safer, friendlier environment in which to drink and actually encourage a more responsible attitude to alcohol consumption.

If Sydney is a bottle of Champagne, then the small bars and ‘quirky’ venues are the brandy, sugar cube and bitters that make it a cocktail.”

So why has it taken so long for us to grow up? Part of the problem used to be bureaucracy, and the other part was cost. In 2007 there was a change in the liquor licensing laws that made the process significantly cheaper, and this is starting to bear fruit and things are also getting easier.

Anthony Kaplan, owner of The Shop and Wine Bar and The Corner House in Bondi recently compared the process of opening both venues. “Under the ‘old’ system it took me 18 months to get my licence. And that was just fighting the council who didn’t understand the small bar scenario.” However, he points out that even though it was easier to get a licence for The Corner House, “It still took five months”.

Even though the laws changed over 3 years ago, the impact has been slow to gain traction. A lot had to do with public perception on what a small bar really is, as well as their impact on the surrounding environment. Now that we have co-existed with a few small bars, for a couple of years, people are finally able to see that they have far less impact on neighbourhood amenity than was originally feared.

As bartenders it’s important that we keep pushing this momentum forward. Small bars coexist in a unique way and seem to nourish each other by their presence. Martin O’Sullivan from Grasshopper is adamant about this. “None of us see each other as competition; we all see each other as complimentary.” If the amount of small bars in Sydney were to double overnight, the competition would have an ironically positive impact on the already existing bars, essentially strengthening their brand identity.

The council is not your enemy either. Martin O’Sullivan recently stated, “I’ve dealt with the council for 10 years and they’re definitely a lot easier to deal with now.” But make sure you follow all the rules and guidelines in order to open your place properly. “The council want to do small bars, they want to invigorate Sydney, they want to bring out the “finegrain” – but they can’t bend the rules. It’s the Building Code of Australia, not the Building Code of Sydney City Council or the Building Code of Woollahra, and the council won’t turn a blind eye just coz you’re a nice guy and you want to open a bar.”

We are living in interesting times. The world is moving so fast these days that it sometimes seems like the humble bar is one of our last remaining refuges. A good bar can be an escape, it can be another world where the hassles and troubles of the day-to-day are left at the door, the relentless drone of traffic is replaced by soft jazz melodies, and the logical progression of time can be paused for just long enough to let us catch our breath.

As the world moves faster and faster, we owe it to the community to do what we can to keep these sanctuaries thriving. Stop talking about it, find some partners, and get opening!

Canvas, Brisbane - blends art with cocktails.

The Prospective Small Bar Owner’s Guide to Success

So if you want to open your own little place, the timing is definitely right. There is no definitive right way to go about things, but below are 10 points that you should keep in mind.

1. It’s going to cost more than you think. If you talk to anyone that has opened up a bar, they will tell you that the cost exceeded their budget. It’s not just the cost of the fit out, it’s your opening stock, wages, working capital etc. The list goes on. Personally I’d think that the least you can spend on opening a bar is $250,000, but if you have grand visions then it will probably run into much more than that.

2. It might not be busy straight away. Most bars fail in the first 12 months of opening because they don’t have an adequate financial plan to cover a slow start or unexpected delays and expenses – so create an adequate business plan.

3. You can get lots of free stuff from suppliers. Depending on your financial projections and level of experience, some suppliers may be able to give you glassware, free stock, fridges or even an ice machine. This can save you a small fortune in set up costs.

4. The council will actually help you. The City of Sydney is extremely helpful and has gone as far as to appoint Richard Roberts as a business advisor for ‘Finegrain, Laneways and Small Bars.’

5. You can pay people to do all the difficult things for you. The Licensing and DA processes are both complex and time consuming. Fortunately there is an army of specialist consultants that you can use to help you navigate the bureaucracy. If you average out the costs of delays caused by your inexperience, as well as the days you take off work to do all the tasks required of you, it generally works out cheaper (and a lot quicker) to use an expert.

6. A designer will probably save you money. Designers generally receive around 25% discount on their purchases. If furniture and material is going to cost you under $50,000 a designer essentially pay for themselves in discounts alone.

7. An efficient bar design can save you thousands in labour costs. Consider the practical applications of the bar as well as the aesthetics. The design is incredibly important to how efficiently your staff will be able to work and make you money.

8. Your landlord wants you to succeed. They have a vested interest in your business doing well because it will push up the value of their property. If you have considerable experience then the landlord may add all sorts of incentives to sweeten the deal. Push them as far as you can!

9. You will be running a business, not just bartending. Remember, most businesses do not plan to fail, but if they fail to plan then that can often be the outcome. Write a business plan, and stick to it.

10. What you want is less important than what your customer wants. Find out what the market is hungry for, and give it to them. It’s a better business strategy than just doing something, and then trying to find the customer who wants it

Small Bars for Inspiration

61 York St
Sydney CBD

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Sydney CBD

275 Clarence Street
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Love Tilly Devine
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Der Raum
438 Church Street
Richmond, Victoria

Canvas Bar
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Ezra Pound
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189 William Street, Perth

  1. Just spotted your article and I must admit it is inspirational and i agree with all your points having slogged the pavements for the past year! Thank you

  2. I am not into drinking.. but I love the atmosphere in bars…would love to be a part of such business.
    And really well put article… Thanks for sharing…!!

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