Story by Sam Bygrave
It’s customary to begin a profile on a bar like Sydney’s Bulletin Place listing their achievements. Now in its fifth year (they turn five years old this December), they’ve won the Cocktail Bar of the Year award at the Bartender Magazine Australian Bar Awards an unprecedented four years in a row, and figured on the World’s 50 Best Bars list each year since opening.
IT’S ALL down to three things if you ask co-owner Rob Sloan.
“Respect the produce, keep it simple, and just be nice to people,” he says.
Easy, right? Well, kind of.
Bulletin Place began back in December of 2012, opening just before Christmas, as an effort between Sloan and co-owners Tim Philips and Add Ruiz. They’d all worked at Melbourne institution Black Pearl at one point or another, and they coalesced around a simple idea; take a small, 50 person space in the then barren cocktailing district of Sydney’s north CBD, use only fresh, seasonal produce to craft classic drinks without gimmicks (aside from the odd fruit-driven pun), and create a new cocktail menu every day of five drinks. Every day.
They started with bare walls and bare-bones furniture — the joke was that the ice machine cost more than the decor — and relied on their hospitality and their drinks to bring in the punters. And the punters came.
Since then they’ve opened a second venue, Dead Ringer, in Surry Hills, and Ruiz has stepped away from the business to pursue his dreams in Tasmania.
Paul Hammond, who shares a background with the UK’s Match Group with Philips and operations director David Hobbs, came on board as bars manager.
“It’s a huge transition for us going from Adi who was here from day dot, and it’s been great, Paul has brought in fresh ideas,” says Sloan.
They’ve also taken over the upstairs tattoo parlour, which, although it was initially going to be a bar, has become more of a test kitchen space, which has allowed them to focus on the creative side of things.
“The banquettes [in Bulletin Place] downstairs were our storage,” Sloan says. “At the start of every shift you’d get your juicer out, you’d get your equipment out, then you’d wash it, put it all bag in — this is much more conducive to creativity you know where everything is, you don’t have to go through daily arguments about where everything is. This makes us feel a bit more serene coming into a shift.”
What goes into keeping Bulletin Place at its peak? Whilst the idea of a 50 person bar, focused on fresh produce with a five-cocktail strong list changing daily looks simple, it’s the behind the scenes work which makes it look easy.
To begin with, it’s no easy task in Sydney right now attracting and keeping good bartenders.
“One of our biggest challenges in the industry is the paucity of staff — HR is our number one challenge and I guess for everyone in Sydney it’s the number one issue,” says Sloan. The days of being able to just cherry-pick the best bartenders is over, he says.
“No-one really wants to move anymore, they’re wrapped in cotton wool and kept in their organisation. We’re the same, we’re fiercely protective of our staff.” So they’re finding staff who are committed to bartending as a career — “to do what Tim Philips has done,” Sloan says — and putting them through a 12 week bootcamp of sorts.
“For us having them a bit green is a good thing, rather than having to untrained bad habits, it’s often better because you don’t get the ego attached. Especially the older a bartender gets — when you’re watching, they’re doing it your way, but when it’s Friday night the muscle memory kicks in,” he says.
They focus on aptitude and attitude, and each new recruit is subjected to a test of their bartending knowledge as a means of gauging which areas the top brass will need to work on with them.
Then there’s the ongoing training needs, an area which Hobbs has addressed through smart adoption of technology.
“In our day, training was, “here’s the till, here’s the ice well” and you get the booklet of classic cocktails or bar specs and they’d all be crossed out, drinks spilt all over it — it was a complete nightmare,” says Sloan.
So how do they minimise the ambiguity and they’ve got the same message to everyone, in a bar where the list changes every day?
“I’ve always been interested in where hospitality and technology intersects,” says Hobbs. “One of things we’ve expanded across both businesses is centralised training notes, through an app called Airtable.”
It’s one great big database of every drink they’re putting on the list at Bulletin Place, and is searchable via name, spirit or style of drink.
“When we make a change, it automatically spits it down through Slack,” Hobbs says.
“Every classic cocktail that we expect staff to know is highlighted here,” Sloan says. Tasting notes for food, wine, beer, it’s all in there and it’s all accurate, all the time.
Given that each of the five bartenders will create one or two menus a week, the database offers assistance in working out what will work at any given time of year.
“Being able to look back on it — so when we get to this point next year, here are the key produce, here’s what we used, what we did last year, what worked and what didn’t sell,” says Hammond.
Once a month, they hold a training session — say, on cognac — and then they’re tested on the previous month’s session. They then sit down, take stock of key dates for the month ahead.
“So let’s think about flavours that tie in with those, and make sure we’re getting the best out of those products,” says Hammond.
What’s the process in creating a menu? It’s not quite as carte blanche as you might think.
Around 11 or 12 at night, the bartender that was on will handover to the next day’s bartender, updating them on stock and produce.
“He will say, ‘right, you’ve got 500ml of raspberry syrup left, you’ve got to use that,’” says Hammond. “‘You’ve got a punnet of grapes left, you’ve got to use that. And then you’ve got three produce lines for us to order for you. So from whatever time that is until 1pm the next day you’ve got to create your menu”.
The bartender also needs to consider other constraints, like glassware.“You don’t want to do three Sours because you’re going to die,” says Hobbs. “You’ve got to spread the glass types, you’ve got to spread the ice types — it’s not quite as much of a blank sheet of paper as people imagine.”
And it’s these little choices, made before service starts, that can really affect the whole night.
“The success of the night lives and dies by [you],” says Sloan. “If you’re having a shit night as a bartender at Bulletin, the whole venue sinks, because we’ve got a really strict eight minute check time,” says Sloan.
“We’ve had younger bartenders in the past who have been removed from their station mid-shift, because they’ve got 10, 12, 14-minute check times.”
Whilst the bar is small — a maximum of 50 punters will be in at full flight — the work is always cocktails, which make up 80 percent of the drink mix.
As it’s a one-person bar, the second bartender’s primary duty is to fill in the gaps for the number one bartender who has created the list for the night, finishing drinks off, pulling out glassware at the right time, and cashing off bills.
“On a busy night, as number two you’re earning your money, you’re glueing the whole venue together,” says Sloan. “For any young bartender, there’s about a 12 week process before they get behind the bar, where they can make drinks quick enough, even on a Tuesday night.”
It’s these details that make the bar what it is. “A ripe mango, in season, why fuck around with that?” says Sloan. “We still work on that principle. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”