18 months in, this is what Burrow Bar owner Bryce McDonough has learned

If you can find Sydney small bar, Burrow Bar, on your first try then you’re doing better than we did. It’s down a lane and around a corner where you really wouldn’t expect to find a bar. But when you do find it, you’ll find why they’ve been nominated for Small Bar of the Year and Best Bartenders’ Bar at this year’s Bar Awards — it’s a good time with some banging drinks served up by some ace bartenders under the direction of co-owners Chau Tran and Bryce McDonough. Here, and lightly edited for clarity, we hear from McDonough about what he’s learned, 18 months in.

As told to Sam Bygrave
Photo by Christopher Pearce

We’re just over 18 months old now — we opened what was a very, very, longtime dream. My best friend and I had been talking about this since we first worked together in the Cross in 2006, and we’d worked in Japan before that together.

We found ourselves drifting in and out of the idea. The small bar thing came in, and really brought a vibrancy to the city, and eventually the opportunity came up. I met an awesome girl, Chau, who is the other owner; the other guys, they’ve got a young family, and unfortunately they had to get out, get on with real life.

Operations is sort of what I do here — I do everything that needs to be done, really. I’ve got a fantastic team, but they’re young and motivated rather than old hands experience that I can lean on. That’s what I do — I do what I need to get the guys working and everything else I can to get the bar working.

I was working at an awesome cocktail lounge, nightclub, called Peppermint Lounge at The Crest Hotel [in Kings Cross]. I was at The Argyle for a little bit, I hopped around — I was at Low 302 and opened that — and drifted, just doing weekend jobs here and there.

I met Chau in 2010, and we’ve been dating ever since. She was always keen on something like this, she totally got into it; her background is marketing, she does all our marketing and our promotional stuff — she’s our entire online presence. She’s also probably one of the best replicating bartenders I’ve ever seen. You give her a recipe, and you’ll get the same consistency every single time — she’s obsessed with that consistency.

We’d been working on an opportunity for about a year and a half, when an opportunity came up with my best friend. That fell through, but we’d done so much work together that we ended up finding another space and transporting that idea here.

You can never work too hard. But also finding where to draw the line on a daily basis — for eight or ten months here I was here 18 to 20 hours a day, every single day.

It’s because everybody lies. Council, they don’t lie on purpose, but they can’t tell you how long it’s going to be. Licensing, supposed to be six to 12 weeks for a small bar licence? It was 12 months. Builders will say 10 days, they mean three months. Plumbers will say tomorrow, they mean next Thursday. No one’s doing anything maiciously, that’s just the game. But we’re a lot stronger and better at communicating our needs now.

Trusting in a team was really hard early on as well — it’s really hard to believe that someone else can carry your vision across the bar in the same way that you do. People know a little bit more about us now, more people actually know our bar, which is just the most humbling experience in the world.

That’s the sort of thing that makes it all worthwhile. But getting to that point, you just keep going and cross your fingers.

Make sure that everyone is on the same page. Staff training is one thing, but getting people that are believably motivated and driven is another. I could never have dreamed I would have bartenders this good working here, to be honest — these guys are awesome.

I’m actually quite lucky, our network has grown a little — we’ve made a lot of friends in the industry in the last 12 months or so. And people ask us if we’ve got work — I’ve had some amazing staff ask to come up and work and we don’t have the capacity for it at the moment.

I guess an avid sense of independence is the main reason. We’re never beholden to anyone and if a better product comes along we can swap vodkas tomorrow. Our rail has evolved over time; there’s no contract, and it’s hard — [a pouring deal] is a good way to improve your GP or get a little money up front. We just love having total control over our own menu, our rail, and more importantly our back bar. Our rail, we don’t touch it — it’s there for cocktails and that’s it. Our back bar is probably 60 to 70 percent of our sales.