Tim Philips-Johansson tells us why Bulletin Place is closing tonight

Story by Tim Philips-Johansson

In 2012 there was no exit strategy when we decided to put our heads, hearts and bank accounts together to open Bulletin Place. Between Adi, Rob and myself we really had no idea what we were in for opening our own small business in the form of a 45-seat bar.

Nonetheless, our enthusiasm was steadfast and we were supported by loved ones. A pre-opening set of gifts from friends and family were eclectic, to say the least. A wooden parrot, at least 30 years-old if not more, was an ironic gift from my Swedish future brother-in-law Andreas. Andreas was also the person who had serendipitously created our logo and the catchphrase ‘Drinks and Atmosphere’. In typical Swedish succinctness he had written it as placeholder text for us to decide what our moniker should be. It stuck and we thought it was a pure declaration of what we felt a bar should be about.

Good drinks and good atmosphere.

That parrot sat handsomely next to a copy of ‘Small Business for Dummies’, purchased less ironically by another friend. The backbar was full of booze we had collected from our combined 50+ years of hospitality and brand ambassador experience, and the furniture had been picked up from thrift stores and garage sales.

2012 was a simpler time. We had booze, some furniture, two expensive ice machines and boundless enthusiasm for making peoples’ nights. We were so fucking proud of that room. It really was everything to us at the time. We painted it, grouted the tiles, gaffer taped the skirting boards and stapled the menus. The product suite included two beers, two reds, two whites, one bubbles, and five cocktails. Our backbar had no more than three of each spirit category, apart from scotch. We had lots of scotch. Somewhat because we loved it, but mostly because Rob had done a better job of ‘collecting’ it from his ambassador years.

Our modus operandi was to simply sell the things we liked, with nothing we hated. We would treat guests like newfound mates, sit with them at the table, winning them over with smiles that would paper over the crack of our ‘Shabby-chic’ interior. We would open the door for them when they walked in, shake their hands, show them love and inevitably buy them a shot of Whisky-mac on their way out.

We did that for years.

In 2016 we decided to do what any ‘successful’ operator would do and open another joint, throwing all of our savings into Dead Ringer. At the same time over at Bulletin Place, the rigmarole of service, late nights and whisky-macs wore thin on Adi. We empathized with him, appreciating his reasons for bowing out of his duties at our little bar and farewelling him as he relocated to Tasmania. In hindsight this would also be the unofficial time I would lose my lust for bartending, and eventually that exit strategy started to weigh on my mind.

Winning the Sustainable Bar Award in 2019

Adi and I had worked together for so long in that room I realised he was the only person I felt comfortable working with. We were like an old married couple who knew each others’ preferences, most of which aligned, and I didn’t have the impetus to work with someone new.

The stress of opening a restaurant, as well as leading the team at Bulletin Place by myself was too much for me and I wanted out of the industry. In 2017, I reached breaking point and after I got married we decided to take a year out, backpacking around the world with my now wife, Linn.

Things ticked over whilst I was gone. Dead Ringer started to turn a corner, mostly thanks to the incredible team running it but also due to the idea I despised the most — bottomless mimosas and brunch. Bulletin Place was also in steady hands with stringent and talented staff.

Some of the ferments and experimentation that Bulletin Place was known for

In that time, and the years that bookended it, we hired some incredible people to work in our small bar whilst we, as the owners, took a step back. This inevitably empowers a younger team, allowing them to find their own feet and to make a name for themselves in the industry – much like we had done previously with our formative experiences in bars.

I would later realise this is the greatest legacy of Bulletin Place — the number of extremely talented and hard working people that have set foot in that bar. In my opinion, founding a venue that has been influential to so many bartenders’ lives is the greatest gift a bar owner can give.

Ultimately, this was what brought my passion for the industry back. The chance to somehow mentor and help shape the careers of younger versions of me. A mentor is someone who sees talent and ability within you, and who helps bring it out of you. In the later years of Bulletin Place I learned the best thing I could teach our team was the ability to believe in themselves to shine.

By 2018, the cities’ lockout laws had really taken a grip of the city’s nightlife. Pre-2014 the city was an incredible place to be at night. Newly opened Frankie’s Pizza was just a stone’s throw away from us, The Rocks was going through a renaissance, Vivid brought thousands to our doorstep and we piggy-backed off the post-dinner and concert crowds in the tourist and business district. We used to take 20% of our sales after 10pm, but by 2018 it had dropped to less than 10%. The city was a joke, and in my opinion it still is to this day. How can a city be so naive to the economical, social and spiritual benefits of a healthy nightlife?

Little did we know we hadn’t seen the worst of it yet. In the years following 2018, the north end of the city would go through extensive tram works, turning the end of Pitt St into constant roadworks. The emergence of a new city district resulted in over 20,000 employees relocating from our end of the city to the soulless glimmering Barangaroo quarter. Late 2019 saw devastating bushfires, making the city’s concrete streets a hazardous microclimate. This was topped off with the most devastating dagger of them all; Covid.

I would later realise this is the greatest legacy of Bulletin Place — the number of extremely talented and hard working people that have set foot in that bar. In my opinion, founding a venue that has been influential to so many bartenders’ lives is the greatest gift a bar owner can give.

Despite this, by the time Covid hit we were actually doing fine. With all of our previous setbacks we had clawed back that extra 10% across the week we needed to be profitable, but more importantly the team was purring. We had a young team that saw themselves as family. The quality of product and hospitality coming out of that little bar had never been better.

On March 22nd 2020 we closed our doors on government advice, with no intuition as to when we would reopen again. Government support came, but our staff unfortunately had to go. When we reopened in September 2020 we were down to just three team members. Eventually the government and landlord support would also go, and we were barely holding on.

A ‘death of a thousand cuts’ comes to mind when I reflect on Bulletin Place’s closure. Unavoidable hurdles thrown our way leading up to, during, and after Covid hit, coupled with an ambivalent landlord, gave us no option but to concede and to raise one last glass to our precious bar.

In the days and weeks leading up to the closing I didn’t want anyone (apart from our staff) to know. Closing a business, for lack of business, fills your head with irrational shame. I felt embarrassed that it had come to this. I convinced myself of the idea that promoting the last weeks of trade as a final chance for guests and industry to come in, and by doing so maximising revenue, was simply a degrading push of the last oxygen of the bar’s lungs. Unbecoming of a bar of our supposed stature.

In reality, I couldn’t bare the thought of dealing with the inevitable barrage of messages, calls and emails that would come from well-meaning friends once word got out. Every conversation would act as additional salt in the wound, a diversion back to their sorrow for our special bar, for which I had to compartmentalise as “just a business” to get through.

We closed our doors to Bulletin Place on May 28th 2021, 5 days after my 37th birthday. We opened Bulletin Place when I was 28, and in those 8.5 years I had experienced every human emotion a man can feel.

I’m so proud that we closed the doors with the team we had, still producing the quality of drinks we always had preceding that. Our standards never slipped, we never sacrificed the integrity of the bar to chase money. We never opened Bulletin Place for the money, in fact, I don’t think anyone in their right mind would open a first-floor walk-up 50 sq/m bar, in the quiet part of the city, down a laneway, without a sign.

I’m equally as proud the tenure had finished without any irreparable damage being done to our staff or to the business partners’ relationships. In the ten years since we had begun planning to open our venue, Rob and I had gone from living together, opening the bar of our dreams, moving out from one another, a marriage (not with each other), two mental breakdowns, a restaurant, a child, and a bar closure. We have remained respectful and dignified in our dealings through all of this and I can’t appreciate that enough.

We had no idea what we were doing when we opened Bulletin Place and put simply, we were led by our hearts and heads. We looked after each other and welcomed dozens of new members to our bar family. Everyone that has worked at Bulletin Place truly means so much to me, and I hope they always hold their time at Bulletin Place special in their hearts.

During the process of closing down Bulletin Place I’ve told myself that a bar is just four walls. It’s a business that lives and dies by the financials. The space itself is not any more special than an Accountancy firm or the Noodle House dining room that preceded our bar in that space. But as much as I’ve been telling myself this to make me feel at ease of its closure, I know deep down this isn’t the case.

So many memories, so many friends, so much personal growth has been crafted within those walls.

There was no exit strategy when we decided to open Bulletin Place, and we never could have imagined the journey it has taken us on. We have fought, laughed, had money, gone broke, had some money again, been in debt, clawed that back, hired good people, made friends, lost good people. Wrapped up in that the past 8.5 year have been the most definitive and emotion-filled time of my life.

I never opened that ‘Small Business for Dummies’ book. Inevitably I learnt that small business is undeniably not for dummies. It’s for the strongest, most determined, resilient and passionate people. Small business will take you on a ride, giving you the most incredible satisfying highs but sometimes crush you and leave you in tears thinking it’s just not fair.

I wouldn’t swap it for the world.

Rest in peace you special, special room.

Bulletin Place opened December 20th, 2012. Since its opening it has won the following accolades:

  • 4 x Bartender Magazine national cocktail bar of the year
  • 3 x TimeOut Sydney cocktail bar of the year
  • Good Food bar of the year nominee
  • TimeOut Sydney bar of the year
  • 5 x Drinks International World’s 50 best bars entrant

At the time of closing Bulletin Place was ranked 39th in the world’s 50 best bars

In the 8.5 years since opening they have created over 10,000 unique cocktails on it’s daily menu.