Otis: A small, owner-operated, suburban bar with a big heart

153 Norton Street, Leichhardt

Otis is a small, owner-operated, suburban bar with a big heart. The owners, Conor O’Brien (ex-Baxter Inn) and Dan Teh (ex-Butter) took over an existing bar site and kept it trading to win over the locals and learn what they wanted from the site. It gave them a chance to listen and build rapport. “The locals who already frequented the bar came along on the journey with us. When it came time to change the name and replace the old bar, we only closed one extra day and reopened as Otis with a solid customer base,” they said.

Approaching the bar on a Saturday night, we found the bar full of these regulars and staff interacting with them as if they were old friends. Comfortable and casual, an equal number of beers and cocktails being consumed. The familiar tunes that anyone in their late 20s to 40s would recognise and a bright but welcoming interior stand out.

Sitting in a booth with a Kylie Minogue dance track pumping, keeping the vibes high, we tasted a few cocktails off their Breakfast menu, designed as an ode to a new morning after the rebrand and based on favourite breakfast snacks from the team’s childhoods, we chatted to one of the owners, Conor, to find out how this bar came to be:

For those who haven’t been there, how do you describe Otis?
Otis is a classic cocktail bar disguised as your favourite neighbourhood bar. When you walk in, there are ‘90s – ‘00s bangers playing, an enthusiastic greeting over the bar and a bunch of regulars catching up with each other over a pint, martini or milk punch.

What led you to want to open your own bar?
I’ve been interested in owning my own venue for about eight years. My Dad was a small business owner and I have wanted to follow that path my whole life. I’ve found my passion in the hospitality industry and honed my craft in some of Sydney’s best venues so when this opportunity presented itself last year it felt like the right time to take that leap.

Dan and I have been looking for a venue since December 2019. We actually put a deposit down on a space in Newtown in Feb 2020 which was a bit stressful (to say the least) but we managed to avoid following through on that venue and bided our time until we found the right fit.

How do you split the jobs between yourselves?
Dan and I have split the tasks into financial (bills, invoices and taxes) and rostering and also creative direction and maintenance.

Dan has taken the lead on making sure the books are in order and no one is chasing us for money. He makes sure we always have enough staff on for events and day-to-day. He also handles any sick leave or other emergency staff issues while I make sure nothing breaks, I write the menu, pick the wines and work on improving service and skills in the bar.

It’s been a great system so far because there are so many moving parts in a small business and we can compartmentalise issues between us. It takes a lot of the mental load off each other and allows us to really focus on what we are individually best at.

I think there’s so much learning to do before jumping into ownership but for me, the best way to learn is to do the thing. Dan and I have about 30 years of experience between us and we still felt like there was a big learning curve when we opened.

Are there any skillsets that you need to open a bar?
This sort of depends on your budget; there are dozens of skills it would be good to have when opening a bar. And you can always pay someone with those skills if you can afford to but most new owners aren’t in that position.

Ideally, knowledge of the products you’re selling is important. You want an inviting space as well so I guess a feel for interior design would be handy. If you want to save money on the reno some woodworking or adjacent skills or good friends with those skills is invaluable. Bookkeeping knowledge and knowledge on how to manage a business. The list goes on.

I think there’s so much learning to do before jumping into ownership but for me, the best way to learn is to do the thing. Dan and I have about 30 years of experience between us and we still felt like there was a big learning curve when we opened.

Our goal at the start was to ensure we had high-quality food and drinks, friendly service and great music and we built out the systems to make sure we can always deliver on that. So long as we have those fundamentals on point we can only keep improving our little bar.
I also think there’s this idea that your venue has to open in the perfect state. Absolutely not the case. I’m still adding decorations and soundproofing, improving signage and organising coasters as well. It’s like raising a child and it keeps changing and growing with us.

Coming from working in inner city bars, how has opening a bar in a suburb changed the style of venue or service?
So I’ve been in the city for the last 5 years but before that I was in the inner west for nearly 10 years. It felt a lot like coming home.

The biggest difference between the city and the ‘burbs is probably volume. Smashing out dozens of sours an hour at Baxter’s doesn’t exactly give much time to chat to your guests so there’s a shifting of gears there.

Otherwise, it’s very much the same. A good product is a good product and so long as we can meet and exceed guests’ expectations then we’ve done our job.

You took on a pre-existing venue and operated as that before rebranding as Otis, what lead to that decision?
Taking on and continuing to operate an existing venue while rebuilding and rebranding isn’t really something I’d recommend if you don’t want to risk burnout. It’s a lot of extra work; Dan and I probably did 30 hours or more a week before getting onto our responsibilities for the day-to-day running of the venue. For us, it was a matter of financials. We didn’t want to spend 2 months building and not earning anything while paying rent and bills. It was just a bunch of extra money we didn’t want to spend so early in this journey.

What are the pros and cons of that choice, would you do it all again?
It did come with some benefits though. This is our first venture so it seemed like it would have been harder to build a following and regular trade. We were able to skip that part to some degree. We were also able to take a bit more time to work out our branding and how we wanted to lay out parts of the venue.

It also allowed us to introduce ourselves to Leichhardt and bring people along with us. We could see what people wanted to see from their local and we could tweak our offering accordingly. A local bar lives or dies on its regulars so that’s been very useful.

There are also elements of the build that I didn’t get to choose. We had to work with some of the previous build decisions. Our bar area is raised for plumbing reasons and that meant we can’t have a traditional bar layout so we had to innovate a bit there and go with a one-level bar. I love the bar design though and I want to use it over and over again.
Honestly, I do hope I don’t have to do the same thing when we open another venue. I think it isn’t a bad approach for a first venue and it taught us a great deal. Next time I’d like to apply all those lessons from day one.

Otis is over two floors, how do you use the spaces? Are they different or is upstairs an extension of down?
When it isn’t booked out for a function, the second level is a more relaxed extension of downstairs. It was important to make sure it matched the feel and the vibe of the bar area. It was the restaurant level of Golden Gully and we’ve transformed it into a comfortable lounge area. We do host a lot of birthday parties and other events, so it’s been very useful for those larger nights. Our main plan for the next few months is find more uses for the space. We are launching a comedy night, kitchen takeovers and other events next month and we are also looking to put together a regular live music night in conjunction with Crosstalk Records next door.

What did you wish you knew before opening and do you have any advice to anyone thinking of opening their first venue?
I wish I knew more about the market around Leichhardt. We knew things had been slowing down for a while but shortly after we took over Raggamuffin and Penny Fors both closed. I think a bit more market research might have given us a better idea on what to expect from the area. We’ve had to add to our business plan a whole section on how to bring life back to Leichhardt, which isn’t a challenge I expected for my first bar.
I mean it looks like we might be barreling towards a recession as well so you can’t predict everything. Just get in and make sure you can pay your bills and then focus on what you want to improve. Take it day by day.

Where do you see yourselves in five years?
I’d love to be sitting at the bar at Otis enjoying a cocktail and looking over the plans for another venue. Then I take a sip of my drink and look up to see a bustling Norton Street with two or three other fabulous drinking establishments thriving.