small bar liquor licence
The Cabin Small Bar Mt. Hawthorn

The Small Bar Recipe

This week we take a look at Perth’s Small Bar scene. Now that we are exiting the COVID-19 era, there’s room in the market for new bars and venues to make their way into the industry. With that in mind, we asked Phil the following questions – to get his insights on how to be the one who succeeds.

What defines a small bar to you? What are some good examples?

Looking at it from a legal standpoint firstly, a small bar is actually a licence category! The Liquor Control Act caps this particular licence category at a limit of 120 patrons. 

To me, when I think of a small bar, I think of furnishings particular to a set theme (i.e. industrial or rustique). I think of cocktails with funny names and craft beer. The small bar is the essence of the owner’s personality.

When I think of good examples in Perth, the list becomes pretty extensive. To my mind, places like Choo Choo’s and The Cabin are great examples, as well as the ever popular Alabama Song bar. I am very aware of the small bar scene in Fremantle too!

How has the small bar scene changed and grown over the last 10 – 20 years in your eyes?

I think one word really sums up the small bar scene over the last 10 – 20 years. And that word is crowded. People chase the crowded feeling, and small bar owners have become accustomed to adjusting their venue to suit.

Further, I believe people have developed a craving for the intimate bar experience that is able to set itself apart from some of their larger counterparts. I think we’ve seen a transformation of the small bar scene into a competition for unique experiences.

The venues that have done well, have out-paced their competition by a landslide. And this is really encouraging to those looking to enter the game. However, on the other side of the coin is the amount of small bars that have opened and closed their doors, particularly in the last 10 years. The small bar game has turned out to be a tricky one. 

Lastly, one trend that’s been pretty great to see is the increasing support for local brewers and craft brewing in general. Again, I think this all falls under the unique experience that these venues are working to offer.

What’s the small bar recipe? What makes one small bar stand out from another?

I don’t think there’s a clear formula. There are basic hospitality principles I believe all small bar owners, old or new, need to make sure they tick off.

  • Your idea needs to be well conceived.

    • You need to strike the balance between longevity and pushing the boundaries.

  • You need to understand that ‘small’ is an integral part of small bars

    • This means understanding the small bar purpose

    • Understanding the small bar clientele

    • Understanding that competing with the big pubs and breweries isn’t how you will succeed.

  • Understand your fixed costs early on, and your contingency plans for when things go wrong

    • Fixed costs have taken down more small bars in Perth than people realise, I guarantee that. They form a larger than usual part of the overall cost structure with smaller venues.

    • Knowing your fixed costs, and knowing how to deal with them in your worst case scenario will help you stay on top.

  • Get the rent deal right – don’t rush into a tenancy

How do small bars sustain themselves for the future? Do you think COVID-19 will have a long term role to play?

Yes, I think the 1 person per 2sqm rule will impact small bars for a good while. Everyone will be impacted – that is unavoidable. But, small bars are threatened by the first word in their own name. They’re small as is, and limiting the ‘crowded’ feeling that the owners work hard to obtain, takes away from the one major thing that sets them apart.

However the future is not as bleak as it may seem. I think the one thing that sets small bars apart – and I’ve said this already – is themes. I mean the unique theme of a small bar that you are unable to find at any other venue in Perth. Find your niche, and double down on it. Don’t appeal to what’s convenient, know your theme, make sure it works and stick with it. 

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