SPECIAL REPORT: Perth’s small bar scene is evolving into one of the nation’s most vibrant, but red tape is returning as an issue despite a proliferation of venues.
Perth’s small bar scene is evolving into one of the nation’s most vibrant, but red tape is returning as an issue despite a proliferation of venues.
Those who dwell in Australia’s eastern capitals have often dismissed Perth as quaint or behind the times compared with their heaving metropoles.
Sniping comments of that nature are fast becoming less relevant, however, as Perth’s nightlife scene transforms from one plagued by binge drinking and anti-social behaviour into an increasingly sophisticated and diverse experience.
In fact, some Perth venues are becoming the envy of those in the east, with Northbridge’s Mechanics Institute being named Australia’s best small bar for the past two consecutive years by Australian Bartender Magazine.
The introduction of the small bar licence in 2007 proved to be the architect of change, with 105 such venues now operating in the metropolitan area and regional centres such as Busselton, Bunbury, Margaret River and Albany in the south, to Karratha and Kununurra in the north.
But small bars were just one component in a range of liquor licensing reforms enacted since then by the state government.
The latest changes to be introduced by the state government include allowing hotels and nightclubs to trade until midnight and 2am, respectively, on Sundays, as well as simplifications to allow producers to more easily sell their wares.
Racing and Gaming Minister Colin Holt said there had been a seismic shift in the state’s drinking culture, driven by the fact that, over the past four years, 35 new small bars had opened, along with 136 new licensed restaurants.
“It is clear the preference of Western Australians is to now enjoy a beer or glass of wine at a smaller, themed, intimate venue where the focus is not simply on consuming alcohol, but also on food and the experience on offer,” Mr Holt said.
Mr Nolan, a chef by trade, got his start at Harvest Restaurant in North Fremantle 13 years ago, with that eatery considered by many to be ahead of its time for its unique dining experience.
After selling out of Harvest, Mr Nolan established Fremantle’s Who’s Your Mumma in 2010.
He has since also sold out of that venue as well, but has been increasingly busy, building an empire of sorts with five popular venues in the ever-evolving Northbridge entertainment precinct.
The Lavish Habits portfolio comprises two restaurants (La Cholita and Pleased to Meet You), two small bars (Alabama Song and Sneaky Tony’s), and the first nightclub to be licensed in Perth in 15 years, Joe’s Juice Joint.
Mr Nolan told Business News that his venues were indicative of the diversity that was emerging in Perth hospitality, a diversity that had led to the concept of small bars drawing more support from local councils as evidence mounted of their revitalising effects.
“When the small bar scene first came on, councils didn’t know how to handle it, it was a whole new ball game for them” Mr Nolan said.
“But I think they are less frightened of small bars now and understand that they bring diversity to the area and something that’s appealing.
“More and more councils are embracing it and making it easier for people to open.”
Mr Fleming and Ms Blumann started their momentum in 2006 with the popular Flipside burger store in North Fremantle, which was soon complemented by their Mrs Brown Bar.
They replicated that success in Northbridge with another Flipside and Mechanics Institute, a bar that has gained a cult following since it opened in 2012.
On the back of the success of the burger chain and the two bars, Bread + Circuses now operates the Guildhall event space and Propeller restaurant in North Fremantle, as well as The Dominion League bar in Northbridge.
Mr Fleming and Ms Blumann’s business partner and manager of Mechanics Institute and Dominion League, Brett Robinson, said the growing competition in Perth’s hospitality sector was a healthy development.
“It keeps you at the top of your game and makes sure that you’re always pushing boundaries and looking for something new,” Mr Robinson told Business News.
“We always strive to be at the forefront of hospitality, making sure that if there are new concepts happening at the global scale that we are bringing them to Perth and we’ll just do what we can to keep evolving the scene.”
Mr Robinson said a major factor in Perth’s growing reputation for hospitality excellence was the wide range of heralded local producers, who have been embraced by many bar owners looking for a point of difference.
“Craft beer was definitely at the forefront of that,” he said. “It’s great to see people branching out and exploring their tastes and exploring what’s out there.
“We’ve seen it with craft beer in the last two years, but it’s been happening with wine in the last 10 years and we’ve seen a huge growth in people’s passion for whisky in the last 12 months.
“If you can create an environment where people can sit and enjoy good booze and you’ve got great products on offer, then people can sit and take the time to enjoy it. People really want to know what the product is all about rather than just coming in and swilling it and going home three sheets to the wind.”
With so many venues now operating, and the state government committed to reform, the obstacles for those seeking a small bar licence or their own pub seem to have become fewer.
In some ways that may well be true, but not necessarily in all cases, according to Lavan Legal emeritus partner Dan Mossenson, who founded the Small Bar Association of WA in 2007 and specialises in liquor licensing.
The most rigorous requirement in getting a licence, Mr Mossenson said, was the public interest assessment that is attached to all licence applications – that is the prospective applicant’s requirement to prove the benefits that their venue would provide.
Mr Mossenson said while the smaller venues were better supervised, managed and run, leading to a safer and less risky environment for drinking, the regulatory environment meant there remained a lot of work involved in applying for a liquor licence.
“But progressively over the years, the thinking has been that the small bar applications should be treated with less technicality, detail and complication compared to the more risky licences like taverns, hotels and special facilities,” he said.
“It’s still complicated, but if you know what you’re doing, it’s progressively gotten a bit simpler.
‘What is also important to appreciate is the fact that some people are willing to be cavalier and simply have a go without proper research or advice.
“This results in half-baked applications which are weeded out by the licensing authority’s refusal to grant a licence. Therefore the quality of the people actually approved and subsequently operating has been enhanced as a consequence.”
Another significant hurdle, and significant cost, in the licensing process is the requirement for potential publicans to have a lease agreement in place before they can apply.
Mr Nolan said the time it took for an application to be processed resulted in significant costs being incurred before a venue could open its doors.
“For mine, it was anywhere between eight months to a year, and that’s if you don’t have to deal with objections,” he said.
“Landlords need to make rent, I get that, but if the process itself was to speed up that would be ideal, because you’re talking in excess of $100,000 sometimes for a space, which is a big outlay to not really have anything.
“It’s a huge risk to then go and fit a venue out before that application has been approved, so on top of that you have to add your fitout time.”
Hospitality entrepreneur Nathan Karnovsky is one to have been burnt by the process.
Mr Karnovsky recently lodged an application for a restaurant licence for his North Perth cafe, Satchmo, which has been open for seven weeks.
“We have been going ok, but having the option to serve alcohol does bring extra in, and that’s extra income for small businesses,” Mr Karnovsky said.
But setting up Satchmo was not the first time Mr Karnovsky had been involved in the licensing process.
He said he lost about $40,000 trying to set up a small bar in the city in 2013, only to be told he had been rejected for a licence two days before it was scheduled to open.
He said the most frustrating factor for him was there was little difference in the application process for different types of venues.
“For a restaurant, when you have to serve it with food, it’s a very different scenario than just handing people alcohol, but it’s the exact same paperwork,” Mr Karnovsky said.
“I guess it stops just anybody from getting a licence, because you have to put in so much effort, but each case should be looked at on its own merit as opposed to a generalisation.”