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Raising the Bar

Submitted by on March 6, 2010 – 1:05 pmNo Comment

Looking for a new hospitality challenge? One year after changes to the NSW Liquor Act, Sydney’s small bar business is starting to pick up. Three licensees share their rocky start up experiences with Nadia Saccardo and toast Sydney’s cosy drinking future.

Last July, after lobbying from local lobby groups, councillors and individuals all over the state, Sydney Mayor Clover Moore’s ‘Small Bars Bill’ was passed and incorporated into the NSW Liquor Act. The new law cut the cost of small venue liquor licenses, for 120 patrons or fewer, from over $15,000 to $500.

The idea was to replicate Melbourne’s small bar culture and reinvigorate Sydney nightlife. But although the concept sounded like a goldmine for hospitality entrepreneurs it has taken a good year (and frequent criticisms of local and state government) for Sydney’s small bar industry to develop.

Many would-be bar owners were deterred by unclear application processes, waits of up to seven months for licenses and having to pay rent on unusable spaces while negotiating their paperwork.

Thankfully, a few have persisted and their commitment is paying off in the form of small, personable spaces where Sydneysiders can enjoy a plasma-screen and pokie-free drink. Their stories suggest that council information sessions and more transparent government processes can do a lot to ease application delays and uncertainties.

Mia Chicco makes coffee at her brother’s recently licensed Café Bar Zini.
Photo: Nadia Saccardo

Who?
Gianni Chicco, Café Bar Zini, Pyrmont
License applied for?
On Premises License and a Primary Service Authorisation
How long?
Applied in August 2008. Approved in March 2009

Gianni Chicco opened Café Bar Zini in Pyrmont with his business partner in December 2007. Since then, the lively café has attracted a following of loyal Pyrmont lunchers. Naturally, Gianni started thinking of ways to further expand his clientele.

“We applied for an On Premises Licence and a Primary Service Authorisation so that people can drop in and have a drink without having a meal,” he explains. “Before the changes the Primary Service Authorisation used to cost $15,000. Now it only costs $50.”

After seven months, Gianni finally had his approval. “We found the process very slow. So many letters had to be written and sent to stakeholders such as police, councillors, residents and government. There were also duplications of this along the way, which were unnecessary.”

These ‘duplications’ refer to OLGR (Office of Liquor Gaming & Racing) processing protocol, which requires applicants to display notice of the proposed license outside their premises for 30 days, followed by an additional 30 day display period on the OLGR website. Only after this two-month process will the OLGR consider the application, which can take a further 30 days to approve.

“I hope that they can find some way to streamline this process now as there were a lot of complaints,” says Gianni. “Many larger businesses can use solicitors to get their licence but we did it ourselves, so it was a bit of a learning curve.”

Cameron Reid surveys his work the day before opening Ching-a-lings in Darlinghurst.
Photo: Nadia Saccardo

Who?
Cameron Reid and Jack Brown, Ching-a-lings, Darlinghurst
License applied for?
Hotel license, general
How long?

Applied November 2008. Approved May 2009

Cameron Reid and his business partner Jack Brown moved up from Melbourne when they heard about the law change. The duo found a venue in July 2008 and immediately set out to get their DA and Liquor License approved. In both cases, the entrepreneurs hit heavy delays, which they partially put down to their own inexperience.

“When I heard the news that licenses in Sydney were going to be $500, I moved up here straight away,” says Reid. “I didn’t know that the DA cost $1000. I didn’t know that you needed an acoustic report at $3500. I didn’t know that you needed a structural engineer at $3000. I just saw the $500 license.

I thought I could buy a fridge and an open sign and make some money. At the time, there was no one to tell us otherwise. I know we still would have gone ahead, but the process would have been less painful.”

Reid’s inexperience with the legal process, coupled with unforseen operational costs, also pushed out the Ching-a-lings timeline by months and cost them thousands in dead rent. He says more council guidance with the application process would have saved them a deal of grief.

“When it comes to alcohol related DAs, City of Sydney council are used to dealing with people with money,” says Reid. “They’re used to dealing with the pubs and big restaurants and businesses that can pay lawyers. They are not used to dealing with people like me and Jack.

Despite the pain, Reid is rallied by the bureaucratic gestures of support. “Council and government seem to be taking notice of the small bar problems, we have so much hope that this will improve. For so long, people were coming to Sydney and finding that there was something lacking in terms of bar culture and nightlife. If we can work through these initial problems, I’m certain this will change.”

Chris Lane owns Small Bar in Sydney’s CBD.
Photo: Nadia Saccardo

Who?
Luke Heard and Chris Lane, Small Bar, CBD
License sought?
Hotel license, general
How long til approval?
Applied July 2008, Approved September 2008

Luke Heard and Chris Lane’s aptly named ‘Small Bar’ in Sydney’s CBD was the first to be approved under the changed law. Since opening the three-storey terrace in December 2008, both men have been working to help other applicants through the process. Why?

“There are two stages to the approval process,” explains Lane. “The first is to get a Development Application (DA) approved by council, which for some venues can take up to three months. Once this has been approved you can request a Liquor License from the OLGR, which can take up to 60 days.”

When asked why some venues have waited seven months for a licence, Lane is stoic. “There is a lot of legal jargon that can be hard for a lay person to understand, this can result in heavy delays on both sides. I know we had a bit of trouble wading through it, but both the City of Sydney and OLGR are trying to address this now and assist owners.”

Just last month both Chris and Luke were involved in a presentation at Customs House in Sydney’s CBD, during which members from City of Sydney council, the OLGR and urban planning spoke to entrepreneurs about working the application process to their advantage.

“Prospective owners need as much information as possible before getting tied up with a venue and rent,” says Lane. “Thankfully, council and government are starting to understand and support them.”


RELATED LINKS (SMH ARCHIVE)

SMH, January 2009, ‘Barfly’s lament: Why there’s no stampede to open chic laneway haunts’

SMH, November 2007, ‘Cave in: small bars triumph’

SIX SITES FOR BETTER SMALL BAR BUSINESS

City of Sydney, information seminars
Lists the dates, times and locations of small bar information seminars

Small bar tip sheet
Luke Heard and Chris Lane’s tips to a successful Development Application

OLGR new applications
Comprehensive information on liquor licenses for prospective applicants

City of Sydney laneways development program
Small bar business grant information for spaces in the CBD

OLGR Noticeboard
Posts details of all current liquor license applications

Raise The Bar
A grass roots lobby group that worked to rally Cnr Moore’s changes and now provide up to date, comprehensive small bar-related information

SMALL BAR LICENSES FOR LAYMEN

A guide to small bar liquor licenses minus the legal quaff.

Hotel License
Was: $15,000
Now: $500
Known as a ‘General Bar Hotel License’ for venues with a capacity of 120 patrons or less. Your primary purpose is the sale and supply of alcohol. You do not provide gaming or take away services to patrons.

On Premises License
Was: $15,000
Now: $50
Your primary purpose is not the sale and supply of alcohol. You could be an accommodation venue, a public entertainment venue or a restaurant. The sale and supply of alcohol must happen in conjunction with your primary purpose.

Primary Service Authorisation (PSA)
Was: $15,000
Now: $50
You apply for this in unison the On Premises License. Get a PSA, and you can supply alcohol without having to supply any other products and services.

Original publication date 30 July 2009.

Nadia Saccardo

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