Words by Jane Ryan
Photography by Wes Nel & Parker Blain
We check in with four bars who've been selling their cocktails takeaway since lockdown began.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard from bars in Australia and overseas about their decision not to transition to a takeaway/delivery model. There’s been lots of very valid rationale for this, from not being able to translate their products to the huge profit cuts delivery platforms siphon off. However, for these four Aussie bars, having a way to keep service going has been crucial. Here’s how the first month of being a takeout cocktail bar has been for PS40, Black Pearl, Earl’s Juke Joint, and Capitano.
It’s the important question – are they actually making any money? Every business that’s fallen back on takeout knows this hasn’t come close to how much the bar makes when it’s open, busy, and filled with customers all jostling to get a cocktail. It is, however ‘a drop in a very dry bucket’ – as Shay Chamberlain from the Black Pearl describes.
“It’s keeping us treading water, it’s keeping the lights on. Job Keeper has helped and we are starting to see more people ordering and regularly too, but it’s not as if we’re all sitting around saying this is brilliant, why would we ever open the bar again,” she says.
Black Pearl takeaway 'wine' serve
It’s a situation felt keenly by Pasan Wijesena, of Earls Juke Joint. “We made the decision to start doing take away and delivery before any relief measures were officially announced, so initially it was a method of survival and trying to add a revenue stream. I've put so much into this place that I want to do everything I can to make sure I gave it my best effort to make it through, and to try and turn this negative into a positive… Now with rent relief and wage subsidies, any revenue generated by takeaway allows us to pay suppliers, utilities, pay for merchandise which in turn generates more income and even builds up a war chest for the future.”
Back down in Melbourne and Capitano sees the start of each weekend bring in some much-needed dollars. “There’s an element of normality when the ticket machine starts going at 5pm on a Friday and doesn’t stop for 2.5 hours,” says venue manager Darren Leaney. The restaurant and bar just had a record takeout night on the last Friday of April, but it hasn't been consistently busy, especially early week.
Of course, suddenly working around a whole new revenue stream means the business needs to be readjusted. PS40’s Michael Chiem says their experience with launching their sodas came in handy. “My knowledge in terms of dealing with bottle suppliers, knowing their lead times, and how to deal with them was a slight advantage as well as the logistics chain. In bars, you make a drink and then take payment. Now we pay for more costs upfront like bottles and receive money at the end of that much more drawn-out process. We’ve also all had to reduce how much we charge, you can’t justify the additional costs of the bar anymore. We’re asking for $12.50 per cocktail, normally they’re $18 – $20,” he says.
Michael Chiem with his volume 1 cocktails
But the money might be something these bars need to keep relying on even when they’re allowed to reopen. Pasan sees small bars invariably being burdened with some further social distancing measure, “I'm imagining half capacity venues, to begin with, not to mention that the way people consume food and drinks may change significantly as a result of this.”
Darren is in agreement and doesn’t see their expanded takeout options dwindling if they’re allowed to keep their takeaway liquor license. “We weren’t doing delivery before, just takeaway pizza from the restaurant, and now I’d be surprised if that disappeared. These little band-aids are helping to sustain us. It’s not that much work to bottle up a few cocktails every day and if we still have the license why wouldn’t we keep the greatest hits on? Say you got a bad cold or don’t want to get off the couch, then who are we to deprive you of an old fashioned and a bowl of pasta?”
All four of these venues are not on Deliveroo, Uber Eats, or any other delivery platform. Capitano is using a courier company that is now transporting pizza and milk punches like it once did legal documents. The rest are driving the cocktails to your door themselves. Why? It keeps the work inhouse and the costs down.
“We’re trying to avoid using anyone other than our staff and keep our jobs inhouse,” says Shay. “It’s working right now. It’s a task for us to be out of the house, and it’s been good mentally. We’re all at work five hours, four days a week which is helping all of us.”
This sentiment is echoed by each venue. “Having this to come to keeps everyone sane, it gives everyone a purpose,” says Darren.
“It's been great for team morale. It gives them a sense of purpose and belonging to a team. It lets them know that I'm invested in them also. They have been my biggest asset and advocates since I opened, so I owe it to them to try to keep them off the dole,” agrees Pasan.
For Michael and the wider team at PS40 it’s also about keeping the creative juices flowing. “ Staying open keeps us all mentally working – PS40 has always been a creative team and we’re tried to creatively work around the current situation.”
PS40 started off with drinks they were already making. That was volume 1. They’ve now gone on to release volume 2 in their takeout series which involves three drinks they’ve never done before. So yes, new drinks are coming out of this shutdown and customers are able to keep trying innovations in flavour which after a month of home cooking is sorely missed.
Over at Black Pearl they started off with two distinct styles of bottled cocktails. One is a wine serve which is an easy to drink, delicious fruity serve. The other is freezer pours – think your Martinis and Manhattans. Now the cold weather has hit they’ve added to this with a microwave serve, starting off with a Hot Buttered Rum Toddy. “For us, we’re aiming to still have that sense of luxury, everything is done for you, all you control is putting it in the freezer or the microwave. We’re trying to get rid of any chance of customers messing it up but also still deliver drinks that match our reputation as well,” says Shay.
The Tiramisu Milk Punch, available takeaway from Capitano
Capitano had that advantage of already using acidic regulators and ferments so the bottled life came easily to them. There have been a few hiccups along the way, of course, one or two Peach Bellini bottles didn’t make it and, because money is tight, it's creatively challenging to not be able to order in any ingredient the bartenders might like. “You have to say ok, we can’t buy that in so what do we have on hand that we can swap in, what flavour is similar. And while we don’t get to see anyone else's face as they take that first sip of a new drink we do get to see our own, so it’s still rewarding to be creating new serves,” says Darren.
Not everyone is doing isolation with brand new cocktails though. Customers ordering from Earl’s Juke Joint are sticking to the drinks they know and love. “It's pretty much mirrored what happens in the venue - Espresso Martinis, Margaritas, Manhattans, Boulevardiers, Old Fashioneds, Negronis. We have also sold a lot of merchandise (T-shirts) and natural wine. At Jacoby's it’s been Pina Colada's, Jungle Bird's and Mai Tai's,” says Pasan.
Customers aren’t often in our space anymore, we’re in theirs. So what are our four bars seeing as they deliver? “I’m seeing a lot of different things,” says Michael. “Most people are at home by themselves, and a lot are being bought the cocktails as a present. I’m seeing people spending their birthdays in isolation with a little drink from their friends to get by. We’re doing work drinks as well, the other day I delivered to nine different Sydney addresses and they all had a work drink at 4.30 to enjoy the same cocktail together – I even jumped in the call and explained what they were having for a bit.”
Selling the drinks from the venue has also been revealing people’s isolation habits. “People don’t understand, they think it’s just Bourbon Street in NOLA and they’re walking down the road drinking from the bottle. We have to tell them please take it home to enjoy,” says Shay.
A few blocks away and Darren watches weekly as two elderly ladies walking their dogs always swing by for 200ml of Negroni each, cheers on the grass verge then go their separate way into the sunset. It’s heartwarming he says, if slightly illegal. “Some people have been coming in and doing weekly orders, and to me, they deserve hero status. They’re minimizing leaving the house plus it’s a big cash injection for your night which helps the bottle line,” says Darren.
Across the four venues however, has been the resounding cry that it’s the locals they’re still getting to see each day. “They have been our biggest supporters,” says Pasan. “It really emphasises the bar as a community space where people come together to talk shit, share ideas, party, etc. I can’t tell you the number of good friends I've made over the bar, or watched people meet, go on dates, even get married as a result of meeting at our bar.”
“We’ve changed our model as we’ve gone, from opening hours to what we serve. We’ve just had to respond to how and when people are ordering the drinks,” says Shay. Starting out with just the surrounding areas, Black Pearl now sends its delivery drivers further afield. “People in further suburbs really enjoy being included, because we are using internal staff members, and thanks to job keeper now have two people able to deliver, we’re able to reach more people.”
“We’re still figuring out how this is all working,” agrees Michael. “It’s been a month and at first I did a lot myself but now I’ve got help from friends and the team. The delivery model is pretty simple, we take orders on Instagram. It’s not been the most full proof but for me it’s the fastest way to get up and running and I really like the slide-into-the-DMs method. We get to have a chat from people ordering from us, just like people ordering across the bar. This is new to them too, no one has really ever ordered delivery cocktails before and they can talk to us.”
Takeaway cocktails from PS40
From learning alongside customers, there’s also been some big learnings behind the bar. “My biggest learning is don’t put carbonated drinks in bottles not made to hold carbonated drinks,” says Darren. “Also nothing with citrus, nothing with egg white. Keep it simple.”
“It’s all a constant learning process,” says Pasan, “ from setting up our online portal, e-commerce, packaging and trying to extend shelf life for drinks. It’s interesting to see what drinks translate to this sales environment and to see what customers expect in a delivery environment.”
Would they recommend other businesses to have a go? Ultimately yes. As Pasan sums up “obviously every venue has different circumstances, but I think if you have the capacity to do so, yes – it’s been rewarding on a few levels.”
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