For years, Melbourne led the way in Australia’s small bar movement, much to Sydney’s disdain. Enter Chris Lane – a trail-blazing, pioneer of the Sydney small bar scene. Back in 2008, he and his partner quit their day jobs, and invested $200,000 to open Sydney’s first small bar.
Since then he’s gone from strength-to-strength.
With 3 x small bars, and a mini hospitality empire to oversee, what does a typical day for Chris Lane look like?
Ha, well it’s lots of time on the phone dealing with lots of little issues. There’s always something going on. There really is no typical day. One day i’ll be fixing a toilet, the next re-negotiating my lease. You need to be able to do just about everything in this business.
You’ve got a degree in Public Relations and Marketing, so a career in hospitality seems like an obvious fit. Tell us a bit about your background prior to getting into hospitality.
Well like most people I just sort of fell into it. I always wanted to work for myself. That was my biggest goal. I’m good with people and my parents entertained a lot when i was younger so Hospo was a natural fit. I worked in a pub after my gap year, then worked at The Bavarian Bier Cafe for 4 years. I spent some time in a PR office, but the office life was not for me.
You and your partner were responsible for opening Sydney’s first small bar, back in 2008. Since then we’ve seen more than 100 small bars pop up around NSW. How do you see the Sydney small bar scene evolving over the next few years?
To be honest I think there are too many as it is. They are popping up everywhere. I constantly get phone calls from people wanting to start bars for the money. They have no experience and basically a disregard for just how difficult it is. This cheapens and toughens up an already crowded market. So I see the market thinning out a bit and the true professionals surviving.
Apart from dealing with local government bureaucracy, what are your biggest challenges as a small bar operator?
Staying relevant and dealing with all your rising expenses while the turnover varies.
You spent a fair bit of time in New York. What inspirations did you bring back from your time abroad, and end up implementing here in Australia?
They take being a waiter/bartender seriously over there. Not a means to an end. They are far more professional over there. They are more likely to try new things and be creative rather than just follow trends.
You recently opened your third Small Bar venue in Kiribilli. To me, this location seems like an ideal fit for a small bar (i.e. demographics, community lifestyle, F&B preferences, and plenty of local weekend events/activities/traffic). What are some of your ‘must-have’ selection criteria, when scouting for a new small bar location?
Never force a bar into somewhere. Listen to the people. I sat outside our shop in Kirribilli and spoke to people about our idea and 99 percent were super positive. The people wanted it so we gave it to them. You always need to make sure that you can attract people to your venue on a Monday lunch and not just a Friday night. Being from the North we understood what the locals wanted. It is a huge advantage being from a similar background to your customers.
A lot of new small bars struggle during their first couple years of operation. What advice would you offer new small bar operators to help them overcome some of those initial teething challenges?
The bar business is still a business. It looks fun but it needs a proper approach. We have professionals doing our accounting and legal stuff. Don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions. Be flexible with your product. Look after your staff. Pay your tax.
If you weren’t working in the hospitality industry, what do you think you’d be doing?
I would have loved to be a creative in Advertising. But I can still be creative with what I do now.
Without giving too much away, are you working on anything new, and can we expect to see you involved in any other venues in the near future?
Ahhhh…yes you can. We have taken an old restaurant in Crows Nest near Small Bar. It will be craft beer focused, with awesome burgers and a more masculine vibe than Small Bar (edit: work is already well underway at The Hayberry)
Of all your years in hospitality, what achievement are you most proud of?
Watching good staff grow and learn. Weather they stick with me or they do their own thing, watching people grow in confidence and skill is easily the best part of my job.