The small bars breathing new life and jobs into Sydney's lockout zone
Sydney's small bar scene shakes off lockout law limbo, as Harbour City looks to revitalise nightlife
When Colm O'Neill arrived in Sydney, he did not know what a lockout law was.
"Everyone kept talking about it," said the Irishman, who arrived in Sydney for a holiday last year.
"They were all saying the lockout laws were killing the city. But I didn't understand. I was an outsider coming in, and I thought it was alive — I loved it."
Mr O'Neill, a veteran in the hospitality scene across the world, loved it so much he decided he wanted to open a bar.
With Sydney's larger venues shrouded with regulation — as well as the huge capital expenditure — one area stood out.
"The small bar licences," he said.
"We opened up the day before St Patrick's Day, and haven't looked back."
Mr O'Neill's venue, The Doss House in The Rocks, is one of 19 new small bars that have opened up in the Sydney CBD precinct's "lockout law zone" over the past two years.
As of last month there were 39 small bars in the zone — just two years ago there were only 20, with a number of applications pending.
And according to Mr O'Neill, business is booming.
"We're open from midday to 2:00am, and the vibe will always be the same — chilled," he said.
"We can only have 100 people in here, and they're coming in for a nice drink at a nice place. There's no trouble."
A complicated past
According to industry insiders, the boom in small bars is a direct response to the "draconian" lockout laws — introduced in 2014 — that have forced a change in the drinking habits of Sydneysiders.
The laws required a mandatory 1:30am lockout for licensed premises across the Sydney CBD precinct, from Kings Cross to Darling Harbour, mandated a freeze on new liquor licences, and increased security requirements for existing venues.
Although there is no reliable data avaliable to determine the number of venues that have shut down since the lockout laws were introduced, industry insiders said — anecdotally at least — that it had led to mass closures in the lockout zone, as Sydneysiders chose to drink at home or at other venues outside the zone.
In response to industry lobbying, the State Government introduced new liquor licencing laws for small bars in December 2016, enabling venues of up to 100 people to trade until 2:00am with no requirements for door security.
According to Karl Schlothauer, president of the newly-formed NSW Independent Bars Association (NSWIBA), the introduction of the small bar licences was a "positive step".
"But there's still so much more to be done," said Mr Schlothauer, who owns and operates five bars around Sydney.
Mr Schlothauer, along with other industry leaders, created the NSWIBA to unite the small bars and independent operators.
He said although the city had "cut the head of the beast" and was now "seeing the impact", he was hopeful more relaxed regulation for the entertainment industry was around the corner.
It came as the City of Sydney this week announced it was lobbying the NSW Government to wind back lockout laws for well-managed venues, allowing them to be exempt from the 1:30am lockout.
It was unclear when the NSW State Government would come back with a response to the proposals.
Lord Mayor Clover Moore said lately there had been "a shift" in the way people spoke about Sydney's late-night culture, which had been hit with "sledgehammer" legislation in the form of the lockout laws.
"We are doing all we can to reduce red tape," she said. "But Sydney remains the leading night-time economy in Australia and we want to keep doing all we can to support the people keeping our city alive after dark."
Sydney's still 'stagnant'
Natalie Ng is the part-owner of Door Knock Bar in the Sydney CBD.
The venue, which opened in November, is currently under a Restaurant PSA licence, which allows staff to serve alcohol to customers without them needing to buy a meal.
She said they had an application to change to a small bar for a two simple reasons.
"It increases our capacity from 90 to 100, and allows to close at 2:00am, rather than midnight," she said.
For Ms Ng, who has been in the industry for almost 20 years, Sydney's nightlife was still "stagnant", but there were small signs of change, such as the increased number of small bars.
"I mean it's easier to get a pokie in a pub or club than it is to get approval to serve a shot of alcohol, neat — that's ridiculous," she said.
"It's such a backwards mentality.
"But there's still a lot of energy in this city, and a lot of people want this [the lockout laws] to change; the winds of change are there, ready."
Nick Sas - 31 Aug 2018 - ABC News