On The Floor With Kate McGraw
Kate McGraw – Beverage and hospitality consultant, Waysouth Hospitality
Is Australia’s bar industry embracing seasonality more than in the past?
I think that on the whole, the bar industry is becoming a lot more season-aware, but most of the venues and bartenders that are working with this kind of ethos are generally city-based and in top-tier bars or restaurants. Working seasonally has come hand in hand with the increase in awareness of sustainability in venues, which we’ve seen expand rapidly in the last few years. Product cost and quality improve drastically when you work this way, and I think a lot of bartenders have seen the quality of their cocktails and drinks increase when they apply this chef-like sensibility to their approach. With that said, there’s still a long way to go. Regional and outer-city venues are, in a lot of ways, a lot more equipped to work this way but the education and upskilling isn’t quite there yet for a lot of venues.
How does Australia’s bar industry compare to overseas markets when it comes to how it embraces the seasons?
In a lot of ways Australia is a real leader in this field. It started overseas – England and America were the first places where this approach to drink-making sprung up – but Australia has taken it and pushed it forward. I call it the ‘Masterchef Effect’. Our customers in Australia are very aware of what they’re eating, where it’s from and how it’s sourced, and it’s taken on a new life in bars and drinks. You see a lot of bartenders all over Australia embracing foraging, growing ingredients themselves and engaging directly with farmers and producers. It’s become part of what bar managers are teaching their younger staff alongside how to shake and how to change a keg.
As a former bar manager, what is your favourite season, and why?
Every season is pretty excellent, once you know how to use what you get at each time of year. I love Spring and wish it went for longer, blood oranges, papaya, beetroot – all of the things I love come out around this time! Now as a consultant I’ve been enjoying working with Winter fruit and veg, artichokes, leeks and other root vegetables add surprising texture and sweetness when treated well, and kiwi fruit is going on every menu I write at the moment.
What’s a drink you’ve had or served that you think is a fantastic representation of a particular season?
I used to serve a tiki-style drink that was based on textures of Orange. The fun thing about it was that the type of orange that we would use as the base would change depending on what was coming in – think navel and cara in Winter which is packed full of acid and brightness, then moving to blood orange and seville later in the year with beautiful richness and hints of bitter. It was really an expression of seasonality – the drink changed essentially every week based on what the best product was.
When talking about seasonality in regards to business peaks and troughs, is there a peak season in Australia’s bar industry, other than Christmas? If so, when is it?
I think there used to be really clear busy and quiet periods, and to an extent there still is, but we’re not seeing as clear definitions between those times. Project economy and a rise in upscale casual dining mean that people are going out to eat or drink 3-5 times per week instead of just for special occasions. People are having business meetings at bars and going out for a casual few drinks multiple times all year round, so the dip isn’t as strong as it used to be. School holidays are bad and we all know as soon as Spring Carnival hits everybody is ridiculously busy, but the rest of the year isn’t so bad anymore.
Does it take long for a new bar to establish when it’s at its busiest, and to adjust the business model accordingly?
I think research and good pre-planning make this a lot easier, and if a business can’t adjust to fluctuations in trade then something’s probably not right. You know if you’re setting up a neighbourhood bar that school holidays are probably going to be quiet, early week probably isn’t going to be big trade but come Friday and Saturday night everybody from the local area is going to be packed in having a few drinks. If you’re in the city, you’d be betting on having a big post-work crowd. I think it’s harder to define what operators think ‘busy’ is, and what they want ‘busy’ to be. From there, you put people and procedures in that support that.
Is finding staff for peak periods as difficult in the bar industry as it is in the restaurant industry?
We have a lot of the same problems as the restaurant industry – getting bodies in isn’t hard, but getting skilled staff is. During peak times, you want people that you can grab, onboard in a week and who can slot themselves in and get cracking right off the bat. Operators and managers, especially in smaller venues, don’t have the resources to be able to take somebody on who is brand new to the industry or unskilled when they’re in their peak earning period.
Is the Sydney bar scene particularly seasonal? How does it compare to other Australian cities?
I would say of all the major cities in Australia, Sydney is fairly consistent in terms of busy periods. Most people that live in or around the city don’t really slow down over Winter, plus there’s a constant influx of tourists around the major food and beverage zones. Lockout laws made everyone take a hit – even the venues that weren’t operating late at night. We’re still on the road to clawing back from that.