As this crazy year barrels headstrong towards its inevitable conclusion, it can be easy to forget to pause and celebrate the wins (however few they may have been to this point). Case in point: Popular Perth CBD cocktail spot Bar Lafayette turned eight years old last month, and didn’t even remember to stop and celebrate!
It’s fair enough too with everything that’s been going on, but owner Brendon Sim isn’t too worried: “Maybe we’ll throw a big 10th birthday party,” he jokes when we chat to him in the belly of his Brookfield Place haunt.
Jokes aside, running a successful small bar in Perth for eight years would already be something worth celebrating, before you add the COVID-19 calamities of 2020 on top. And with that in mind we decided to get a whisky with Sim recently, looking back on eight years running Bar Lafayette, along with its cross-path neighbour, W Churchill, for the past couple.
The affable young family man takes a quick breath in this crazy year to give us a little bit of Lafayette’s history, the keys to its success, and what he has planned for a post-COVID Perth.
“My background is skateboarding, I used to run Momentum Skate and Highs & Lows in Claremont. I had never worked hospitality before and got a call from a good friend of mine Simon Chandler, he used to work in fashion and retail too. He moved into commercial leasing and gave me a call one day and said, ‘Hey mate do you want to open a bar?’ And I was like, ‘Hell no! Definitely not’.”
Obviously Sim’s tune changed once got “the spiel” form Chandler, and would go into the venture with friend Stephen Vetten (graphic design/marketing), Richard Healy and Andrea Cardellini from Rockpool.
“Looking at the space Richard was like, ‘Perth needs a classic cocktail bar.’ So at the time we were part of the small bar revolution. Eight years ago, it was pretty hectic times. Scary, a lot of us had never ventured into something this big before. Our mindset was pretty much, we’re gonna give it a crack until we hit a wall. That way there’s no regrets. But every wall we hit, smashed, climbed under, went around, whatever, and before you know it we were open.”
Over the years the business partners ended up going onto new ventures, leaving Sim as the sole owner of both Bar Lafayette and W Churchill, working hard to maintain that initial ethos: “We wanted to create a true cocktail bar, somewhere a bit more high end, more premium and true to the arts. Classic cocktails is what we’re about, then doing twists on that. I come from a service background so wanted to make sure that was on point. We still have our mission statement from day 1 that rings true today, so that was a big thing for us.”
For Sim, educating people on what it means to go to a proper small bar was an interesting challenge at first, but one it’s become beloved for over the years. “People weren’t used to full table service we did, taking tabs, peoples’ credit cards, that kind of thing. When you come in bartenders say hello, goodbye, thank you. Basic manners – what hospitality is supposed to be.”
Sim cites his landlords at Brookfield as being a key aspect to both venues on-going success. “My landlords – Brookfield – amazing! Without them I wouldn’t be where I am today. The initial reaction to landlords are they’re the big bad landlord. That’s not the case with Brookfield. They’ve been massive supporters of myself and of Lafayatte and Churchill. Keeping that ethos of high-quality product, premium service. They’ve been so important.”
Equally, if not more important, has been building the right team for the job, and being hands on with everyone. “Having the right team was crazy important for both places. Our GM Ben Merchant and PR extraordinaire Georgina Keegan have been immense, along with having the right chefs, the right waitstaff, the right bartenders… Everything has to work. Without them we would have never got to where we are.”
“I spend a lot of time being here with the guys in the trenches. Part of my roll is keeping the peace, keeping everybody motivated, meeting all the customers, shaking hands, kissing babies.” [laughs]
For Sim the most important aspect of his work, the thing he loves the most, is the people. “The hardworking staff that have become friends. The guests – I don’t say we have customers we have guests. The suppliers that turn into friends as well. Hospitality is a passion job and passion industry, we’re not here to make millions. Everyone loves what they do, and it will show in the product and service. Working with amazing suppliers and produce – high quality booze, it’s super fun.”
After recently hosting the exclusive launch event for Sydney-based Archie Rose Distillery’s six-years-in-the-making Single Malt thanks to COVID, Sim sees a lot of exciting potential for his home state in a post-COVID landscape, after some serious low points in the initial weeks the pandemic took hold.
“Obviously COVID was tough for us, it was the first time we shut, for three months. It was a huge shock to the system for me. First time I’ve been unemployed since 2004, through no fault of our own obviously. I remember the first Friday coming here watering the plants and sobbing, with no end in sight. I was depressed for the first time in my life. The McGowan government did a great job getting us back open, Jobkeeper has obviously been a huge help for us too.”
He continues :”But looking forward we need to be innovative. For the first time in Australia’s history, WA is at the forefront. Normally we chase the tails of the east coast, but now we’re open, and it’s time for us to do some cool stuff! Change the game a little bit. Make them go, ‘Hey what’s WA doing?’ With all of our processes, changing menu systems, QR, contact systems. Obviously working with the brands to make high end cocktail videos, just changing things up, working with different products, and just not to be shit.” [Laughs]
In fact as far as Sim is concerned, with travel cancelled and money being trapped in the state, now’s the time to be thinking big. “I think people have the budgets now and we want to play in that top end. The luxury market here is going nuts, people can’t travel. Gucci and Louis Vuitton have lines out the door. What recession right? Luxury goods is what people are investing in right now, so we want to play in that market. Still cater for everybody, but continue having high end options for people.”
At the end of the day however, all Sim is really interested in is continuing to create good times that last. “The big thing is that I just want to keep creating great memories. The relationships that have been built here, first dates that have ended up being marriages here… Things that last forever. Creating memories and good times.”