Jamie Fleming on closing Alba Bar & Deli after five years (and being named the best bar in Queensland)

“It was a tough call to make, but unfortunately it was the right call.”

Jamie Fleming on closing Alba Bar & Deli after five years (and being named the best bar in Queensland)
Jamie Fleming's Alba Bar & Deli was the Best Bar in Queensland presented by Never Never Distilling Co. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Well, the first Bartenders’ Weekender up in Brisbane has been and gone. Things are slowly — slowly — getting back to normal in the Boothby world. But I’m still getting over a huge three days up in Brisbane — three days that surpassed the expectations we had for Bartenders’ Weekender.

The big idea behind doing a three day bartending and drinks festival in Brisbane was to bring people from outside the city to town, and shine a spotlight on the vibrant bar scene up there and the good work they’re doing.

That’s what the Boothby Best Bars QLD awards were about, too — taking a look at the 30 best bars in the state, and recognising their achievements. We had over 100 of the state’s best bartenders and operators in the house to celebrate the countdown, and you could feel in the room that the awards meant something to the community.

That emotion overflowed when we got to the number one bar in Queensland: Alba Bar & Deli. The Brisbane bar brought people to Burnett Lane in the CBD, and showed them a good time, the best eats, great wine and cocktails. Mostly, it was the pairing of loud hip hop and big hearted hospitality that got people excited.

Usually, a week after the awards, I’d be writing about what makes the number one bar in Queensland so good that a 100-strong panel of their peers voted them as the best in the state. But this one is a little bit different.

That’s because just four days after being named number one, Alba Bar & Deli’s owner, Jamie Fleming, took to social media last Friday to announce that the bar’s last service would take place the following night.

It’s heart-wrenching stuff. Alba Bar & Deli celebrated its fifth birthday earlier in the year but it seems — as Jamie explains in the interview below, lightly edited and condensed for clarity — that they were never able to quite outrun the hit that the pandemic era had on the business.

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Below, Jamie talks about making the decision to close the bar, and why. He also talks about the outpouring of emotion and warmth for the bar and its crew on social media once the news of its closure started to spread. And he talks about the need for bars to have a clear, distinct vision — like the concept Alba provided — to have any chance of succeeding.

I’ve always loved Alba — it has been my first port of call on trips to Brisbane since it opened. It’s the kind of place many of us in the industry would want to own for ourselves: really delicious product, a laidback, casual atmosphere, served with big, meaningful hospitality. And I think that hospitality was summed up by Jamie below, relaying what the staff said in their second last briefing — right after they got the news they’d be closing the doors for good.

“The number one thing that was said in our little rally meeting... was, you know, we’ve got essentially two big services left — let’s make sure that these are the best two services that we’ve ever had,” Jamie says. “And all the people that are coming here to show us love and respect for the work that we’ve done, let’s make sure that they have the best time they’ve ever had because they deserve that. So do we.”

Read on for my chat with Jamie Fleming.

The Alba Bar & Deli team with their award for the Best Bar in Queensland presented By Never Never Distilling Co. Photo: Christopher Pearce
The Alba Bar & Deli team with their award for the Best Bar in Queensland presented By Never Never Distilling Co. Photo: Christopher Pearce.

Sam Bygrave: Well, first of all, how are you feeling?

Jamie Fleming: Pretty average. It’s pretty gut-wrenching. I think you probably as much as anyone knows how much went into that venue and how much of me went into the venue. It was tough call to make, but unfortunately it was the right call.

Can you describe what this last weekend at Alba was like? It was all over my social feeds.

We made the call, we put out the message at about 4.30pm on the Friday and within half an hour, there were people posting, having shots for Alba and it was not just Brisbane, it really was everywhere. At one stage you could almost see the time zones of bartenders looking at their feeds before they start work: it went on the East Coast immediately and then almost exactly half an hour later people from the Northern Territory popping in and South Australia, and then Perth came a little while later on. It was pretty wild.

I saw Old Love’s in Sydney had their crew behind the bar and had a shot for you.

Yeah, yeah, there was a few of those that got sent through.

It was pretty up and down, man. It’s like, you know, you see that sort of behaviour and it makes you have a think: like, far out — we did do something pretty cool and obviously something that meant something to more than just us.

You had a pretty big year there, right? It was the five years birthday, not that long ago. And then you won the best bar in Queensland last week. Can you describe that feeling? Did you know that you were going to close the bar before the awards?

It wasn’t a hundred percent, yeah.

But it was on the cards?

It was on the cards [but] nothing had been finalised. So I was going in [to the Boothby Best Bar awards], I think I told you, look, we’ll probably slide from last year, if we land about eight, I’d be happy with that. And then it hit eighth and seventh [on the countdown], I’m like, this is gonna be the most — like, you can’t — it’s a script. It’s a Greek tragedy. It was a really nice thing to happen. And obviously to have that come from our peers, which is lovely and people that we respect, to win that and then have it in the back of the mind, like, far out, this could be turning into something very different. It was a pretty big rollercoaster of a week.

I guess going out on top’s nice. And I think for a little bar, we managed to achieve a lot in a few years. And we’ll certainly go down as a memorable one, which is nice.

Why did you have to make that decision to shut the doors?

It’s unfortunate that it’s a pretty common story at the moment — margins are shortening, people are spending less. And [then] you put that in conjunction with some historical debt that we’re still carrying from the hangover of Covid. One, if anybody’s reading this and you are thinking about opening a bar, spend the money, get a good accountant from the start, because I didn’t. I learned that real quick.

Setting yourself up for success is reliant on having a really good start and then being able to grow and capitalise on it. We were finally hitting our strides after the first year — the first year is always tough in any business. And when you come out of the Christmas period and you’ve had a pretty good bump like we did and then come back through into January, a CBD bar starting to capitalise on the reputation that you’ve started to build and then all of a sudden, the reason that you’re paying obnoxious amounts of rent is completely taken away [due to Covid]. And the rent doesn’t go away.

There’s a lot of compounding things that didn’t allow us to really capitalise on on any momentum that we ever got.

Likewise, coming out of Covid, we worked our asses off to be able to do as much as we could. When the Brisbane City Council said that you could open for 10 people, I think we were one of the only venues that did it. We managed to, again, start the momentum, gain some notoriety, get a good team in.

And then we had a nice little run because we had a burst of people that goes well, we can’t go overseas, and Brisbane was okay and relatively open doors. So you had a lot of interstate or intercity clients that were coming in that had heard about this little bar, which is fantastic.

That then turned into borders are open a year and a half, two years later. And then all of those people that were coming in were all of a sudden going overseas again.

I think the biggest thing that would go down is never really being able to capitalise on momentum, and obviously you know our size and our offering absolutely comes into it. I wish I had 50 more seats to fill. I think that there’s probably a multitude of reasons.

Certainly the situation sucks. But we worked our asses off to make sure that we could could make it work. And unfortunately, it didn’t quite go our way. You have to be realistic.

I’ve had a few calls from a few people around the way, but I’m not the only one in this position. We aren’t the only ones that have been stretching and stretching and stretching as much as we can.

That’s a really unfortunate conversation to hear from people that you love and respect, like the concept of who’s next? Which one of our mates is gonna have to go down? Times are tough and we just had to make the call.

How did the staff take it?

Pretty horribly. And I think that that’s a testament to who they are. The number one thing that was said in our little rally meeting once it came out was, you know, we’ve got essentially two big services left — let’s make sure that these are the best two services that we’ve ever had. And all the people that are coming here to show us love and respect for the work that we’ve done, let’s make sure that they have the best time they’ve ever had because they deserve that. So do we. That’s a comment to the culture that we built and how much people respect the place from both internal and from people coming by.

Well you know that they really give a damn about the place, right?

Yeah, 100%. There’s every reason they could have just gone, well fuck this, I’m going home. And no one did that because it was important.

It meant something to them.

Yeah, it meant something. To come to the realisation that it did mean something to so many people has been really heartwarming.

You mentioned in your post when you announced it on your socials, this won’t be the last you hear of Alba. What did you mean by that?Would you want to bring it back at some point?

I think that’s up in the air. That comment was more about us in terms of a group. There’s a few of us, part of the alumni, that will absolutely take forward a lot of the learnings and hopefully some of the attitude. It’s always been pretty clear that my intention is to help guide and hopefully inspire someone to just fucking go for it because that’s how we grow into a community and a hospitality community that’s loved and respected and offer something different.

These great cultures and these great bar communities around the world, restaurant cities or whatever, it relies on people just going ham and really coming up with a concept and staying true to it. Pete Hollands said it great at the Bartenders’ Weekender, whatever you do, don’t deviate from your concept because nobody wants to be everything to everybody — you’ve got to stay true; this is what we do and this is how we do it. I truly believe that as well. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work, but fuck, I’d rather die trying, you know?

It’s important. You see the places that are getting recognised, around Australia, whether it’s Cantina OK!, or Maybe Sammy, they have such a tight concept. They do exactly what they do. And they do it bloody to the best of their ability. That’s why they get recognised. It’s all about concept and it has to mean something.

Last question for you — how was the Bartenders’ Weekender for you otherwise?

Bartenders’ Weekender was great. I think that the amount of people that did show up, it was a surprise because I went in on Sunday to have a coffee at the place down from Alba and I walk in and see the full team from Huelo [in Sydney] there. I’m like, shit, people are coming out. It was awesome. As much as the awards was great on the Monday, and all of our events were really, really fantastic, when [on the Tuesday] we had the event with Sean Baxter and Never Never, to look around the room and have a bunch of people that I have the utmost respect for, and people that I’ve looked up to in my career, you know, Sammy Ng and Nick Tesar and Jason Williams was there, and to have these guys there, there was something very sort of... it just felt like finally so many of these cats get to experience it and they’re coming to us and going, hey this place is amazing — I’m so glad I finally got here after all this time.

There was a lot that happened in a very short amount of time and it was amazing. It was amazing for the Brisbane community. It was amazing that so many people got to see what we’re doing and we got to showcase what’s happening in Brisbane because we don’t get to all the time. The Weekender, it was great. It was good for the community. And, you know, Alba won’t be there next year, but I will be.

More Alba Bar & Deli coverage

Five years in at Alba Bar & Deli with Jamie Fleming
How far can sherry, jamon, and hip hop take a bar?
Bartender, ambassador, Masterchef, bar owner: what Jamie Fleming learned
Yes, he was on Masterchef, but he’s also been a bartender, brand ambassador, and the owner of an award-winning bar.
Weekend read: our full-length interview with Jamie Fleming
Jamie Fleming talks Brisbane’s restrictions, his favourite bartenders, and more.