"The number of customers who return online is mad — it’s outstanding."
Old Mate’s Place in Sydney is one of those bars you don’t see very often: the room is beautiful, books line the wall, yet the service is friendly and familiar; the drinks are always of top flight quality, but won’t be served with a side of pomposity you sometimes find elsewhere.
Oh, and they’ve got a freaking rooftop bar, too.
“Australia-wide, I think there’s something pretty special walking in and sitting down at Old Mate’s Place and getting thrown a VB,” Brisbane bar owner and fan of Old Mate’s Place, Jamie Fleming, has told us before.
And despite Sydney being in lockdown, Old Mate’s Place is still trying to give its guests that special experience.
Owners Gabrielle and Andres Walters and Daniel Noble have moved to a delivery model, and it’s one which they hope to continue building once lockdowns are a thing of the past.
“This time around, we’re doing [canned cocktails] as if it is its own entity — we’re treating this company with a huge amount of respect,” says Noble.
Order your cocktails for home and you’ll find Andres doing the deliveries, a pack of clear blocks of Bare Bones Ice Company ice in one hand and a bag of cocktails in the other, which also holds Old Mate’s napkins, menu, cocktail garnish packs, and a thank you note.
It’s a nice touch, a little like being at the bar.
Below, lightly edited and condensed for clarity, Noble and Andres Walters talk to us about how things are playing out, why they’re delivering a larger range of cocktails than most, and how they’re bringing their banter to their guests at home.
How are things going for you guys? You ‘pivoted’ to doing delivery — how’s it all working out?
Andres Walters: How shit is that word pivot?
Daniel Noble: I know. It had to be in air quotes as well [laughs].
AW: I prefer it as just doing what you have to do to pay rent.
DN: It’s good. It is what it is at the moment but we’re trying to make the best of it, we’re trying to treat it as its own independent company that we’re really proud of.
You would have seen us up our packaging game, Gabs and Dre have done a lot of that, and we’ve got some really exciting stuff that we’ll be launching quite soon.
AW: We were super lucky. Last time, we had a look at it and said look, this may not be the only time this happens, and we were kind of late to the game last time. There were other people out there, especially the likes of PS40 and Jacoby’s that really went for it and they killed it.
We decided to buy a label maker and a canning machine, just because it was something, if we were going to get this grant from the government we wanted to put it to use, it was all well and good to have it help to pay the rent but if this happens again, we’ll need to have a plan B to activate. If it goes pear-shaped we’ve got to have a plan.
And the plan was: we have the label maker, we have Gabs who has got the ability to make whatever the hell we come up with, so it was really lucky that we had everything sitting downstairs. Having a label maker at your hands is quite handy.
Did you think this latest lockdown would be coming? Were you preparing for it?
DW: To be honest, I reckon I was a bit naive thinking that nah, we’re good. But once it got serious — I don’t know why I was paying attention, probably because of the cricket, I was paying attention to India a bit more than I was used to and the delta strain there affected them heaps — which kind of gave us the jump on it to say hey, we’ve really got to pull our socks up here.
I didn’t think we were really going to go back into a lockdown to be honest.
DN: Once we saw the spread of delta and saw how aggressive it was, that was a real sobering moment for us. That’s where the next gear kicked in. We knew what we had could work, it’s worked before, but we never really gave it everything that we could. Again, naïveté is probably the best word for it, and dumb faith that we could rely on our fellow man not to fuck up again. So session learnt.
This time around, we’re doing [canned cocktails] as if it is its own entity — we’re treating this company with a huge amount of respect. We want it to become well established so that it can continue to roll forward. Even if there is no more apocalypse, this is something we’re really proud of and it’s a project we’re going to keep moving forward with in the future.
With your canned cocktails, you seem to be doing a lot of classic cocktails in addition to your house signature drinks — you have a large munger of different SKUs.
AW: Well we’ve got fucking nothing else to do hey? We may as well do something.
DN: We do everything fresh — you order it and it gets made. There’s a four hour window from when the drink is made to when we’re going to get that drink to you.
AW: It works for us, we decided to be on Deliveroo [and Uber Eats] anyway and the food ticks along for us, it pays someone’s wage — it’s not really going to pay rent, but it’s worth doing. So we might as well be here. And while we’re here, it’s a minimal, minimal skeleton crew, so while that one person is here they‘re doing garnishes, little odd jobs; you're here for hours on end so you might as well be doing something.
To be perfectly honest, the number of people who order a Charlie Chaplin, a Nuclear Daiquiri, an Old Fashioned and a Negroni — you’re like, oh my god you’re having a great night.
DN: We’re blown away, honestly — we thought it was just going to be all our house drinks but the skew now is becoming about two to one house cocktails to classics, which is far more than we thought it would be. People are appreciating that option.
It was a gamble — like, do you want to go Chinese menu where you’ve got like a million things on the menu when you walk into a place? Honestly, people are appreciating it. People are appreciating the choice and that we put the time into making something quite intricate for them.
How old is Old Mate’s now?
DN: Three years old in two weeks. We’re going to do a little something-something for everybody so get excited.
So three years old, two lockdowns in, what do you know now that you would have liked to have known when you opened the bar?
DN: The stock market.
AW: Housing prices, maybe more investment on vaccines, a couple shares in Pfizer. There’s a lot.
DN: When it comes down to situations of duress, we handle it well at Old Mate’s. If shit goes wrong, we’re one of the first guys to pop our heads up and try to find our way to work through a situation of duress. Both times we’ve found a way to do that quite well.
What can you do? We’re not going to sit there in mud all day and slowly die. What can we do moving forward?
AW: You’ve got have a go, right?
DN: Then out of mud, we’ve got something beautiful which could be this secondary little tributary company that we’re working on at the moment. Out of everything there’s always an opportunity.
You’ve got a pretty loyal clientele, that’s probably helped to build this?
AW: Yeah. Even with the orders we get through, the number of customers who return online is mad — it’s outstanding. Some of the people who order, I don’t want to name names, but some legends order twice or three times a week.
DN: You can deadset set your clock to a few of our customers. It’s like three o’clock on a Thursday, so and so’s about to order, then bing!
That’s great — it’s like having regular customers.
AW: We’ve always had quite a few regulars, which is really handy — especially for the city. You never really consider the city as being a regular or neighbourhood vibe. But you do get those people who you know on a personal basis.
Even when I do deliveries. I feel bad, because you’ve got all these deliveries in the car, and I’ve got a timeframe to get through this stuff because if you delivering cocktails at 8:30pm, 9pm at night that person is probably super disappointed. So you’re sitting there wanting to have a chat with one of your regulars — I feel really bad when I have to go: ‘I’m so sorry, I know you haven’t seen anyone in like ever,’ and they’re chatting your ear off, ‘I’ve got to go, I’ve got another couple dozen customers who probably need some drinks.’
DN: You know what’s interesting, and we’ve never been people who love to get on the Instagram chats, but slowly and surely there’s a bit of banter going now with customers. Customers will send us stuff and we’ll share their stories, a back and forth will happen, and so even in this shitty lockdown we’re still jiving people. There’s still just that little iota of Old Mate’s jive coming through on the back end.
It’s good for us, we have a laugh about it all the time, it’s good for them.
AW: Someone was building a fort — she was mad, she had this whole conversation with us about it. We were loving it.
DN: It’s all about evolving with the times man, if we can find a way to jive people at home so be it. Get them some drinks, get them some happiness.
We’ve always talked about here, making people comfortable and consistency — that’s always been our bag with Old Mate’s. We’re trying to do that for people at home now. The drinks you used to get at the bar, exactly the way you used to get it, to your door. The delivery times are consistent. For us, it’s about trying to give people that sense of consistency and stability during this process.