The owners of a new ‘self-service’ pub in Sydney have hit back at critics who suggest they automate pub staff from existence.
Buddy’s Bar, in trendy Newtown in the city’s inner west, describes itself as a “self-service shop” where thirsty customers can pour their own beer, wine and pre-mixed cocktails.
It’s proven a hit since opening in January, with crowds thronging the King Street venue – especially on Fridays and Saturdays when local DJs turn the bar into a dance floor.
The owners of Buddy’s Bar have come under attack on social media for allegedly not ‘paying for labour’ – they vigorously deny the allegation and had five staff working when Daily Mail Australia visited on Wednesday
Newtown’s confirmation page has been tagged in a series of now-deleted posts
But this week, the pub’s owners, Jimmy Rowe and Duncan McGeoch, were met with backlash after a popular social media page dismissed their business as “self-indulgent”.
Newtown Affirmations, an Instagram page with more than 15,000 followers that regularly shares memes and funny content about the neighborhood, claims that the owners “don’t like paying for labor.”
In a series of posts, the page stormed out to two Sydney-based entrepreneurs, demanding to know why they wanted to import “hateful American ideas” into Australia.
I think the whole idea of a pub not hiring bartenders is pretty silly, and given we’re all about the cost of living and skyrocketing rents, a business of cutting labor costs is not the kind of business I would write.
But now the owners of Buddy’s Bar have struck back, inviting their critics to come in for a drink and see for themselves what the place is all about.
Duncan McGeoch (left) and Jimmy Roe (right) said the concept of “self-service” was actually about freeing up staff to interact with patrons
“People are open to their opinions but I wish they had come to the place as we can only assume they weren’t here,” Mr Rowe told Daily Mail Australia.
“We have the bartenders—it’s not quite a bar without a bartender, as the headlines would lead you to believe.”
Maybe they saw the whole self-serve thing and thought “f*** this,” which you kind of got but you think they at least came in or asked a few questions about it first.
“Self-catering for us is really about freeing up our staff and giving them more opportunity to interact with customers, to make sure they feel welcome and are having a good time as opposed to saying ‘There is a wall of tap, sort yourself out.’ Not that at all.
When the Daily Mail visited Australia on Wednesday evening, there were three staff on the floor – showing patrons how to operate taps and clean cups – while two worked in the kitchen.
On Saturday, when the place was full, they had ten employees working.
Mr Rowe said they were initially shocked by the “unfair” criticism and so tried to stand up for them but found they were blocked by the Newtown confirmation page, which has now deleted the posts.
Mr. McGeoch shows a new member of the ropes task force
“It was very brutal,” he said. “We had a few local businesses down the road that we knew about. They said, ‘Did you guys see this? We know you have employees and you pay them so we don’t know where this is coming from.”
Some of them reached out on our behalf and said “Hey, I follow your page and I used to love it, but this whole mentality of attacking local businesses isn’t working, we don’t appreciate it, we don’t get along with it – these guys are just a couple of fighters trying to give a chance and support local artists and musicians at the same time.”
“They’ve really stuck with this idea that we’re this money-hungry bar, automating services and employing no employees, which is not the case at all.”
“If you go against the growth trend, you will probably get some fragments,” he added.
Mr. Rowe previously worked in the beer industry, while co-owner Duncan McGeoch worked in the US for a company called PourMyBeer that specializes in the kind of self-service technology used at Buddy’s Bar.
PourMyBeer actively advertises the fact that its services can “reduce the number of employees by 20 percent.”
Although Buddy’s owners said they eventually wanted to open more places, they insisted there were no plans to ever run a fully automated bar and said they didn’t think technology would replace bartenders.
“We love hospitality and we love hiring staff,” Mr. Rowe said.
“The sound of the completely empty self-service bar as you pour your drinks is awful.”
Crowds throng the King Street venue – especially on Fridays and Saturdays when local DJs turn the pub into a dance floor
Daily Mail Australia visited several local pubs to see what they made of the new venue. Next door is Holey Moley’s, a national chain of mini-golf pubs.
‘It (Buddy’s) is such a small establishment that I don’t think it influences the industry much,’ said Diego Aponte, who worked there for about a year. But maybe if this practice moved to a bigger place I would be concerned.
“However, since we opened, we’ve seen fewer people on Friday and Saturday because I think because we’re so close,” he said.
Meanwhile, a bartender at Earl’s Juke Joint, a saloon-style cocktail bar a few doors down, said he sympathized with the need to save costs.
“I can understand why they would want to keep labor costs down because it’s an expensive part of running a pub,” he said. Even here, we’ve struggled to keep labor costs down when it’s quieter.
But I don’t really understand what the appeal is apart from the trick of pouring your own drink. It doesn’t seem to contain much other stuff. It’s like a shell with a wall of taps and that’s it. Although they do have some DJ’s which is cool sometimes.
“In the end, I can’t get mad at him because he’s his thing—nothing will replace a cocktail properly made by an experienced bartender.”
No one on the street seemed particularly angry about it.
Ben, a 40-year-old engineer who lives in nearby Erskineville, expressed his surprise that people were so upset about it.
“I think there are enough jobs in hospitality here,” he said. “There are many places that are actively looking for employees right now.”
“There are so many other, more important, things to be upset about.”
What it’s really like in a self serve bar
I walked into Buddy’s Bar in Sydney’s trendy Newtown on Wednesday night with something bordering on horror.
The idea of a ‘self-service’ bar immediately conjured up a vision of an old drinking hall filled with horribly poured pints and completely devoid of any atmosphere.
But there was nothing soulless about the scene that greeted me when I arrived. There was a mixed crowd of about 40-50 people, running the gamut from spunky office workers to tattooed hipsters. Many sat on the street chatting with friends and enjoying the late evening sun.
We were greeted at the bar counter at the entrance by co-owner Duncan McGeoch who explained how it works. You charge the card with whatever amount you want to spend before you are shown how to use it on the faucet wall. So far, very simple.
Pouring the perfect pint – or schooner – is trickier than it looks
Basically, you just place your card in a slot behind the taps beforehand and wait for your name to appear on the screen before you are free to discard it.
Three staff members – identified by towels draped over their shoulders – were on hand to help.
“Towels are an identification thing, so people know who the employee is, but they also gossip a little bit about myself pretending I’m doing something,” laughs co-owner Jimmy Rowe who’s been chatting with patrons all night.
I played it safe at first and inexperienced pulled two schooners out of Paddy’s beer. At least now the only person you can blame for a bad drink is yourself.
Everything is very easy to use. But behind the tap wall is an intricate series of valves and tubes worth the milliliters poured to the dollars spent.
“When you click on your card a solenoid or flow valve opens,” Jamie says.
“If there’s no music, you’ll be able to hear the click when you open it and the wine flows.”
“As the liquid passes through, there is like a little hamster wheel that measures the volume of liquid coming in and then calculates the price.”
The beer goes down well and the place fills up.
Now, there’s nothing more infuriating than standing at a bar while desperately trying to get the attention of the bartenders as they serve everyone in front of you, so it’s refreshing to have the option of a quick full refill on your hands.
But it’s not just a free-for-all service. After three drinks your card won’t work until you check in with a member of staff who will assess how dissatisfied you are.
“It just gives us a chance to make sure there isn’t someone going unnoticed sitting in the back corner punching ten sails,” Mr. Rowe explains.
They also have guards at the door on Fridays and Saturdays, to make sure they comply with RSA laws.
I decided to push the boat out with Philter Hazy Lager.
As I pour, I can see the money on my card draining—a sobering idea that reminds me of filling up my car at a gas station but in reverse. It makes me think of a front yard handyman—a job that was popular before it became normal for people to fill their own cupboards. Suddenly I felt a twinge of guilt. Does drinking here make bartenders out of work?
‘I would never like to see him replace the bar staff because that interaction between the bartenders and the arriving guests is such a lovely thing,’ says Mr. Rowe.
“People go out for that experience.”
I’m flattered, but more alarm bells ring when Jimmy says they’re toying with the idea of serving Guinness—a drink that commands the respect of an expert bartender.
“This is something we’d probably leave to the professionals,” he finally admitted.
“And I think Guinness might be happy about that, too.”
I will drink to that.