I spent Saturday night sitting at a bar, The SG in Sydney CBD, knowing it could well be the last time for while. There’d been chatter in the industry that a lockdown was coming; rumours aren’t what media should trade in, but the talk was coming from respected operators. In fact, many of them were asking for it. Jason Newton, the owner-operator of The SG, was one of them.

On Sunday, the government delivered, announcing a comprehensive shutdown of non-essential services. The decree includes restaurants, bars and cafes — from midday on Monday 23 March these businesses can only offer takeaway and delivery.

Given Australians have been told to assume these measures will be in place for at least six months, it’s likely Saturday night was Newton’s last service. The SG was due to wind up in less than a month anyway, with the building’s landlords calling time on their lease at the end of April. “I don’t envision opening again,” Newton told me over the phone after the announcement. “Unless I can convince the landlord to give us some extra time, but I highly doubt that.”

How does it feel? “We knew it was coming… [so] we’ve had a bit of time to sort of come to terms with it,” he says. “I’m happy for it just to be called and I hope that we get some money.”

An $89 billion stimulus package was passed by the Federal Parliament late on Monday night, 23 March. As yet, Newton’s unsure he’ll benefit from the government’s efforts to boost cash flow for small and medium sized businesses. Despite that, The SG is one of the lucky ones, he says.

The bar is just shy of eight years old and has been able to ride out a couple of downturns because of its size. “I don’t have partners or investors,” says Newton. “I imagine it can be a lot worse for people with investors and lots of partners, if they are all relying on the same business for money.”

Being a small neighbourhood bar — albeit in the middle of the country’s most populous city — also comes with other benefits. “I don’t sit on a whole bunch of stock,” says Newton. “I’m not one of those bars that have 1000 bottles behind the bar. I order every two weeks, so if I can find five to eight grand, I’ll be able to get myself out of debt.”

Although the business was due to wind up anyway and the staff — there’s just four including Newton and his partner — were prepared to loose their income shortly, the next month was meant to be crucial last hoorah. “The five weeks are supposed to be crunching out a bunch of money, we won’t get,” he explains. “We pay rent in advance so I’ve paid April already, so every week the money that I’d normally put aside for rent I’d be putting the bank.”

Newton is remaining positive. “There are people who are much worse off,” he says. “There are people who’ve just opened bars with a whole bunch of debt. I’m more comfortable, we’ve been debt free for a while.”

While Newton is uncertain what the future holds, he’s not worried about landing on his feet in the long run. For now, it’s a matter of accepting there won’t be time to properly farewell his first venue and the regulars who made it all worthwhile.

Small bars are an essential part of our society

What a struck a chord on Saturday night, was how comfortable it felt to take a seat at the bar alone. When I said as much, Newton shared a handful of stories about customers who’d become regulars and then friends. A Polish man on an extended work trip for example. “He was he for work for a few months and he was terribly homesick,” Newton recounts. “He liked beer so he came in and tried some IPAs. Then he’d come back and he’d sit on his own. We like to talk to people — you can always tell who wants to be left alone and who we could talk to — so we encouraged him to come up to the bar. He was a bit reluctant at first. One day, he just decided he wanted to sit at the bar, and he started talking. And so he’d come in two or three times a week, just to have a couple of beers and a bit of a chat.”

Those moments in The SG helped get him through his time in Australia and Newton has stayed in touch: “We became friends on Facebook. And he’s sent people that have come over from Poland in to give bottles of booze to us.”

Then there’s Steve, a post office worker who used the bar as a safe haven before starting his shift at 3.30am. “There was no public transport, so he’d come in to the bar of a night time and have two or three beers, then catch a train to the post office and sleep at work,” says Newton. “He came in three days a week for two or three years. When we weren’t open he didn’t know what to do with himself. Everyone who came into the bar at that time of night knew who he was. He spoke to everyone. You’d spend hours talking to him. If he wasn’t there we’d get worried. I ended up with his phone number.

“We took him to the Gabs Beer festival because he liked beer and he hung out with all of us. I have a nice picture of him and I together at Gabs. So that’s really, really nice.”

It’s imperative Australians take social distancing seriously, even if that means shutting venues down for now. It’s also imperative we make an effort to help operators get back on their feet when the time comes.


Lead image credit: Christopher Pearce for the SMH

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