It seems like every other city in Australia has vibey bars, cafes or restaurants constantly popping up. Melbourne has shipping container bars in car parks, Adelaide has open-air beer gardens down alleyways, Canberra has fleets of food trucks in public squares. In Sydney, if you’re an independent operator, you’re lucky to get a footway licence for a few outdoor tables – or from a punter’s perspective, find a sunny table for a beer.

The Bear’s popularity has highlighted the nitty-gritty side of hospitality – the proverbial curtain has been lifted on what goes on behind the scenes. It’s true: scenes in the second season scarily mirror some of the venue-opening processes I’ve been through. But how much do we know about rolling one’s sleeves up and actually opening a buzzing local boozer?

I’ve opened a few venues in my time and it’s a slog. A beautiful, messy slog.

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Some of the speed bumps we’ve hit in the past have bordered on the unbelievable. My business partner Dynn Szmulewicz (Enmore Country Club, The Little Guy) recently reminded me of an incident when we were building our since-sold bar Golden Gully in Leichhardt.

“We were told the facade was heritage so we couldn’t touch it – we wanted to paint it a neutral colour like every other shopfront on the street,” Dynn recalls. “The maddening part was the previous tenant had painted the front bright turquoise, so we had to strip every tiny crevice and restore it to its original look.” So a joker paints it the worst colour imaginable and we have to fix it? Illogical.

On the other side of the bridge, in 2022, Cameron Votano opened Low Key, a bakery where native ingredients reign supreme. While he’s peddling focaccias and coffee, not booze, the delays felt the same: what he was told would be a straightforward turnkey renovation, turned into a costly and time-consuming three-month process, on top of the planned renovations.

“I don’t claim to know what would work. I just know that this current system is very time-consuming and goes through a lot of hands along the way,” Cameron tells me. “In this industry, time is money and three months can really complicate organising tradies, opening dates, marketing and hiring. All of which can start you very well behind the eight ball.” Cameron claimed that the source of the delays was a “cracked sink that they replaced with a similar piece of equipment that then required a lengthy Complying Development Certificate”.

The process left him frustrated. For me, chatting to people in the industry has reiterated that we’re all facing these fiddly delays. Completing a reno and preparing to open before a cracked sink holds you up – it’s incredibly frustrating. And is it necessary?

Opening a venue in Sydney isn’t impossible. Some operators I know have cleverly navigated the speed bumps. At Famelia on buzzing Enmore Road, Amelia Birch took on a space that already had a hotel licence, avoiding a lot of rigmarole. She learnt her lesson the hard way in February 2014, when the Sydney lockout laws were introduced and a venue she owned was impacted by the blanket bans on new liquor licences. Amelia reckons “it can feel a bit like you’re guilty until proven innocent”.

But Amelia isn’t immune to red tape. The same existing licence that allowed her to avoid lengthy development applications means she can only trade till 10pm – despite the Inner West Council dubbing Enmore as a “special entertainment precinct”, encouraging us all to get out at night. She’s currently working on securing permission for midnight trading.

Pasan Wijesena, of Jacoby’s and Earl’s Juke Joint, bought Enmore Road The Trocadero Room via a space with an existing licence and DA approval, avoiding a lot of the challenges of starting from scratch. “A new site will require a ton of work and reports,” he says. “A lot of it is double handled at various levels of government, state and local.” Pasan’s two cents? “There needs to be a one-stop shop for all approvals when trying to open a venue.”

To avoid the lengthy approval processes so many people in the industry had told him about, Doom Juice’s Zachary Godbolt went the pop-up route. He wanted to open a wine bar dedicated to his drops, but the often year-long wait time for approvals wasn’t workable.

“We ended up popping up out the back of Music & Booze and the process was painless,” Godbolt says. “It was a ripping three months, no development applications, CDCs etc.”

While I’m cheering when I hear my fellow bar owners’ success stories, these are the exceptions, not the rule. There just aren’t a lot of empty, licensed places waiting around for a keen operator.

When you’re trying to make it work in Sydney, you need more than just elbow grease and a budget. You need to throw your life into a venue and hope that inflexible council rules and the unforeseen delays they cause don’t kill that dream before any customers even walk through the door. But, from someone that continues to do it, don’t worry: it’s a blast. It’s why we all do it. Just cross your fingers and toes that you don’t have to replace any cracked sinks. And that the previous tenant didn’t like turquoise.