• Wine lists in a COVID-19 World

    Wine lists become an extension of the personality of the venue. (Photo: Pexels)

    Wine lists have always fascinated me. This makes sense considering my career, but it’s been longer and goes deeper than a job choice.

    There’s something about the work that goes into them, the planning and detail to make a good one that fascinates me. They become an extension of the personality of the venue, be it a short one-page number of eclectic drops or a multi-paged leather-bound tome housing the great wines of the world.I love technology and all the things it can do, but I must admit that when it comes to a wine list I struggle with the idea of having it on an iPad.

    I recall being in restaurants, well before I could drink wine, but noticing the ceremony of the wine list, its presentation and the interest with which it held the wine selector on the evening.

    This was generally well before we had sommeliers on the restaurant floor but there was still a sense of occasion when the wine was chosen. I have always loved a good read and this idea of a list that traversed both the world time stuck in my mind for years to come.

    I have hundreds of lists saved on my computer, quite a few physical copies that I have worked with over the years too. It’s great to stop and ponder them in their moment of time, a snapshot of the day.

    Every couple of months I save the current Fix Wine Bar + Restaurant wine list, so now I have 14 years of history to look back on. It shines a light on how far the Australian wine drinking public has come over the past decade and more.

    To pull together a great list there are so many factors to be addressed, but I do believe it takes time for a list to truly show its personality.

    A list of the great wines and vintages of the world is an exercise in budget, impressive yes but somewhat one dimensional. As time goes on there begins a thread of life and it moves into a living thing, morphing with the simple commercial vagaries of stock control, customer buying habits and the influence of those selling the wine on the floor.

    I love looking at a list and getting a feel for the venue, the people and food they provide. Not every list has to be huge, nor serious. If you get a chance to look at something like the list at Terroir|Tribeca (NYC) then you’ll see not just a list of wines but a piece of entertainment and joy.

    However, right now we have a dilemma, in these times of COVID-19 those great expressions of personality can’t just be handed around, to be shared amongst multiple tables. They have to be reduced down to a single-use sheet of paper or laminated to be repeatedly sanitised.

    Can we keep that personality in these formats? Do we look to technology to provide the connection between the list and the user? It’s a question that I’m still working on and the sommeliers I’ve spoken with are still coming to terms with.

    For me, I’ve decided this is the opportunity and frankly the better business decision to reduce the stock I hold and bring the wine list down in size.

    Before shutting down we were holding about 250 wines on the list, right now it’s about 50 bins. Over the next week though we will jump up to about 100. This only possible by finally being able to secure an A3 printer. Yes, the working from home directives has done wonders of printer sales and the like!

    I’m excited by this change, it has invigorated me in how I’m pulling the list together to keep it balanced but also fit it into one page.

    Our by the glass offer will also once again grow, heading back to at least 50% of the list, probably more because I’m obsessed with the Coravin system and how wines develop under it. I do have one card up my sleeve though when it comes to size, I can always print double-sided.

    With this new paradigm in mind, I reached out to Amanda Yallop, wine director for the Fink group to see how they were managing this challenge at Quay and other venues, where those encyclopaedic lists have purpose and add gravitas to such world-class dining experiences.

    Much like me, Amanda is very conscious of the business side of the list right now, large stock holdings are not the way to play it in the current climate, if there’s wine that’s been cellared then it can be liquidated, both literally and metaphorically.

    Wine service at Quay has always been a highlight in the country and they’ve transitioned to a single-use page with the by the glass offer along with cocktails, beers and so forth. This list remains with the table during the meal but also has a QR code which will take the diner to the entire list on their own device.

    This is a compromise I see playing out across the country and handles the tension between tradition and technology as best possible in the current circumstances. As a venue, they also have the ability to update the list in real-time to avoid those pesky out of stock moments we all dread.

    I love technology and all the things it can do, but I must admit that when it comes to a wine list I struggle with the idea of having it on an iPad or similar, the personality and sense of the venue I fear will be lost in an overload of information that an electronic list can deliver.

    Maybe I’m just getting old, and when the next generation gets involved and starts their own restaurants and bars I’ll be the grumpy old bloke telling everyone within earshot about how much better it was back in the good old days.

    First publish on The Real Review 28/7/2020

  • Opportunity for change in hospitality.

    Right now, restaurateurs across the country are looking out across their venues with that wonderful thing we call ‘bums on seats’.

    My last piece for The Real Review was a story of survival, the fight or flight reaction to a challenge that no one could truly be prepared for.

    Now Fix Wine Bar + Restaurant is open in Sydney. Still with restrictions, but able to have meaningful patronage so I’m calling this the other side. Where do we go from here? There is an opportunity here to make the resets required to fix the industry.

    Right now, restaurateurs across the country are looking out across their venues with that wonderful thing we call ‘bums on seats’. There’s truly no greater music to my ears than the sound of a humming venue with the clatter of cutlery on china, the clink of glassware and the popping of bottles.

    As an industry we’ve been through hell, but, for all that heartache and stress, the joy of having the doors back open again washes all that tension away.

    I have been astounded and humbled by the sea of familiar faces who have made their way back to Fix, along with a raft of new visitors. There is a palpable joy to the place, a feeling of community that has been accentuated by its absence for so long.

    Humans are social animals and I can see by the enthusiasm in which people are returning to Fix that socialising has been missed. I don’t doubt for a moment this same experience is happening at venues all around Australia. There are many places like mine, not flash or fancy but have a sense of place in the community that surrounds them. We’ve been at it for 14 years and I truly believe that longevity has been our saviour in this climate.

    It’s this newfound enthusiasm that I feel will help the industry bounce back as people realise the things they missed during lockdown. Everything from a quick coffee with a colleague to a fine bottle of wine shared with good friends will be magnified with the knowledge that it’s not always guaranteed.

    To keep that euphoria, we need to maintain a sense of hospitality and joy, this will be a challenge for some, but it is a cornerstone for the future of my industry.

    There’s nothing new in me saying the restaurant game was broken well before COVID. Wage scandals shone a light on historic practices that hadn’t moved with the times. Continual price increases of raw product for many years with an industry not comfortable to pass those increases on. There is an opportunity here to make the resets required to fix the industry.

    The best way to ensure that everyone gets paid for the hours they work is to ensure the selling price is correct. If we look at the simple takeaway latte, in Sydney it has been between AUD $3-$4 for as long as I can remember, no one is willing to raise the price even though all the inputs have gone up. Even the world’s most successful food and beverage chain, McDonald’s, sells their latte for AUD $4.60 or more.Considering the climate of Sydney, it seems crazy that we have yet to really find a way to have that vibrant evening buzz that so many other great cities do.

    Even without price rises though there is an opportunity for my industry to thrive and grow in this new world. We have seen a huge shift to remote work. The Sydney CBD would be at 20% capacity right now, most people still working from home partially or completely. I’m still unnerved by getting a peak hour train and having several seats to choose from.

    With this newfound flexibility, there’s an opportunity to improve the industry bottom line along with reducing pressure on public transport peaks and all that goes with it. With some encouragement perhaps a change in expectation of working hours away from just 9am-5pm. I’m sure many would enjoy starting earlier or later.

    This would give a place like Fix a chance to serve two lunches and two dinners instead of the 12.30pm and 6.30pm bottleneck. Not to mention the advantage it would be to the oft-touted night-time economy, particularly with those same changes applied to retail. Considering the climate of Sydney, it seems crazy that we have yet to really find a way to have that vibrant evening buzz that so many other great cities do.

    Whilst price adjustments and flexible hours are things I hope for and would be positive for the industry I don’t know if they’ll happen. But there is one area that really must change. The scourge of no shows.

    During the period when NSW venues could have a maximum of ten patrons, I lost count of the stories of no shows. Even an institution like Beppi’s had a group of six not arrive. In normal times this is unacceptable, but to have 60% of your guests just not show up is outrageous. To counter this, you will see many more venues ask for credit card details when you book.

    Please don’t be offended by this, we build our menu, do our ordering and rostering based on what we have booked. We have implemented it at Fix and since our return there’s not been a single no-show. Of course, we understand things can happen and we will be far more flexible than the airlines I guarantee!

    This is what it may look like. I’m certainly not one to set things in stone, if there’s nothing else we’ve learnt from the past few months is that things can change fundamentally with no way of controlling the effects. I don’t doubt there are interesting times ahead for all of us and whilst there are changes, difficulties and challenges still to come I do believe that the key to it all will still be the rekindled joy of dining out.

    I can’t wait to see you all out and about, sharing love, life and laughter with family and friends. I can assure you those looking after you are incredibly happy you are there too.

    First published 30/6/2020 on The Real Review

  • Surviving Lockdown, a restaurateur’s perspective.

    (Photo: Wallpaperflare)

    The pressure of my first piece for The Real Review is interesting. Two months ago, I’d suggest it would’ve been immense but these days I find myself unperturbed by pretty much anything except not knowing where I put my wine glass down. For now, I’m going to offer up my perspective for you, that of a wine-focused restaurateur.It’s a truly surreal feeling to watch a government press conference and hear that your entire industry is closed until further notice.

    A journal of a restaurateur through COVID-19

    We all saw it coming, not COVID, that was way ahead. We saw light: after a deep, cold winter with a tightening of purse strings every restaurant was looking to the festive season to be the salve to our balance sheets and P&Ls. But the light we saw wasn’t sunlight, it was fire. From Noosa to Adelaide the fires raged through October, November, December and January. By the time we looked up and finally saw blue sky there was another cloud on the horizon.

    So there I was. February had promise: as we watched the rain and sun had cleansed the city streets. I knew we’d had a rough 2019 and had spent a lot of time with the Fix Wine team discussing how 2020 would look and what we could do to shield the business from my belief of a slow autumn and winter. Hindsight being what it is, I wish I was back there now saying “sell everything and buy shares in Zoom!”

    I watched the COVID crisis unfold across the world. I admit I felt it was media driving the hype as they’ve often done, but in the back of my head I had a nagging thought throughout late February that whatever my opinion was it remains irrelevant, and this was going to affect us even more than my January predictions.

    We moved into early March and I began to quietly panic. Sleep eluded me most nights as I worked through all the scenarios of a serious trade downturn, all the while never really contemplating the enormity of a shutdown. There was a clear moment: my head chef asked me about what happens if we get shut down, and my instant response to him was “It’s over”. After the soft festive season and terrible January, we had no fallback. Life, as it does, presented me a choice – fight or flight.

    I’d like to say that was the moment I jumped, but I watched and waited until that eventful week starting 16th March, then it became real. Like everyone, I knew things were going to change but it was truly like getting in the ring with Mike Tyson: blow after blow kept coming, no idea what was next, then the knock-out punch came. We were shut down.

    It’s a truly surreal feeling to watch a government press conference and hear that your entire industry is closed until further notice. Not next week, nor even in a few days, but basically right now. Fridges were full, bookings held and staff rostered. We all turned up at Fix on Monday morning, punch-drunk and possibly hungover, reeling from the news and there I was, looking at them all, wondering how the hell I could get us through this.

    That day I had the toughest conversations with my employees I had ever experienced. People who’d been with me for years, with kids, mortgages and all the baggage – I needed to tell them that it was over and I’d have to stand them down. I had enough cash reserves to tell them we could do some takeaway and they’ll all get another week of work but “Run – don’t walk – to Centrelink and get on the Jobseeker queue”.With the guidelines, we had intense procedures needing to be implemented with regard to cleaning and hygiene along with ensuring we had contact tracing for all guests.

    I was, and still to this day am, amazed at the resilience, understanding and empathy my whole team showed. It’s bringing me to tears right now. They took the news with so much understanding, grace and respect that it made it impossible for me not to fight tooth and nail to find a way through the maze that lay ahead of me.

    Those of you that follow Fix on social media will know that in the last week I was relentless. I’d spent January and February consuming vast quantities of Gary Vee – someone who, way back in 2010, I’d met and entertained at Fix.

    Love him or loathe him, he’s an advocate for doing, not thinking, and March became the catalyst for me. Videos – terrible, but from the heart – became regular. Lots of posts, all about honesty and not about production quality. It seemed to engage with people, so after the shock of closure, we threw the window open for takeaway.

    In all honesty, it was based on what we still had in the fridge and a desire to bring in enough income to pay the team another week. I knew we didn’t have much in the tank, so the plan was to run it until the end of March, then close. We’d all go on unemployment benefits and see what happens.

    During that time, though, I had an ace up my sleeve. Several years ago I’d gone through the hell of applying for an online-based retail liquor licence. It mostly lay dormant, but with this sudden change in fortune, I was in a position to fire it up again in that first week and start selling mystery packs, because we already had the licence, packaging and website framework.

    Customers enjoying a glass of wine at Fix. (Photo: Fix Wine)

    Those initial sales made survival an option. With people not being able to dine out, they have been happy to support their locals instead of the normal big brands. Within weeks the laws had changed, all licensed venues could sell booze takeaway, so we all were able to find some revenue from our regular clientele.

    The announcement of JobKeeper was huge for us. Within hours I realised that 7/10 of the team were eligible, so we had a lifeline. We stayed closed for just over two weeks, I was able to pay most staff knowing that JobKeeper would reimburse it. During that period, I was still tasting for The Real Review, so I was able to use that extra income to bring in my non-eligible staff for a few hours to pour wines and clean glasses – a benefit to all of us.

    We remained closed for 16 days. I’d like to say we all took a moment to rest, but I was still at Fix every day, writing for The Real Review, packing boxes, doing relentless social media posts and working on multiple new business ideas. The team came together to discuss how it would work with JobKeeper, and we started a plan going forward after Easter. I stumbled into Easter with a dodgy back, exhausted and truly longing for lockdown. This may be partially due to homeschooling 9 and 11-year-old children.

    A four-day break and my birthday lit a fire again, and the plan to re-open began. Tuesday, we started prep and a social media blitz for takeaway rolls on the Friday. To be honest the expectations were incredibly low but we’d sold out by 1.15pm. At this point, I realised that with a combination of revenue streams, government assistance and an understanding landlord we might just find our way out of this mess.I can’t wait to see a full venue, with great food and wine, laughter and joy flowing throughout the space.

    Takeaway continues to this day and has been a lifeline to all my team. Online wine retail is still a bloodbath, margins are tight but value for consumers is at an all-time high. As a bar, all we can offer is something that provides excitement, so our mystery packs are still being well received. T-shirts, glasses, flasks and all manner of merchandise have hit our website.

    It’s all in the name of survival – but I’m still trying new things. We’ve previously run a monthly in-house wine school, and with a lift in restrictions on in-house gatherings, Wine school has become a pack which then links into a Zoom group on a specific evening.

    We were recently told that our sector can begin to open up again. The federal road-map said restaurants and cafés will be able to open for 10 customers at a time, based on state timelines. While on first indication NSW looked to be waiting for a period of time before implementing Stage 1, within two days of the federal announcement we got the news that NSW will run with Stage 1 in five days’ time.

    So, we scrambled, again! After almost two months we were opening again and we needed to re-engineer menus and table layouts, not to mention our entire point of sale and booking system.

    With the guidelines, we had intense procedures needing to be implemented with regard to cleaning and hygiene along with ensuring we had contact tracing for all guests. Every day some new information came to light: a late addition was the instruction we could only operate as a restaurant so people would not be able to just call in for a drink.

    Boxes were ticked and we managed to get the doors thrown open at midday Friday. Yes, there was unfinished painting of walls and small hiccups along the way but on the whole, it was a fantastic feeling to be open again and putting food on crockery, not just paper plates.

    The way the Fix team pulled a restaurant opening together in five days was amazing to see. We served 60 patrons over the afternoon and evening, mostly regulars who wanted to support us and some new faces excited to be out and about again. After all the chaos of the past, it was lovely to experience some sense of normality.

    As great as it is to be coming back, there’s still such a long way to go. At some stage we’ll jump to 20 patrons and then further capacity increases will happen, but the timeline is fluid, to say the least. The way restaurants work will fundamentally have to change to survive. While it will take some time for patrons to adapt to the new paradigm, in the long term this will ensure that restaurants can continue to fill the space in their community.

    I can’t wait to see a full venue, with great food and wine, laughter and joy flowing throughout the space.

    First published on The Real Review 19/5/2020

  • Young Gun of Wine – Top 50 Venues in Australia

    We love what this group is doing!

    After 12 years of leading people to exciting wines, the Young Guns of Wine are now also leading people to the best wine venues around Australia. Over the last few months, more than 100 winemakers, sommeliers and other industry leaders chose their favourite places to enjoy a glass of wine or two.

    The award is called the Wine Slinger of the Year, its idea is built around wine venues that exude approachability, energy and adventure.

    This group elected us – Fix Wine Bar – as one of those venues. And we are very happy to be listed in this group!

    Have a read of their thoughts and ideas on their website www.younggunofwine.com/wineslinger/

     

  • Coravin, my not-so-new favourite wine tool.

    The Coravin is one of the greatest game changers I’ve seen in my life of serving wine. And let me tell you, that’s a few years.

    In short, this nifty tool gives access to wines that can be poured by the glass and yet never opened!

    Think Grange, Barolo and Grand Cru Burgundy to start.

    I’ve played around with it for a while now and am confident that the wines remain perfect once ‘Coravined’.

    Thanks to the coravin, we’ve added about 20 premium wines to our by the glass list. Available as a “taste” or glass. And we can do it, because the wines stay super fresh under their own cork indefinitely.

    If you don’t believe me ask Jancis Robinson http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/coravin-the-pros-and-cons

  • Ten Years on…

    This is the menu from 10 years ago today when we swung open our doors on Elizabeth Street. Back then there was no wine bars, no casual bistros. Mostly just cafes or fine diners in the city.

    I knew what I wanted to do, but definitely didn’t know how! We have struggled, we have succeeded, we’ve changed things when it didn’t work and we sometimes changed things even when they were working.

    Along the way I’ve meet some amazing people, and had even more amazing staff. The place has earned accolades, and missed out on others. We built a bar, we changed the name, we can never make up our mind about what the menu looks like. WE HAVE HAD FUN!

    This game of hospitality isn’t going to change the world, cure cancer or solve poverty, but I’d like to think that the art of being hospitable can sometimes make a small difference.

    So there we are, our 10th birthday. We can look back and be proud of making it to this point, but the most important thing really, is what we do in our next service.

    Stuart

  • Why I’ve Changed Fix, Stuart Knox

    I’ve started writing a press release a dozen times at least. Yet every time I start I get lost in jargon, fluff and fancy. So instead, here’s a letter.

    The WHAT part is easy. We’re building of a bar counter and high tables in the lower section at FIX. The WHY has been elusive. Funny how we know what we want to do but sometimes it takes a bit longer to really work out why.

    So here I sit, late on a Friday (well, early on a Saturday really) with a cup of tea instead of a beer, typing instead of watching dubious TV.

    But I’m waffling, it’s simple once realized. After all these years of owning and making FIX what it is, I really want it to be a wine bar.

    Way back in 2006 there wasn’t an option to be a wine bar. I paid $15,000 for the privilege of a drink or dine license, so 30% of my capacity could choose to drink without intent of a meal. We struggled through with a solid lunch trade to the point of the small bar revolution which changed the way Sydney drinks forever. Like any change, it’s taken a while for it to become part of the Sydney psyche but it certainly has succeeded.

    Which brings us to now. Here I am approaching FIX’s 7th birthday (and that is similar in age to 49 dog years) with an itch to change. I’ve been restauratuering all this time with a heavy wine focus but I’m keen to have more flexibility to do what I want to do. Which is simply talk more shit about fermented grape juice.

    The nuts and bolts for our changes are;

    • A high bar counter along the bar, a pair of high rounds in the window and a low communal table in the lower section of the FIX space.
    • A more visual division of the upper and lower section of the FIX space.
    • Menu tweaks to provide more small/snack/share options in the ‘bar’ area. But of course I’m not one to say no to anyone so the full menu is always an option wherever you’re sitting.
    • Select menu items available throughout our opening times.
    • More winey moments with samples, winemakers, random tastings and frivolity based around the joys of fermented grape juice.
    • To complete the works we will be closed Saturday 5th October until Wednesday 9th October

    At this point I doubt there’s much more to say.

    Worth noting as a final (if irrelevant) point, most of this has been built by me. So rustic probably fails to adequately describe the expected workmanship.

    Look forward to seeing you at the bar, or something.

    Stu.