The owner of The Sailor Bar in Sydney’s Northbridge got the keys to the business on the day the city went into lockdown on March 23, 2020.
This week Kieran Fitsall (above) is finally welcomed customers through the door again after the city’s second major lockdown and he’s preparing to expand. Drinks Digest visited The Sailor this week to discuss his passion for hospitality and his tenacity in the face of adversity over the past 18 months.
Fitsall said he and his husband Rob – who runs his own marine insurance business – had been looking for premises for a while when the property in Northbridge came up. It was literally just around the corner from where they were living at the time, which they took as a sign it was meant to be.
“We obviously understood that there was some uncertainty looming, but knew we were committed, so we took the plunge regardless,” he said. “However, we certainly couldn’t have imagined that we’d start a hospitality business during a pandemic.”
Fortunately, the bar’s existing chef was keen to stay, so they brainstormed what type of takeaway food service they would offer.
“Coming from Brighton in the UK, where fish and chips is a staple, we decided to focus on our Britishness and we opened up the windows to The Sailor that first Friday selling our traditional beer battered fish and chips, and mushy peas of course! The batter recipe came courtesy of our local chippie from back in the UK and we even got chef to emulate a classic curry sauce to dip your chips into,” he said.
“The idea of doing takeaway cocktails was an obvious one too – who wouldn’t want to grab a cocktail on the go – and our infamous Quarantini was born – gin, honey, lemon and prosecco.”
The Quarantini has become a huge seller for the bar since it was created during the first lockdown.
“Over the last 18 months we’ve finessed the recipe using Suburban Gin from Imbue Distillery and their Elixir honey & gin liqueur,” Fitsall said. “Although it tasted great in a takeaway cup, you can’t beat the feeling you get from sipping from a Martini glass.”
Despite the uncertainties created by COVID-19, The Sailor has been embraced by the local community and thrived.
“My background is in local government, which meant I had a real understanding of how important it is to engage with the local community whenever you want to embark on a new project or bring them along with you to embrace change,” he said.
“I knew that they would be instrumental to our success and we are after all, a ‘local’, a meeting place within the community, a welcoming, fun and safe environment. The support from the local community has been amazing. They told us that they’d be crying out for a local for ages and are so thankful that they now have somewhere to go. We’ve also been told that we’ve brought some life into Northbridge and that we’ve been their ‘lifeline’ during lockdown – that may have been in part due to the takeaway cocktails!”
Focus on craft gin
Fitsall is a huge gin fan, so The Sailor Bar stocks 70-80 gins, mainly by Australian craft distillers, with a couple of his UK favourites. He said it’s exciting to be able to introduce customers to the huge variety of local gins available and tell the stories behind them.
“We have also partnered with the award-winning Unexpected Guest Distillery, which based just up the road and supply us with their gin as our house tipple,” he added.
Expanding during a pandemic
When the space next door to The Sailor Bar came up for rent last year, Fitsall grabbed it, then knocked down the wall between the two, doubled his floor space and added a stage, so the venue could extend its live event offering.
Then the second lockdown hit. Fitsall confessed it was much harder on the business than the first time around, due to new rules that came in half way through regarding the sale of takeaway alcohol for immediate consumption.
“While we don’t condone irresponsible drinking on the streets, our customers missed the opportunity to grab a cocktail on the go when they went out with each other on their daily walks,” he explained. “Relaxing the rules to allow on-premise venues to sell takeaway alcohol was a lifeline during lockdown 1.0, but it hit us hard the second time around when they change the rules at short notice. We did adapt, as we have done throughout, and thanks to a local, we were able to bottle our cocktails to take home.”
Fitsall is excited to finally welcome customers through the doors again. He said there’s been a real buzz in the air in the lead up to “Freedom Day”, with people stopping by the window last week to say how much they were looking forward to being able to go out for a drink and catch up with friends.
He said the joy of seeing people in The Sailor Bar laughing, chatting and enjoying themselves with friends and making new friends has made the struggles of the past 18 months worthwhile.
“My husband and I are sociable and outgoing people, so being able to do a job that allows us to do exactly that is just great,” he said.
“I also enjoy the creative side of it all, designing new menus with the chef, creating new cocktails and putting on events, and most of all seeing and listening to live music. Since we were able to live music at the venue after the first lockdown, it has been a regular Friday occurrence and we’ve been blessed with amazing talent on our little stage on Sydney’s North Shore. The entertainment sector has been hit hugely during this most recent lockdown, and while we’ve supported as best we can by sharing their livestream shows, having musicians and entertainers back live in the bar will be hugely satisfying.
“Moving forward, I’m looking forward to growing The Sailor brand, welcoming in new customers we met during lockdown and getting out an about myself too. We’ve still got a lot of gin distilleries around Australia to visit!”
Skills Connect helps The Sailor Bar expand
Fitsall is working with Skills Connect International to recruit a café manager to take charge of The Sailor Bar’s new breakfast and lunch service that it’s launching in the coming weeks.
Skills Connect International is a new hospitality staffing solution that recently launched in Australia, with a focus on helping venues adapt to the challenges of reopening after COVID-19 lockdowns. It offers career transition, training, and job placement across a variety of industry sectors within hospitality, from junior chefs through to board level executive placements.
“For me, getting the right people in board is crucial,” Fitsall said. “I’m not necessarily looking for experience hospitality individuals, I’m certainly not, but I do know what I like as a customer, and the service and experience I’m after when I visit a venue.”
CEO Roy McCullagh (above) is a regular customer of The Sailor Bar and asked Fitsall to join him as a guest for the virtual launch of the business last month.
“It was fantastic having Kieran participate in our Skills Connect International launch video,” McCullagh said. “We are delighted to be assisting The Sailor with securing great hospitality professionals. We have a strong focus on helping and supporting local businesses. The food and service they provide is world class and has really put Northbridge on the food lovers’ map“.”
Watch the video below: