Without wanting to sound like I’m over-romanticising, the opening of Cammeray Craft seems to be in many ways the happy ending to a hard-luck tale.
Of course, that’s coming from the point of view of a beer lover who’s been following the developments over the past few months. Speaking as a consumer it’s easy to be happy over a new niche to sit and enjoy some quality craft beer, but it’s important to remember it’s actually the beginning of a mountain of hard work and investment.
For twenty years William ‘Willie’ Wilson had been working at the Sydney Convention and Exhibition – more recently as the food and beverage manager – until two years ago it was announced that the Convention Centre would be closing down to make way for a future, bigger Convention Centre. Wilson and 800 other full- and part-time staff were to be made redundant.
Wilson, knowing well in advance that his job was going, had ample time to seek opportunities elsewhere, and being a self-confessed craft beer geek his focus lay squarely on opening his own beer-centric bar. His keen eye even had a venue lined up, which fortuitously was set to become available at the same time as the Convention Centre officially closed its doors. But, being part of the hard luck tale, fate intervened when Wilson was outbid at the last minute and he found himself without gainful employment and having to cast a wider net.
He looked into a few pizza places and small bars, somewhere that can introduce a craft beer factor into an established and familiar milieu, but the options were either unsuitable for his plans or would require too much investment to establish. While I interviewed him he repeatedly made the assertion that his being Scottish wouldn’t allow for that kind of budget.
So when a struggling business with a sophisticated beer system came onto the radar, Wilson was intrigued. In its previous existence as Bar Fredo, the venue on Miller Street in Cammeray had itself fallen on hard times, languishing in strained commercial straits and underutilising a substantial initial investment in bar infrastructure and renovation.
Wilson describes his first impressions.
“A broker phoned me up and said he’s got this place in Cammeray which is not really where I was looking, but it’s a decent sized restaurant and a decent sized bar, and what you’re going to like is that it’s got six beer taps and a coolroom downstairs for the beer system. And I thought, well, that kind of works for me.”
“I came in and had a look at the cellar, and it’s a great big coolroom, and a state-of-the-art beer cleaning system, so it’s really easy to clean beer lines in between kegs…I thought yep, that’s cost them a lot of money to put in.”
The location on the lower north shore is somewhat of an anomaly for craft beer venues in Sydney. The Sydney craft beer scene grew up in trendy inner-city and eastern suburbs and has crawled with increasing speed into the inner west and with a small outcrop around nearby Crows Nest, but Cammeray Craft remains a bit of a journey, being accessible mainly by bus or car. While part of the challenge of making the bar a success lies in convincing people to continue making the journey, it’s clear that the first priority is winning over the locals.
“There’s a whole bunch of challenges,” Wilson says.
“We’ve been very successful in getting the locals in, although we’ve pulled out all of their favourite local beers. The locals have come back and they’ve brought other people with them.”
“The other thing to remember is we’re not purely and simply a craft beer bar,” he adds.
“The wine list is essentially the same as the one I had at the Bayside lounge at the Convention Centre. We had a wine glass award from Gourmet Traveller magazine.”
“If you look at the people drinking here, probably 40% of the people are drinking the wine. It’s not just the beer, a lot of it’s the people, a lot of it’s having brightened up the place a bit.”
Wilson has recruited a staff including a handful of friends and acquaintances who were themselves in need of jobs, including his restaurant and functions manager Sean Grainger, who had worked with Wilson at the Convention Centre. Also on the roster is Sydney’s favourite diminutive beer geek Adrian Pua, who has embraced the chance to experience life on the other side of a craft beer bar.
“Sean’s one of those people who’s really good with small functions, is great with people… he was a bit of a no-brainer to bring on board, and then we have Adrian here as the additional beer guru,” Wilson says.
“It’s funny when you bring people who have no experience working behind the bar. If you have an 18-year-old you’ll spend half your life teaching them to clean up after themselves, whereas Adrian has good experience on the other side of the bar, and he actually cares, which means you hardly need to train him at all.”
Wilson also enlisted the help of the former Convention Centre’s executive chef, Uwe Habermehl, to create the food menu, including Cammeray Craft’s signature dish. The maple-glazed boneless rib burger tastes as good as you would expect.
I ask Wilson if putting the stand-out rib burger at the top of the menu was a deliberate choice.
“Menu engineering is one of those funny things,” he says.
“The boneless rib burger is one we should put towards the back of the menu because we know we’re going to sell a bucketload of them,” (the evening I interviewed Wilson saw a table of five patrons all order the burger) “but it just makes it very easy for us at the start to go ‘here’s our signature dish, try that’.”
Despite Wilson’s optimism, he gives no sign of resting on his laurels yet. The key challenge for him is in raising awareness that Cammeray Craft is a restaurant as well as a bar, and he has some plans for events to get people in.
“The place splits nicely into two for dinners. You can have 24 sitting one side or 33 the other side and still be running the restaurant as usual. The next couple of months we’re hoping to do an event with Two Metre Tall [brewery]. I’ll probably do a beer event like that first Thursday of every month, and we’ll do that ourselves whereas other people can do their own events as well.”
“We’ll also do a beer degustation menu, five different courses matched with five different beers, or we can do five different wines or five different other drinks. So I’m thinking that’s something that will get more people into the restaurant.”
“The biggest thing is to get people walking past on the street, to make sure they see that there’s a restaurant here.”
I started this piece calling Cammeray Craft a happy ending to a hard luck tale. While the story obviously continues as the work goes on to build the business, for lovers of good food, good wine and of course good beer, Cammeray Craft is certainly a good place to end up.