Perring: How I Plan To Save The Tote

In the wake of the announcement that Melbourne’s famed Tote Hotel would reopen next month, DARREN LEVIN* talks to new licensee Jon Perring about the challenges faced in returning the pub to its former glory. Photos by *MAT GOVONI.

Since the difficult decision to call time on The Tote was [announced](/news/3845158) by former proprietors Bruce and James Milne back in January, Jon Perring and his business partners Sam Crupi and Andrew Portokallis (collectively trading as ?Seventh Tipple?) have always been in the frame to take it over. After months of touch-and-go negotiations with the hotel’s landlord, Christopher Morris of Colonial Leisure Group, the trio [announced](/news/3920017) they had secured The Tote’s lease at a press conference attended by Premier John Brumby on Sunday (April 11).

As the owners of three viable pubs – the notorious Pony in the CBD, Bar Open in Fitzroy and relative newcomer Yah Yahs in Collingwood – Perring and his cohorts are certainly well placed to turn around the pub’s misfortunes. But that’s not to say they don’t have their work cut out for them first. While never easy on the eye, the venue today is a shell of its former self. The place has been gutted of all fixtures and fittings by the Milnes in an effort to recoup the thousands of dollars lost in legal fees and fallout costs – even its famed sticky carpet has been removed for an auction of Tote paraphernalia later this year. ?[It’s] like an old bomb shelter in Sarajevo,? said Perring of the venue’s upstairs Cobra Bar, which once resembled an exotic tiki lounge.

There’s also the not-so minor matter of the ?high risk? conditions still attached to The Tote’s licence including potentially crippling crowd control costs. Perring will apply for the removal of those conditions as consistent with the Live Music Accord, which he helped [broker](/news/3881352) on the eve of the Save Live Australia’s Music (SLAM) rally in February. But given Liquor Licensing’s inaction on other applications, including one from The Lomond Hotel in Brunswick East, Perring isn’t counting his chickens just yet.

What was the feeling like for you yesterday?
Oh, I dunno. I’ve done this a few times, so it was a mixture of absolute white-knuckle fear and a feeling of good things about to happen as well.

Have these talks been ongoing since The Tote closed back in January?
Yeah, that’s right. We’d even been talking to James and Bruce [Milne] before that. So when we knew that they definitely made the decision [to close], we approached Colonial Leisure Group. But you know, when The Punters Club closed we spoke to the owners and didn’t do anything, and when The Rob Roy [now The Workers Club] closed we spoke to them. So it’s not unusual for us to talk to venues when they become vacant. But in this particular case it actually went somewhere.

How important were people like Chris Morris and his Colonial Leisure Group in facilitating the re-opening?
They’ve been really good. They bought it with a bunch of other hotels when [former freehold owners] Cornerstone went broke, so they bought everything together. They never really wanted to keep The Tote. It didn’t fit in to what they were doing – they don’t run bands. They could’ve flogged it off to a developer and I’m sure it would’ve been a lot easier than dealing with us, but they didn’t. Good on ?em for being good custodians.

Do you think Chris was aware of how significant it was to Melbourne’s music scene?
I do. Although they’re not live music people, they definitely saw the importance of it, without a doubt.

Were there other parties vying for the lease?
I don’t know, but I’m assuming there were.

Why the six-week timeframe? Does that have to do with the works that need to be undertaken?
No, it’s all to do with Liquor Licensing paperwork.

Has the application to have the ?high risk? conditions removed been sent through yet?
No, not yet. We can’t until the transfer comes through. But as soon as the transfer is through, we will be applying for the rollback under the [accord](/news/3899491).

Any idea when the transfer is likely to come through?
No, that’s what the issue is. That’s what will determine the opening date. But it’s roughly going to be six weeks, maybe it’ll be five or seven.

Is the opening contingent on whether those high risk conditions are removed?
No. We’ll open anyway.

Has there been any murmurs out of the government or from [Director of Liquor Licensing] Sue Maclellan as to whether its likely to go through?
No, not really, but I wouldn’t expect that. That’s just the way it works. They’ll take it on the merits of the application, but I see no impediment, there’s nothing obvious to me. But because it takes a bit of time to get these conditions removed, we’re not going to be operating at full pace while those conditions are there.

So the trading hours will be reduced?
Not hours so much, but days.

So it’s Wednesday to Sunday?
I know I said Wednesday to Sunday [yesterday](/articles/3920255), but it’s actually Thursday to Sunday. But obviously the intention is to run as many gigs as possible.

Does The Tote have to apply under a standard licence variation process to have the high risk categories removed?
No, there’s a special application process that was created under the accord.

So The Tote qualifies for that? I thought there were past compliance issues?
We [Seventh Tipple] don’t have those issues.

?[Brumby] had nothing to do with us signing the agreement with Colonial Leisure. Nothing to do with it. It’s purely between the two parties, and I’ve got no problem with that being said as loudly and clearly as it needs to be said.?

What’s the state of the venue at the moment?
There’s a lot of repair work needed, obviously a new carpet. There’s a lot of rot around the place – the bar’s in terrible condition. We’ve got to fix all those issues up. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure of the extent of it yet. I’m going down there again today – There’s a lot of stuff that must happen, but we think we have the time to do it. There are no structural changes required. Put it this way: you won’t see any of the changes, except we have to put in a new carpet because Bruce and James have pulled the old one up.

So I assume there’s no PA?
There’s nothing in there. We’ll put in a PA initially. I’m not sure what the make-up of it will be at the moment, but it’ll be alright, don’t you worry about that.

Any plans for a refurbishment down the track?
You mean to re-jig it a bit?

I think so, but first things first. There’s a lot that can be done to make it function better, particularly the bandroom.

And the [upstairs] Cobra Bar? Is that going to stay the way it is?
Bruce and James owned all the stuff, and they’re going to be selling a lot of it at auction, so we don’t have that. But at the moment the Cobra Bar looks like, well, how can I describe it?

A storeroom?
More like an old bomb shelter in Sarajevo.

What about the old staff members? There was talk of the most recent band booker Amanda Palmer being reinstated.
Yeah, good question. We’ve employed Amanda and [ex-bar manager] Snoop. Amanda’s on the job as of today [April 12] and so is Snoop, actually. Snoop will hire the new staff and there’ll be priority given to old staff. I don’t know who’s available or not, but certainly we would like old staff back. It’s our total intention to reassemble the culture as much as we can practically do. We’re not going to turn it into a pizza place [a reference to what the Cornerstone Hotel group did to the now defunct Punter’s Club] and we’re going to be putting on rock’n?roll bands again as soon as we can. Although the name, ?Brumby’s Bourbon and Beefsteak?, does appeal to me. [Laughs]

I’m sure it appeals to him too.

Speaking of the name, how are negotiations with Bruce and James going to secure the rights to use ?The Tote??
They’re going. We’re talking to each other, but we haven’t arrived at a deal yet.

Are you confident that the deal will come through?
They want it to happen, we want it to happen, but I can’t go into it any further than that.

The Tote’s financial problems have been well-documented, how are you going to turn things around?
I believe that a whole lot of efficiencies in the operation can be made, so we’ll be looking at those, and obviously you’ve got to book the right gigs. That’s all vital.

?In terms of trading hours, will you be looking at extending those? [Milne had successfully applied to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to have his trading hours reduced to 1am in an effort to avoid the high risk conditions]
We’ll be operating to what the full hours of what the licence says. And last time I looked, it said 3am. So obviously that means we have to run with security and all that sort of thing, but Thursday, Friday and Saturday, we’ll be open until 3am.

Much has been made about Premier Brumby’s appearance at the press conference. What was the rationale about inviting him down?
Under the contract it had to be a joint release between us and Colonial Leisure, and they actually organised for the premier to come down. But at the end of the day, I don’t think it’s an issue. I don’t understand why people see it as a problem, except politically, it may have had some impact on the press cycle and the delivery of the petition. But we had to make an announcement. What else were we going to do? We couldn’t keep it a secret. It goes up on the Liquor Commission’s website that we transferred the licence.

In some ways, the premier being there puts focus on the accord process and how well that is working. We stated we’re applying for it, the premier turns up, and Liquor Licensing will not have any excuses to sit on their hands about it. Everyone knows what’s going on publically, and it also keeps the debate focused on these licensing issues. Some people are painting it as a negative, but I don’t know.

I think that negative reaction has to do with the relative inaction from the government and Liquor Licensing in removing the high risk conditions.
Well, that’s absolutely right. Those things need to be focused on by the media. The Lomond [Hotel] licence [variation] has been in the works now for probably five or six weeks – they were the first people to apply – and it should be through the other side. There’s no excuse for it. And what’s more, the way the process works is: the director uses her powers under section 58 of the [Liquor Licensing] act, it’s 100 percent at her discretion, and there really shouldn’t be any reason for taking as long as it takes. It should be pretty quick.

Did you raise this on the day with the premier?
He was in and out in a flash.

The biggest concern, I think, is that Brumby comes out looking like the hero in getting The Tote re-opened, and these issues still exist. I think this has sparked the cynicism.
There’s been a bit made of that, but he actually didn’t claim credit. I think his exact words were: ?It’s a good outcome.? That doesn’t look like they’re claiming success to me. At the end of the day, they had nothing to do with us signing the agreement with Colonial Leisure. Nothing to do with it. It’s purely between the two parties, and I’ve got no problem with that being said as loudly and clearly as it needs to be said.

I think it’s important.
It is important, and that’s why we said at the press conference that we were applying to have the high risk conditions removed.

I think there’s a danger of the mainstream media swallowing the government’s spin here.
Exactly. Everyone’s got to be focused on what the issues are. It’s got nothing to do with who turns up on a Sunday. The issues are quite mechanical and quite logical.

Jon, despite The Tote re-opening, are you still going to maintain pressure on the government to sort out these issues?
Me and everyone else.

Do you think The Tote re-opening will give you a stronger foothold?
I don’t think it’s going to make much difference to tell you the truth. You just have to think about what the issues are and articulate what needs to happen, the logic behind it, and explain it. Eventually, I believe, logic will prevail.

Ultimately, though, it’s a business decision too.
From our perspective, absolutely. But it’ll be off the headlines tomorrow. It’s not even on the front page any longer. I know that there’s debate in the upper house on this shortly, so hopefully the press will shift [their focus] back to that.

The announcement’s timing was interesting given the [delivery of the SLAM petition](/news/3915730) last week.
Well, it could’ve been worse. We signed just before Easter, before I went up to the [East Coast] Blues & Roots Festival. I was there for a week. We didn’t make the announcement during the week that the petition was presented, but you can’t sit on these things. The rumour mill starts instantly. We did well to keep it under wraps that week as long as we did. Like I said, it goes up on the Liquor Commission’s website. All the transfers are published. Crikey would’ve been straight onto us.

So what’s planned for the re-opening?
Well, we haven’t gotten that far. Amanda’s going to work on that.

There has been talk about a street festival.
Well, that come out of nowhere. That was [Member for Richmond] Richard Wynne’s idea. We didn’t know about it, the premier didn’t know about it, but Richard proposed it and is going to attempt to make it happen. So that’s fantastic.