28 May 2024

Pub with no beer: Canberra venues stuck in liquor licence hold ups

| Lucy Ridge
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Some businesses are reporting long wait times for liquor licences to be approved. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Opening a new restaurant or bar is a difficult feat to accomplish. Menus must be written, the fit-out completed, staff hired and equipment signed off. Another necessity is a liquor licence, but lengthy delays and a lack of transparency from Access Canberra have been impacting new businesses.

Restauranteur Becky Khanthavongsa owns two Lonsdale street venues, Zaab and newcomer Senn Noods, which opened in November last year. Despite starting the application process for a liquor licence more than six months ahead of Senn Noods’ expected start date, it still wasn’t ready by the time they opened.

Ms Khanthavongsa says this had a significant financial impact on her business,

“We had already arranged for delivery of the alcohol and other ingredients, and trained the bar staff to make the drinks and front of house staff to serve them,” she told Region.

“Not being able to serve those drinks meant we had bar staff who didn’t really have a role and the perishable items were wasted.”

Senn Noods is a casual food venue focussing on street food. Their cheeky branding hyped up their ‘bagged’ cocktails and fun late-night vibes, which were hard to deliver without a liquor licence and resulted in a lower spend per customer.

Woman drinks bagged cocktail that says 'talk dir-tea to me'

Senn Nood’s bagged cocktails were off the menu until the licence came through, more than a month after they opened. Photo: Supplied.

In response to questions from Region about liquor licensing timeframes, an ACT Government spokesperson said: “Liquor licences have a statutory timeframe of 90 days. Access Canberra endeavours to always meet this deadline and often delivers well within the statutory timeframe outlined in legislation.

“The time taken to process applications varies depending upon a range of factors, including the complexity of the application. This typically means that each application is dealt with on a case-by-case basis, and waiting times can vary as a result.”

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While Ms Khanthavongsa was initially impressed with the speed of replies from Access Canberra, she said that throughout the lengthy process, they became less helpful, took longer to respond and weren’t transparent about what was causing the holdup.

After considerable effort, she discovered the application was delayed because of an objection from one nearby resident who was concerned about sound levels from outdoor seating. However, this objection didn’t consider the fact that the new fitout had created plenty of indoor seats and that other steps had been taken by the business to mitigate the impact of noise.

“Part of the application is creating a risk assessment plan, and that includes noise management. At 10 pm, we turn the music down, and by midnight (which is the end of the licence), we turn everything off.”

Once a liquor licence has been approved, a fire brigade report is required to determine occupancy loading for the venue. Ms Khanthavongsa said she waited several weeks for this appointment before discovering that the firies had not received the necessary paperwork.

Green sandwich sign that says 'BYO until we get consent' with an image of a bottle popping.

Senn Noods had to open with a BYO liquor licence because their application was delayed. Photo: Lucy Ridge.

Region spoke to one Canberra business that had multiple delays in getting its liquor licence because Access Canberra was missing records from previous occupants. It took over a year to resolve, during which time the restaurant had to juggle temporary licence applications and BYO licences and was occasionally unable to sell alcohol at all. The business owner described this time as “extremely frustrating” and said that it greatly impacted their sales.

A different business owner said they are ready to open their doors but are still waiting for their licence to be approved, even though they submitted their application well in advance. They didn’t anticipate any significant holdups because they have taken over their lease from a similar business with little to no changes in the fitout, which would impact indoor occupancy or neighbouring residents. In the meantime, they are paying rent on the space, staff are on hold and they can’t open for business.

Canberra businesses have labelled the liquor licensing process as “extremely frustrating”. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

The same ACT Government spokesperson says the government “recognises the importance of the hospitality industry” and cited the recently passed Liquor (Night-Time Economy) Amendment Bill 2024, which they say will “foster a more vibrant hospitality sector, making it easier for businesses to do business in the ACT”.

They also urged businesses to utilise Access Canberra’s Event Coordination and Business Assist team.

Locally owned restaurants and bars provide jobs, have a positive impact on the local economy, and contribute to the “vibrant hospitality sector” that the ACT Government is quick to praise. It’s hard enough to succeed in the hospitality industry, and these lengthy bureaucratic delays are putting new businesses on the back foot before they’ve even opened their doors.

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peturbed_but_pretty10:12 pm 27 May 24

This is really tough for new businesses.

But why the hell are we allowing a bar to operate a model that sells individual drinks in single-use plastics!! FFS people…we have enough issues already!

This is pretty bad; but it’s nine months in Victoria which is a bit worse. The problem is that those who process this don’t have any concept of what the consequences are for any delay. And if you get any part of the form wrong, you go back to the end of the queue.

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