good times only
When three guys from Orange relocated to Wollongong to study at UOW, and ran into each other at a house party not long after, the trajectory of the Gong’s nightlife was changed for the better.
In 2017, Ben Abraham, Luke Symons and Scott Mileto, all 28, were working in hospitality when they “made the liver-destroying decision” to buy their favourite local whiskey bar, Howlin’ Wolf and “make it great again.” Eighteen months later, the trio took over eclectic eatery Dagwood, before building their latest offering, Births & Deaths, in November, with the help of a fourth partner, Wollongong-born Jared Huk.
With most of their bar experience gained working in regional pubs, it may seem like a significant sidestep to enter the world of small bars, but together, these three friends have injected an intoxicating mix into the heart of Wollongong CBD.
Hidden off Crown Street, the Americana-themed Howlin’ Wolf is the place for live tunes, craft beers and over 260 types of whiskey. Just around the corner on Market Street, you’ll find Dagwood, the home of international street food like Shanghai pork dumplings and a bangin’ bloody Mary. And if you head up Kembla Street, the gin bar concept was successfully brought to life in the form of Births & Deaths – sustainably minded with a polished fit-out, it’s the ideal spot to sink a few specialist cocktails.
Now, with four unique venues (they also own a bar in Orange) – all coming under the umbrella of their Good Times Only Group – Scott, Ben and Luke have played a huge hand in spruiking the Illawarra’s ever-growing eating and drinking culture. Any they’re having a good time while they’re at it.
We sat down with co-owner Luke and Births & Deaths’ Jared to talk booze and business…
Take us back to where it all began…
Luke: Scott, Ben and I all went to school together in Orange but didn’t talk to each other back then, because that’s the way school goes. Ben moved to Wollongong when he was 19, and Scott and I followed a while after. We ran into each other at a house party, then we got to know each other because we were all working separately in hospitality and would see each other out all the time. Scott used to work at Howlin’ Wolf, and went back to Orange to start his own bar based on that model, called Washington & Co. It went really well, and that’s when we decided it would be a great idea to buy the Howlin’ Wolf! We were all at uni… none of us finished, so that’s good. That’s how it kicked off.
You all worked in hospitality, but did you have experience running a bar?
L: Not at all! My background is pubs. I worked in pubs from 18 to 26 and hated small bars. I was just that typical country, have-a-beer-and-a-punt kind of guy, then I got thrown in the deep end and had to learn a lot about spirits, and now I love it. People come into a bar for the experience, whereas you go to a pub with the objective to drink, gamble, eat. There are no TVs in our venues – if you’re there, you want to be there with people. Small bars encourage that intimacy, which I love… people bonding over alcohol.
So after you bought Howlin’ Wolf, you started building Births & Deaths?
Jared: I came down from North Queensland… I grew up in Wollongong, but I’ve been away for about 10 years. I was driving down to see my parents in Bermagui, and thought, ‘I’ll just stop into the Gong to see if there’s any new bars.’ I found the Howlin’ Wolf. I went there on a Tuesday arvo, ordered a shot of Fernet-Branca and a Negroni. Ben was working behind the bar at the time, and said, “You a bartender, mate?” I laughed, “Yeah, what gave it away…” We got chatting, then Luke and Scott rocked up. L: It was the first time Ben, Scott and I had been in the bar together since the first day we opened. We had the Births & Deaths concept already set up, but the guy we had ready to look after it had fallen through. J: They were talking about opening this bar, and I said, “I’m your man!” I was running a cocktail bar in Townsville, so I had experience. By the end, we were all like, “Let’s do it”. That was November, 2017 – I moved back the following March and then we opened Births & Deaths that November.
And then Dagwood came into the mix…
L: We had Births & Deaths in the works, and the guys from Dagwood came to us and asked, “Are you interested in buying it?”. We were in the right spot at the right time, picked it up, and it’s been the best thing for our group. Having a food venue has worked so well. We always had so many function enquiries at The Wolf, but we don’t have a kitchen, so it was a logistical nightmare. Now a lot of people do the loop – Dagwood to The Wolf and then onto Births & Deaths.
Did you set out to make the three venues very different?
J: Definitely! Births & Deaths is meant to be opposite to The Wolf – it’s light and open. It’s a cocktail and gin bar that offers table service and uses local ingredients, but it’s still laid-back; it’s not wanky. L: We try not to cross the wires too much; we all look after different spots. I’m down at The Wolf, which is a bit more rowdy, more divey – so you don’t want me at Births & Deaths trying to sell a really nice gin. Then we have a venue manager at Dagwood, James, Jared looks after Births & Deaths, Ben oversees all three venues and Scott’s up in Orange looking after Washington & Co.
Tell us about the sustainable practices you’ve implemented at Births & Deaths…
J: The bar’s name is associated with the fact we’re in the old Births, Deaths and Marriages building, but the entire cocktail menu is all about the births and deaths of ingredients. Everything is either reused, or gets used in something else. For example, we serve a beetroot and pumpkin cocktail – we use the leftover skins from the beetroot relish and the pumpkin puree from the food menu to make the drink. We also forage for ingredients from the region like saltbush to make our sand dune cocktail.
Who creates the cocktail menu?
L: Jared’s the drinks man… he’s really the first proper bartender we’ve had in the group. We’re all from pub backgrounds but Jared has spent a lot of time in hatted restaurants, so he’s taken all those techniques and brought them to the cocktail list.
Did you make changes to Dagwood straightaway?
L: Operations has been the biggest thing – between us, we have 20 years’ experience, so we worked out what we liked, what works and what structures are the most effective, then we tried to translate that to Dagwood. We wanted to implement better service and better product, too. They had Hahn SuperDry and Kirin on tap and we scrapped that and threw the guys from Young Henrys into the mix, which caused a few walkouts from unhappy customers who wanted those regular beers, but that’s the risk you take when you change things up. We liked what Dagwood was, we just wanted to take it to the next level. The food is definitely our focus.
Tell us about the menu?
J: Kayla, our head chef, designed the menu at Dagwood and at Births & Deaths. L: The menu is now seasonal, and we wanted the focus to be fresh. We’re moving away from the Mexican-American thing and embracing the Asian street food elements of the menu more. The Dagwood fit-out is mainly Asian-themed so it makes sense for the menu to reflect that, plus the Asian options are the most ordered. Steam buns and ramen are so popular. We also want that fresh focus to be reflected in the cocktail menu – we’re replacing syrupy cocktails with those made on seasonal fruit.
You’ve also introduced Bottomless Sunday Brunches…
L: They’ve been so successful! Sundays are a slow day for us, for most bars in the area, unless you’re a big pub like North Gong. There’s really nothing going on in town. We wanted to introduce a Sunday session and it’s kicked off.
So what’s next? World domination?
J: [Laughs] A tiki bar would be pretty cool! It’s either a brewery or a tiki bar. Who doesn’t love a pineapple on fire? L: We’re pretty happy to just sit at the moment. Wollongong was underdeveloped when we first came here, but it’s building. Places like The Throsby and Black Cockatoo are killing it. The small bar scene is taking off, and to be part of that has been awesome. It’s cool for us to look back and see how far we’ve come. Now we’re employing over 30 staff and putting jobs back into the Illawarra.
It’s pretty clear why you guys chose Good Times Only as your group name, but talk us through it…
L: One of my favourite bars in Sydney is Ramblin’ Rascal – the first time I walked in there one of the bartenders was in a big wheel and rode it straight into a set of chairs, before taking a shot with us at the bar!? I couldn’t believe a place like that existed in Australia. We were going to a concert that night, but I had a better time at Ramblin’. We definitely took a lot from that place! We started pushing that ‘good times only’ vibe at The Wolf, and that’s what stuck as a group name – that's what we’re about and that’s what we encourage.
Has working so closely together had an impact on your friendship?
J: I barely knew these guys… I met them drunk and then jumped into business with them. It was a risk, but obviously it’s worked. What I noticed straightaway, though, is that all three of them have a different skill set, which gels really well together. L: They say don’t go into business with friends, but honestly, it’s been the best thing for us – we’ve known each other for so long, we come from the same background. We’ve had flare-ups, of course, but it’s always about business, it’s never personal. We have a lot of shit ideas go out there, but we talk about it, and every decision we’ve made has been for the betterment of the company. At the end of the day, we finish work and still go and have a beer together.