What the headlines don’t tell you about Re, the new bar from Matt Whiley
You’ve read the headlines about Re, the new Sydney cocktail bar from acclaimed bartender Matt Whiley. Headlines like ‘Aussie bar turning waste into cocktails.’ ‘The Sydney bar making waste minimisation sexy.’ ‘Re bar creates a no-waste template for bars of the future.’
That waste thing? The idea they’re making drinks from garbage? The headlines aren’t quite right on that. Rather, the animating idea behind Re to get produce when it’s perfect.
“It’s not the shit that’s going off in your fridge, it’s really good produce,” says Whiley.
“We’re giving produce that people don’t want [a] new life, rather than we’re saving it from the bin,” he explains.
The other thing the headlines don’t tell you is just how damn good the bar is. The setting is beautiful — an old, heritage-listed building that in yesteryear was the workshop for locomotives in the inner city suburb of Eveleigh, the room is bright, the stainless steel bar gleams, and it’s the kind of bar in which you want to stay a while. These are all good things in a bar.
“It’s actually a really nice environment, and then you drink [the cocktails], it’s really tasty and clean and delicious and not overly expensive,” says Whiley.
When it comes to the other things you want in a bar, the expert team Whiley has assembled has you covered. Not that Whiley is looking for long resumes when he hires staff.
“I don’t care if you’ve never made a drink before,” he says. “If you come in and you’re a really good bartender and you’re a dick, you’re not going to get a job.
“We want people to be a part of our crew. You just know. It’s not about hiring the startenders. We do have Jake Down, Evan Stroeve, and Ho Song, and you’d think we’d picked them because of their skillset, but we’ve picked them because we all get along,” says Whiley.
“All we look for in someone is can they talk to a guest, do we like them, and are they excited about working here.”
Re is a couple weeks into trade when visit, and it’s clear the bar is hitting its straps. The drinks — like the Wimbledon Gimlet, the Milk Whey, and indeed all the drinks we tasted — are forward thinking and importantly, delicious.
But with a bar like this, with its focus on sustainability, reusing, recycling, and regenerating, the drinks program doesn’t have a set and forget switch.
“The whole thing about Re is that we have to change all the time,” Whiley says. “Every delivery that comes through the door demands something new.”
That’s because the produce that goes into Re’s drinks is seasonal, and because the produce they are using from the market is what no-one else will take. It’s generally stuff that is either misshapen, or too ripe, for the big supermarkets and other retailers to take.
“The main technique, in this place where we’re working, you have to process produce really fast,” says Whiley.
“If you go into a supermarket and you want to buy some bananas, generally you’ll pick the green ones because you may not want to eat them today, you want them to last five days. You generally pick stuff underripe.
“Whereas we are generally getting stuff that is prime, ripe and soft and if we wait we won’t be able to use it.”
This means that two weeks in they’re finalising the first big changes to their drinks menu, and working with their suppliers to figure out what the rest of the market won’t want in a couple weeks’ time.
“We spoke to them two weeks ago and asked what they knew would be coming around as waste, because we knew we’d need to change up our menu a little bit,” he says.
“So there’s loads of lemons, loads of mandarins, limes, citrus. They said don’t get strawberries, there’s a change of seasons and they’re really shit, even the waste ones are a waste of your time.”
Whiley believes this approach to sourcing produce is one that’s within reach of most bars, and that there is some considerable upside to implementing it.
“Our first two weeks of deliveries were $200,” he says.
Most fruit and vegetable suppliers will have the kind of produce Re is using, what he calls class two produce — the stuff that’s not pretty enough for sale, but tastes great nonetheless.
“If you know you’re going to buy something and you’re going to blend it, why do you want something that’s $6 a punnet when you can get it for 50 cents?” Whiley asks.
“There’s a lot of suppliers who don’t want that class of produce sitting in their warehouses, they want to turn it over. If it’s mango season you can pretty much get mangoes for free because they go soft pretty quick. You save money. Your cost of goods is a lot less.”
And so for those bar operators and bartenders who are skeptical of the no-waste movement, who perhaps don’t care for the environment as much as Whiley, there is still a great reason to embrace this way of sourcing produce.
“Ultimately as an operator it’s going to save you loads of money,” Whiley says.
“If you can pay less, you’re winning.”