Philip Thompson has always kept a low profile in the hospitality industry, instead concentrating on running the highly successful Sydney Cove Oyster Bar in its prime position at East Circular Quay. His vision and commitment saw the humble venue transformed into one of the most popular harbourside restaurants wowing both local, interstate and international guests with both the view and well-executed seafood menu. Unfortunately, that is shortly coming to an end, after a decision not to renew the lease by the authority that oversees the premises.
Firstly, congratulations on your award at the recent Restaurant & Catering Awards. Can you tell us what that meant to the team at Sydney Cove Oyster Bar?
As often stated, hospitality is one of the industries most affected by COVID-19. Considering the challenges of the year 2020 and the ever-changing health regulations, doing even the simple things proved difficult. Many businesses closed and all struggled as we in the industry attempted to pivot to survive.
Despite all the difficulties, we didn’t compromise the Oyster Bar standards and we kept doing our best with a small team to provide Sydney’s finest seafood. Some days creating daily specials almost for no customers, we felt like the musicians playing when Titanic was going down. In such a year, being awarded the People’s Choice Restaurant has truly meant the world to all of us at Team Oyster Bar. Having won the Best Seafood Restaurant Award for Excellence in 2012 and 2017 by judge’s votes was certainly special, but this year receiving the only award that is voted on by diners showed the team that the great effort they put in serving the best seafood was appreciated by all of our customers.
With the countdown on until you are forced to vacate your current premises, when you look back at what you have achieved over the years, what are you most proud of?
I’m really proud of the fact that we successfully stayed with our original concept and have become the “go to” venue for oysters in this city. To this point, Sydney Cove Oyster Bar is often referred to as an “Iconic Sydney Institution” by countless people, magazines, newspapers and television. I am justifiably proud of creating a “brand” from a small family business.
I don’t want to miss the opportunity to mention that I am also so proud of having 50% local and regular customers in an area that can be described as a tourist trap. We have worked extremely hard to create credibility and have continuously pushed to maintain a high level of food and service in this tourism precinct. The simple message I brought up at most staff meeting was “be a better restaurant tomorrow, than you are today”.
The strong team and service culture at Sydney Cove Oyster Bar has been very highly valued by your loyal dining public, can you tell us how you fostered that?
To begin with staff must be valued and they must be treated with respect because without them you have nothing. It’s a tough industry with a lot of large egos happy to tell you how things should be done. But building a successful business requires a happy and cohesive team working towards a common goal. So, if everyone from the dish hands to the General Manager feels valued for the work they do, they will do the best they can for the business and that only comes about if you create the right culture.
Recently, your social media has been providing fascinating insights into the backbone of that team, sketching a layered narrative of what underpins your operation. What was the concept behind that?
I wanted to celebrate the wonderful people I have working for me and I wanted to thank them for staying with me until the very last day in a very public way before we close our doors. These little superstars are hospitality professionals making the Oyster Bar the best it can be. Most have been with us for a number of years and are well known to our diners so I thought it would be nice to get them out for a casual photoshoot and put their name up in lights on our social media platforms for all to read and connect with their story.
There was an incredible outpouring of support when diners became aware of the circumstances behind having to leave your premises. What touched you the most from the thousands of comments that were posted?
To put it briefly, for those who haven’t heard about it yet, the Oyster Bar is closing its doors at the end of March 2021 since our lease wasn’t renewed by Property NSW.
It was the way everyone got behind us and said you must fight this decision and not to give in. For most, including us, replacing a long established and much-loved small business with a large pub group operator was unfathomable.
The most heartwarming moment was when we found out about a petition that was started on our behalf at change.org to save our business. The petition went on to get nearly 15.000 signatures from all over the world. We had many customers writing to ministers demanding the decision be overturned and we even had an ex-prime minister making public comment at the tender outcome.
Can you tell us what the future holds for both you and your team?
Unfortunately, it is most likely the end of the road for the Sydney Cove Oyster Bar. I’ve had 33 wonderful years running this company, and as sad as I feel, I can step out comfortably knowing I gave it my all and succeeded.
Because of the strength of our brand and our longevity in the industry we have been offered a number of other sites that has been both flattering and tempting but none of them can replace Oyster Bar.
All that said, there is a little project I’m starting to consider later this year/early next year that could see a few of the team back together again.