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Excess

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A view from behind the bar

Wednesday 29th January 2014

Bar owner-operator Mat Lear sees the effects of over-indulging in alcohol most weekends. But despite that, he says media reports of New Zealand’s culture of binge-drinking are over-rated, with just a few spoiling the fun of many.

El Horno, known for its sangria jugs, is one of a cluster of bars down the end of Wellington’s inner-city party strip, Courtenay Place. Unlike much of the competition, which tends to skew older or younger, it attracts a wide variety of patrons, from first-years out to celebrate the weekend – every weekend – to post-grads in the market for an after-work drink, to businessmen wanting to unwind with some live music. In short, it’s the kind of place where, on a Saturday night, my 20-year-old sister can take a selfie with Social Development Minister Paula Bennett. (This happened.)

But owner-operator Mat Lear, 28, says no one demographic behaves worse than the others.

“It’s really just an individual thing,” he says. “I couldn’t really put my finger on any one group of people because every demographic has people who just can’t handle themselves and probably shouldn’t be drinking. I mean, we get quite a diverse crowd at our bar – everyone from 18-year-olds, to young corporates, to old corporates – and everyone’s got potential to lose control.”

El Horno owner-operator Mat Lear, 28: A lot of alcohol laws punish “the majority of society for the bad behaviour of a few”.

Diego Opatowski / Radio New Zealand

To Lear, Friday and Saturday nights are quite different. “People are generally a bit better behaved and in control of themselves on Friday nights – it’s just a nicer vibe,” says Lear. “Saturday nights, you get a whole range of people, and they’ve been usually drinking at parties all day. A lot of them don’t even get through the door.”

Checks at the door are of vital importance, says Lear. “We do a lot of screening, and we only let the ones we want in there in. It definitely prevents problems down the track. ... Once they’re in, it becomes a lot harder to get them out.”

Lear says door staff make judgement calls of “character and appearance”. “If you’re looking sharp, your eyes are wide open, you’re coherent, you’re in a good mood … Alcohol’s a depressant so if someone’s angry, they’re only going to get angrier.”

You can be as drunk as you want on the street, vomiting on the corner, not breaking any laws, but as soon as you step into my establishment, my staff and I are liable for thousands of dollars of fines

Having good door staff, and only one point of entry from the street, is an advantage – not only in terms of making sure the night runs smoothly, but also protecting Lear’s interests as a business owner. “Once they’re in our establishment, we’re responsible for them,” he says. “Our guys do a fantastic job of screening for people on the door, but nobody’s perfect, and there are some bloody good actors out there.”

That said, Lear thinks reports of New Zealand’s so-called binge-drinking culture are exaggerated, and that a lot of alcohol laws punish “the majority of society for the bad behaviour of a few”.

“You get anywhere between 10,000 and 15,000 people going through Courtenay Place [on a Friday or Saturday night], and you might have one or two arrests, maximum; such a low percentage of the people going out are actually causing trouble,” he says. “Everywhere else in the world has the exact same problems. It’s just human nature: people consume a little bit too much alcohol.”

The old public service slogan “It’s not what we’re drinking, it’s how we’re drinking” rings true, says Lear. “You can have people that put away a few drinks and they’re still considerate and pleasant to deal with. Then you get people with bad attitudes, and that turns into kicking in letterboxes and things like that – just dickhead behaviour.”

Lear says a recent law change, which came into effect in mid-December, and gives police the power to fine people up to $2000 for falling foul of liquor laws, is a “step in the right direction” but that there are still too few repercussions for individual troublemakers, and too many for venues.

Serving intoxicated people alcohol in a licensed venue carries with it a fine of up to $10,000 for the licensee or manager; under the new laws, if they commit three offences within three years, they risk losing their licence or their manager’s certificate, if not both, for five years.

There’s a lot of money on the line – I’ve invested everything I’ve got in this place, and if I get three strikes I’m out

Bar staff, too, are liable for up to $2000 in fines, when Lear points out that many are “kids on near-minimum wage”: “How are they supposed to afford that?”

It’s not fair, he says, when most alcohol is consumed in the home; pre-loading is commonplace and causes issues for venues. “You can be as drunk as you want on the street, vomiting on the corner, not breaking any laws, but as soon as you step into my establishment, my staff and I are liable for thousands of dollars of fines,” he says.

“There’s way too much onus on [venues] and not enough on the people that are actually causing the problems … Effectively we’re being punished for actions people take in the home, where we have no control over them.”

Lear says he takes his role as a duty manager seriously, but to change New Zealand’s binge-drinking culture, patrons need to share responsibility.  “I think we’ve got it right, because otherwise we wouldn’t have the wide range of people coming into our establishment – we wouldn’t be getting the 40-, 50-year-old suits because they don’t want to put up with that kind of shit,” he says. “We’re trying to go for a friendly vibe, and having people who are intoxicated doesn’t work with that – they’re bumping people, spilling drinks. It’s not a place where you really want to be, so we try to stamp it out.

“There’s a lot of money on the line – I’ve invested everything I’ve got in this place, and if I get three strikes I’m out. Done. Can’t get another licence for a few years. It’s a pretty risky venture when you’re liable for so many people’s actions when they’re intoxicated and unpredictable. We’ve got a lot on our plate – but that’s the game.”

Click here for a police officer's perspective.