Behind the Roller Door—and 2020 Rollercoaster—at Cantina Ok!
A worldwide virus couldn't stop the trio behind three of Sydney’s best bars—Cliff Dive, Tio’s and CantinaOK! Instead, in 2020 they put their foot on the gas.By Molly Urquhart
How to describe the team behind CantinaOK!? They’re like siblings...only two of them have a kid. Alex is a little philosophical. Daisy is “ruthlessly efficient,” according to Jeremy who is, himself, enamoured with making great things from good ideas. Together, they could be accused of many things: owners of a world top 30 bar and collaborators with one of Sydney’s best breweries – but halting innovation during a pandemic is not one of them. We caught up with the team over Gmail to chat everything from micro(bar) managing to work love triangles, making seltzer, and life within—and post—lockdown.
Buffet: What a year, huh? Tell us all about it—ups, downs, revelations?
Jeremy Blackmore: The challenges were mostly in the uncertainty. The hardest part was closing the doors and saying goodbye to the team without knowing when we would see each other again.
Alex Dowd: Yeah, that part sucked. It really broke us down to build back up. When you work for yourself there’s a lot of ego death going on, but this year was the final nail in the coffin for our collective egos. That’s not a negative either – it’s put so much into context and afforded us the freedom of just trying to understand what we do well to the best of our ability.
Daisy Tulley: It’s also taught us a lot – to strap in and adapt.
Buffet: As for some of the changes you made?
AD: A few. While my life is generally punctuated by severe bouts of anxiety, this pandemic period has really been an exercise in being as solutions-focused as possible. We were lucky, we had some cash in the bank and had learnt a lot of hard lessons early. If this happened five years ago, we would have struggled to survive. Our major concern was keeping money in our teams’ pockets and a job for them to turn up to, while doing the right thing for the community.
DT: At Cantina OK! we’ve had to switch 80% of our trade to take away cups! We’ve adapted the menu, designed custom coffee cups, built takeaway tables and now the garage almost acts as a dispense bar for the laneway seating. Luckily it’s created a very positive experience for our guests, being able to drink a Margarita on a little red table in a laneway – it doesn’t feel like you’re in Sydney!
Buffet: Small space = small team. How do you keep the vibes up behind the roll up?
JB: Positive energy, small beers and an active Facebook chat.
AD: The team has done an amazing job of realising that their best moments of flow and achievement come from facing difficult problems and finding the solution.
Buffet: You’ve all known each other for a long time—Alex and Daisy, you're partners in life too! How does this relationship sandwich work between the three of you?
JB: I think of us mostly like siblings, with real sibling rivalry, except two of them are married?!
DT: Alex and I keep work and home as separate as possible. We joke we can’t hold hands till we’re off shift at 5pm and love to yell at each other at home ‘’I don't want to talk about work right now’’ as we lay in bed about to fall asleep. Somehow Jeremy is cool with listening to us argue every detail and now we exist in a bizarre love triangle.
AD: I think it should be the weirdest for me, but it’s not. I never thought my two most important adult relationships would eventually intersect at work, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love what we do so much, it doesn’t even feel like work at all. We get to sit in a sweaty little office and try to make thoughts become a reality. There are no two people I trust more, or who hold me more accountable.
Buffet: In Sydney bar time Tio’s has been around forever (since 2012) but could you take us back to the beginning of the mezcal chapter – where did the concept for CantinaOK! come from? And what made you finally take the plunge?
JB: OK! Really came off the back of our travel to Mexico. We’d been falling in love with the people and the stories and the spirits over there but hadn’t worked out the best way to show them. Then we found a 20m2 garage in the city and got to work.
AD: Travel is indicative of a mindset – of being willing to experience some discomfort, go to the source and look for what’s real and authentic. So much of what we do is about figuring out how to connect that experience with our guests.
JB: It’s hugely important. We’re really going further and seeing more each time and we are coming back with these crazy, delicious, one-of-a-kind spirits.
Buffet: Ok, so you’ve just rolled into Cantina for the first time, and you know little-to-nothing about mezcal—what would you serve up?
JB: The first stop is always a Margarita. It’s 4.45pm you’re fresh outta tough meeting with Phil in financials – Margarita o’clock. 1.22am Sharon wants to keep this DM going longer, Margarita o’clock.
AD: Mezcal’s beauty is its diversity. Our first port of call is to give guests a taste of two different mezcals – one from the hills of Oaxaca and one from the state of San Luis Potosi. The Oaxacan mezcal is dusty, rich and explosive while the mezcal from San Luis Potosi is full of minerals and green crunchy vegetables. These two extremes set the tone for exploration needed to delve into mezcal. Forget what you think you knew and let flavour guide you.
Buffet: The weirdest thing you have on your shelves, and the story behind it. We want to try.
AD: When you hand-select, hand-bottle and (almost) hand-carry every single bottle in the bar, it’s hard to pick your favourite. Every single mezcal has its own story and it’s usually something weird.
We have some amazing mezcals from Armando Alvaredo JR, who lives in a tiny town called Santa Maria Ixcatlan. It’s fermented in an untanned animal hide – a process you don’t see much anymore. The hide is strung up between four wooden posts and when there’s liquid fermenting in there it feels just like a regular cow would, all squishy and warm. Is that how a cow feels? I don’t know. But that’s pretty weird.
Buffet: You’ve been making a bit of product yourself this year – your own mezcal brand and a hard seltzer collab with Grifter. What was it like going from running a bar to making things?
JB: For me this has always been a dream. Getting to put your ideas out into the world. I feel like I’m getting a bit addicted to it. We have such a great team around us in the office and the bars that we really can make great things come to life.
DT: Initially when lockdown happened we saw all our fellow industry mates dive in and go hard on products, which was really intimidating. We were keen to have a break with our families, mull over ideas slowly with the kids playing in the backyard and wait for the right opportunity. The collaboration with the Grifter was the perfect and most joyous opportunity. It’s been so much fun working with them, brought us so much light in a dark time and we’ve learnt so much about how to get our delicious beverages into a can.
AD: A lot of this is about the right place, right time. The opportunity with The Grifter was a dream collab for us – a real slam dunk. Having the chance to develop a recipe with them was amazing. It was one of those rare collaboration projects that was just for the love of it – two creative groups of people getting together to make something one of a kind.
Jeremy really flexed with the recipe, which was great to see. It’s amazing seeing people you care about achieve their true potential. For us, running a bar or making a product isn’t too different. We’re really informed by human-centric design, using empathy to ensure the user’ experience is always our number one focus.
Buffet: Considering the year that was, how important is bricks and mortar going to be in a post-lockdown Sydney? And what does the future of our industry look like?
JB: Bricks and mortar is crucial! I really think that there is no better place for someone to meet you, your philosophy, your brand or your products than in the real world. You have to work so much harder to create the same trust if you are doing it online.
AD: Everything is cyclical. Everytime you think you’re getting nice and comfy, that’s usually the time things get turned on their head. I’m hoping we will see more creative, innovative and disruptive projects hitting the market. With a bit of a skittling, we could be in for a new golden era for Sydney. We’re going to need to get the economy fired up to avoid recession and I think there’ll be a lot of chances for everyone to push the boundaries!
On weekends, we’re currently drinking…
JB: Ice cold Korean Lager Beer
DT: Seltzers. I’ve been doing some serious seltzer research for the last few months.
AD: Peppermint tea. It’s a great stress reliever.
Our top 5 songs to cook and dance to are…
JB: Boom, Like That, Mark Knopfler
DT: Whatever the kids want. Doug is into I’m Still Standing by Elton John and June is into Brissy singer Mallrat at the moment.
AD: Anything from the Buffalo based hip-hop group Griselda.
Your serial killer traits…name each others, plz.
JB: Daisy, ruthless efficiency. Alex, scary vibe
DT: Jeremy, too good at acting on camera, he could probably cheat a lie detector.
Alex, extremely charming.
AD: Most of what gives me comfort is that these are the two least likely people to kill me. Was that the question? Jeremy said if I can’t think of something to say that I’m not funny or creative. So maybe his trait is that he’s mean.