''Pokies give a bad vibe and take up so much floor space. We're all about food and booze and people enjoying themselves'': James Wirth, new owner of the Oxford Tavern. Photo: Ben Rushton
The poker machine was once hailed as the money spinner that helped keep pubs afloat. But a new breed of young publicans is rebelling against the pokie dollar, saying gambling has no place in their spruced-up watering holes.
In the past four years, 31-year-old publican James Wirth has bought and renovated five pubs around inner-Sydney, and in the process expelled 65 pokies.
"Pokies give a bad vibe and take up so much floor space. We're all about food and booze and people enjoying themselves," said the head of the Drink'n'Dine pub group, which owns The Norfolk, The Carrington, The Forresters, Abercrombie and, now, the Oxford Tavern.
Burgers, beers and bistros ... East Village in Balmain East is among a growing number of pubs saying no to pokies. Photo: Steven Siewert
The 30 pokies at the back of the dingy Oxford Tavern in Petersham spilled into the courtyard and took up more than 100 square metres. A dive bar and leafy beer garden are replacing them.
"The idea that pub owners rely on pokie revenue is stupid. They're lazy operators, because there's no focus on the food, none on the vibe and the service sucks," he said. "You should be able to survive without pokies."
The Henson in Marrickville, Lord Raglan Hotel in Redfern and the East Village in Balmain East are among the growing number of pubs saying no to pokies, with NSW pubs shedding 2675 machines in two years' data from the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority shows.
The anti-pokie sentiment was in line with the growing focus on quality food and craft beer, said Keith Austin, editor of Pub Food Guide 2014. "Younger, hipper, urban clientele are not as enamoured of pokies. They, like me, would rather spend their money on a nicer, more expensive beer and a really good burger.''
Salvation Army's recovery services director Gerard Byrne welcomed the decline in pubs with pokies, pointing to research which showed increased availability of machines had a "disastrous negative effect" on problem gamblers. "We encourage poker machine gaming providers to begin developing alternative business models so they are not reliant on the gaming dollar."
Michael Bain, 39, the new owner of the Royal Albert Hotel in Surry Hills, is weaning the pub off pokie profits, reducing the machines and making no effort to promote them. ''We got rid of three, and our aim is to have none. The profits from pokies are declining, anyway. Our goal is in food and beverages, not gaming.'' Traffic has risen 30 per cent.
At The Henson in Marrickville, the sports gambling lounge has been turned into an arcade room by owner Ray Riley and filled with pinball, Street Fighter, Buck Hunter and pacman machines.
More than 20 poker machines were ripped out in another section of the hotel to extend the dining space, said head chef Megan McCulloch.
The East Sydney Hotel in Woolloomooloo has had a long-standing policy to not operate poker machines, a tradition honoured by new owners who took over in April.
"The previous owner had it for 35 years, and always said he didn't want pokies because he didn't want to rip the working- class people off. We're happy to honour that," licensee Sam Marsden, 29, said.
Liam O'Keeffe, 30, took Rozelle's The Welcome Hotel out of receivership in April, and made the business decision to cut six loose, but keep 12.
"The plan is a wait-and-watch approach. I will watch their performance for another year and decide if that floor space wouldn't make more money per square metre as tables and chairs,'' he said.
The Sydney Morning Herald Pub Food Guide 2014 is available in bookshops and online at smhshop.com.au for $9.99.