Once upon a time – twenty years ago – most couples met in bars. After a couple of beers a man plucked up the courage to approach a woman and, risking humiliation, ask for a dance.

That was how we met our partners in the good old days. It wasn’t sophisticated but it worked. Today the bar is competing with online dating sites, which require even less sophistication. Potential daters preload with RTDs while wearing their pyjamas; scratch their armpits while exaggerating their height.

Some still choose the more direct, traditional and honest connections made in a bar. And this environment is still popular for business lunches, work functions, conferences and, ironically, the first date for those who meet online.

For travellers, visitors and tourists, the neighbourhood bar is a vital venue for meeting the locals. A bar is the place where jobs are secured, trips planned, stories told and love found. Imagine a world without the local bar.

Cards on the table: I own a bar.

The Cabana is the oldest purely live music venue in New Zealand. My bar doesn’t have TVs, pokies, pool tables or even great food. It has a stage and all the gear bands and musicians need to play on it.

But like all bars in Hawke’s Bay, mine is struggling. In Napier, two bars have closed in recent times and more than a few are in desperate trouble. Our local bars are disappearing. A tourist arriving in Napier CBD on a Friday night would be forgiven for thinking they’d missed the city and hit Waipawa instead.

Changing times

Thirty years ago when I first knew of The Cabana it was open six nights a week. Bands like Dragon and Mi Sex played Tuesday and Wednesday nights. But times have changed. In those days we had one TV channel, one radio station, no computers. People drove over the limit without giving it a second thought.

Also in the ‘good old days’ hotels, clubs and restaurants were granted wholesale cards which gave them large discounts on alcohol purchases. They passed those on to patrons. This made drinking out a far more affordable pastime than it is today.

Nowadays, bars buy their alcohol from the same place as everyone else. I always laugh when people spot me at Pak n Save with a trolley full of Tui and say “ Oh, you buy your beer here?”. Unless you have a huge turnover or three or four pubs, there are no deals to be had, no merchant cards and no bulk buys.

Then there’s the ill-thought-out blame game: members of the public, politicians and law makers blaming bars for exacerbating our negative drinking culture: young people drinking so much so fast that they get aggressive, out of control, unconscious, or all three.

One small point to note: most young people can’t afford to drink in bars at all, let alone drinking to get drunk in one.

But bars are not the problem. It is not because of bars that people binge drink, drive drunk or pick fights. And that’s because in a bar there’s someone watching out for you. At The Cabana it’s me, and in other local bars it’s the duty manager, and their staff. We can spot trouble before it brews, we can bounce potential drunks, we can make sure people are safe.

By law, I cannot allow people into my bar intoxicated, and I can’t allow them to become intoxicated in there either. If someone does manage to get drunk in my bar and then they’re picked up outside, I will be prosecuted.

In fact, a bar is the safest place to drink. In over four years, I have had just one small fight at The Cabana. I believe in bar culture so passionately that when my children start going out I’ll encourage them to meet their friends at bars, not at parties and certainly not in cars.

Along comes Easter

So now we are competing with online dating for patrons, with TV and the internet for entertainment value, and with supermarkets and bottle shops for the dollar. And smeared over the top is the perception from members of the public, including some of those in decision-making positions of power, that bars are trouble: dens of iniquity. With all that in the mix it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tempt punters in, no matter how good the live music is.

Then, if times aren’t tough enough for bars … along comes Easter!

Easter has always been an important weekend for The Cabana because our ‘Events Licence’ means we can open on God days, and being a long weekend, one of the last of the summer, there are people in town who love coming down for a live gig and a few quiets.

But now Central Government has put a stop to ‘Events Centres’ being able to serve alcohol on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Thanks to that The Cabana has just experienced its worse weekend to date, not its best as was expected.

I tried to get a special licence, but even with the help of Mayor Bill Dalton and MP Chris Tremain I was unable to open. Acts had been booked and the gigs were advertised: we were all ready to go. I took a hit in the wallet and 25 musicians lost money as well. When we’re already working on the tightest of shoestrings it’s a worrying time.

Running a neighbourhood bar is tough going, with little help from the government. But it’s the little bars visitors seek out, and it’s the little bars locals feel at home in.

Yes, modern times call for relevant laws around whether holidays are holy days or just days off. In the 2013 census, 45% of the country ticked ‘Non Religious’.

But alongside the modern is a need for the traditional; an almost old-fashioned loyalty towards the local.

I think it’s time we remembered the importance of our bars. They’re not the problem when it comes to our drinking culture. In fact they provide a positive environment in which to teach young adults how to behave around alcohol and how to have manners while enjoying a drink with friends.

And it’s much nicer to go out and spend time with real people in the flesh than stay at home in front of the box, isn’t it? Which reminds me: we owe it to bars, because without them many of us wouldn’t be here!

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