Rob Libecans:
The Journey to Caretaker’s Cottage

On March 28th Rob Libecans will take to the stage of Melbourne Cocktail Festival’s trade symposium to discuss what bar ownership looks like one year in. This peep behind the curtain of success will look into how everything shifts after opening night, and how holding true to your core idea is the real challenge.

Before that, however, we’re cycling back to the dream that was not quite Caretakers, but something loftier - a bar to call one’s own.

Worksmith: You’ve worked in multiple cities and done a fair whack of traveling for work - why was Melbourne where you eventually wanted to open?

Rob: For us, it was never gonna be anywhere else. Matt has deep family roots here and we certainly didn’t want to do it without him. Ryan had been all around the world like me, and was settled here, and my wife had a friendship group here. So it was a lot of outside reasons than just the industry. That said, Melbourne is the epicenter for food and dining-out culture in Australia.

We’ve been a part of the bar scene here since 2009, so seeing people we used to serve at Pearl back in the day still serving or owning or working in groups - we’ve all stayed in the industry and stayed in Melbourne. We’ve gotten older and wiser, but no one has really moved on, and we all have that same hunger to be a part of this community. No where else has that, if you work in other cities it’s always greener pastures elsewhere, but here the longevity of Melbourne’s scene is our future. 

The Caretaker's Cottage team.

Worksmith: Why pursue the route of ownership as opposed to working for a brand or for big groups?

Rob: Honestly, I’m sure I came close. We viewed 200 venues in two and half years and came within days signing on two that didn’t happen. You have your heart crushed, having done six months work for each of those - from concept to financing, licensing and more, to have your heart broken twice at the last moment. Out of us, I was the only one who said not sure I can do this. I had a young family at the time and there were some tough moments. I was working two part time jobs to be flexible enough to go to viewings, while also trying to make ends meet, and it’s not really fair on employers because I don’t know how long I’ll be around, and it wasn’t really fair on my wife, when I could be supporting the family better, but was holding on to this dream of owning a bar. It was a real consideration to just give up and go and get a role in operations. But the guys encouraged me to stick it out. 

I think since the later years of Pearl, I got to a point where I was thinking, I’ve got this, I know what I’m doing, I know my strengths, and I’m ready to back myself for the first time. It’s a nice place to reach in your twenties. So it was buried in me, that I wanted to try and do it myself. I’m not particularly easy to work with, I do set expectations that can be unattainable and I move at a different pace so honestly, I’m not great to work for other people. Really once you realise that, you have to shut up and see if you can do it. If you can’t, you prove everyone right and go and be humble and work for others again. 

Rob Libecans, Caretaker's Cottage.

Worksmith: So you’ve got the city, and you’ve got the motivation to open. We all thought it would be a permanent Fancy Free - what happened?

Rob: Fancy Free was a pop-up business with training wheels on, and it solidified that we should do this together. It was a solid safety net with the fact that we could hand the keys back. Was the concept strong enough for longevity? Honestly, probably not. We burnt out with it. With that we burnt out the love of having a venue for Francy Free, our experience of that concept was so different to a lot of people’s vision of it because we had to do it over and over again, each night. When we found this venue we knew we were never gonna be Fancy Free. This was a new start, a clean slate, and it was a bit like doing a Kansas City shuffle, everyone expects you to go one way and you go the other. Starting from scratch. This is us, this is where we’re gonna be for the next forever.

Worksmith: What has been your best moment as an owner?

Rob: In terms of being a business owner, it’s been paying myself an actual wage. I told a friend yesterday actually, I now pay myself a wage, like what you’d expect a bar manager to earn. They knew how much that means. 

But in terms of owning Caretaker’s - it’s people I don’t know enjoying our space. They’re not here to see us, they don’t know our reputation. It’s catching people having fun and enjoying a space. I fucking love it. 

Worksmith: What has been the worst moment?

Rob: There hasn’t been any particularly bad moments - we paid the business off in a couple of months which was amazing. There’s been setbacks but we went through so much heartbreak and ballache through the pop-up and then getting Caretaker’s open that we’re all battle-scarred by now that when anything happens we double down and put energy into something else. 

Something that’s been hard was letting our first staff member go, it was particularly difficult and felt personal. However, it did help us start acting like a business instead of three business owners. 

Matt Stirling in action at Caretaker's Cottage.

Worksmith: What are you hoping people will take from your talk?

Rob: All the stuff we’ve learnt. It’s about how we’ve changed but kept the same identity. I guess the talk is really focusing on how you keep the core idea of your business and grow or shift a little bit but stay the same. To not to be so rigid with absolutely everything. Everyone you hire comes with a new idea which, if you’ve hired right, that goes into your business. 

Caretaker's Cottage

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