For anyone who has ever been sitting in a Beijing bar, thinking, “I should open my own place,” well … either have another drink, or sober up first. It takes edge, ingenuity, and imagination, or as Cuju and Caravan owner Badr Benjelloun put it nicely, it takes “passion, location, and a certain degree of masochism.” Don’t underestimate the ordeal of getting a fully functional watering hole open and full of people. It isn’t easy, and it doesn’t usually happen immediately after opening. An “if you build it, they will come” mentality will only get you so far in this business.
We spoke to some of Beijing’s top barmeisters about how they got off the ground. You’ll find some sound advice, based on painstaking research and guidance from local bar owners, for not only getting started but also staying relevant in the of Beijing’s surprisingly sophisticated nightlife shuffle. Everything from choosing a location and the necessary hoops and loops one must consider jump through to get started in this industry. Here are some of the basics you need to consider to blow the foam off a competitive market.
Location, Location, Location
First decision: open someplace with little competition or somewhere you can compete with other bars for maximum traffic? It can be a science that requires a basic understanding of various group-think experiments of the 70s. If you are in the heart of the scene (say, NAME), you can take away traffic that already exists from other bars. If you pick someplace a little remote (like Great Leap #12, at least when they opened), then you’ll need some time to build a customer base. It also wouldn’t be a terrible idea to open a watering hole in an area like Caochangdi or Heiqiao, as artists are known to be often intoxicated, and there are very few options in those areas. But if you go too remote you’re at risk of spending your time sitting in an alcoholic den of your own despair.
Before signing any contract, especially if you want to be legit, consult with the Environmental Protection Bureau, Hygiene Bureau, and local department of the Ministry of Commerce and the Administration of Industry and Commerce (AIC) to verify whether or not the location will pass regulations.
Lord of the Land
A landlord can make or break your business. It is much like a marriage because your bar’s success depends on how open-minded this character is and how you can acquiesce to whatever tricks are up her or his sleeve. “It's more about finding a landlord that isn't completely bat-shit crazy. They are few and far between. A lot of things get decided in a weird round-about way, not simple logic,” Michael Ohlsson of Dada explains. Once you sign that contract, your little stuffed olives will perpetually rest in his hands. You could have put lots of elbow grease into your business, and he could revoke the contract and pound those little olives and throw them out into the hutongs.
“I don't think an ideal landlord exists. Some can be fantastic, but ultimately it's their responsibility to put their own interests first. In some cases I think it can be a case of seeking out the least worst form of landlord,” Garth Wilson, who was involved with the opening of Haven in Houhai last summer states. Add character analysis to the list of things you must be versed in before getting into the bar business.
“In China it's almost impossible to do anything without cooperating with local people, given that as in most cases your staff, partners, and customers are all going to be native Chinese,” Zak Elmasri of Fang explains. This being said it is critical to choose the right people with whom to do business and share a common vision. Investors will usually require a certain degree of control in the project, so if you are going into business with a third party, communication is key. Lay down a system of checks and balances that not only keeps your partners informed about where their money is going but also ensures that you won’t show up at your tiki-themed bar someday and all of a sudden there’s a stripper pole in the middle of the bar and hookahs at every table pouring out toxic peach shisha smoke. Make sure if you get involved with another person’s money that an understanding is reached, or make sure you have a good lawyer.
Permissions to Party
As you can imagine, there is a ton of paperwork needed to legally own and operate a bar in China. While there are some ways to get around these requirements, permits are essential in protecting your investment from the impending visit of one of many bureaus in charge of health, safety, or culture. "It’s easiest to find a location with existing licenses and piggyback on them,” Benjelloun said. If this is not possible then you will need a business license for restaurant or café, health permit, approval from the local fire department, and a permit to sell alcohol from the Alcoholic Drink Circulation Administration Office. If your venue is considered an entertainment venue by the Ministry of Culture, you must also get it registered so that you can do fun things like concerts or booty dancing on the premises. Most hutong bars are missing most (or all) of these permits. Since 2014 it is prohibited to get licensing for real estate that is residential, meaning pretty much all low-rise hutong buildings, so opening a hutong bar has its own loopholes but also unique risks.
Final Bits of Lounge Logic
Some important aspects that all of our contributors seemed to agree upon are having a unique concept, providing good service, and doing your homework. "Unless you offer something unique, it will be difficult to draw in enough customers to stay in business" with so many bars to choose from and more opening every month, Bill Isler of Capital Spirits states.
Keeping your service top-notch will help you maintain your customers, and doing your homework and learning about the business will keep you informed about the possible pitfalls of running a bar in the capital. “Like any business, it's about the people, from top to bottom. That's always more important than endless investment and brilliant concepts. But a bar is also about having fun, so maintain a balance of sincerity and good vibes,” Dada’s Ohlsson says.
More stories by this author here.
Photos: Kipp Whittaker
Visit the original source and full text: the Beijinger Blog