Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Delayed blog means the bar is on time

So my bar is finally opening up for business. Technically it's in soft open mode. So today's post is about menu's.

Because I'm one of the founders of my bar as well as the managing partner I found myself in the unique position to do what I felt was right as long as it revolved around two major points: 
Will it make money? Will it be fun?

First off, a bar is a business. Anyone that thinks that they do it just for the love is either so rich it doesn't matter or not responding in a revenue earning potential. Of course, I love making cool drinks and the art and technique of it all but I won't have these opportunities if I'm not make cash money every single day. If you're not hustling at the bar then you're just a customer at the bar. I really and truly believe bartending is art, you're physically creating a cocktail with your hands. Depending on the drink, you're using a pick to crack ice, you're slapping mint, you're measuring, you're tasting, you're appraising then finally when your drink is at it's pinnacle you serve it up to be judged by your guests. At the same time you're taking multiple orders as you look cool and jump around to the music. It's honest work for debaucherous souls. None of it means shit though if your pour costs are too high. 

This is where the joy, heartache and compromise of menu creation rears it's ugly head like a drunken Chimera. For my bar - I wanted to focus on cool cocktails that I wanted do drink as well as some unique Punches which is my theme. As one does I costed out my drinks onto an excel spreadsheet (yay math) and then rubbed my eyes and nursed several large gins as I methodically crossed out things that were way to impractical. In literary terms, it's called killing your darlings. After the wholesale slaughter of all my dream drinks (Louis XIII Sidecar anyone?) I needed to come back with some things that would work for my pour costs and keep a roof over my head. Instead of a lot of crazy esoteric alcohols that I needed to import or hand carry from other countries I focused on making crazy syrups, reductions and inventive uses for the common fruits I would be using anyway. One of the cocktails I came away with was a Smoked Grapefruit and Roasted Thai Chile Margarita which I could serve as a punch or even an individual cocktail. Costing out a margarita is pretty simple especially if you're using fresh home made lime juice, house tequila (mines 80RMB a bottle but still 100% blue agave) and cointreau. The costs of the grapefruit and thai chile were negligible as we're using them for many other things both in the kitchen and in the bar.  

From that eureka moment more and more drinks followed, Salted Caramel Old Fashioned's, Strawberry Green Tea Mojitos, etc, etc. I'm not trying to re-invent the wheel when it comes to drinks but I'll be damned if I do any more of that pre-prohibition bullshit. Yes, I'm aware Old Fashioned's are "pre-prohibition" but shut up.
With Punches, since they are volume drinks it came to be more like deconstructing a recipe, examining it's strengths and weaknesses as well as costs and prep time. I found drinks I can prep the day before tasted better and we're easier to serve in the volumes that I was looking for. I also used a lot of inspiration from David Wondrich's fantastic book, "Punch" to get the idea behind some recipes as well as the history. 
Then I made some drinks that are so amazing, so delicious that they defy the written word. My Punches turned out so well that in the history of humans interaction with alcohol this is the biggest thing to happen since someone thought to add ice to a distilled spirit. Possible hyperbole in that sentence. You'll have to come over and try though. 

So will my menu be fun? I've added the "F" word a lot because that's a fun word. I gave my drinks names like, Wheel Chair Assassins, The Bastard of Bolton and Naked Lunch. There's dirty jokes on the menu as well as literary references for the high society boozer. I think the menu defines one of your most important guest interactions. For the guests it's a little piece of this strange nightlife world that's explained to them in language they can understand. I don't care if your menu is in Chalk, Printed or scribbled on a sleeping hooker, what you choose to write reflects what you are about as a bar. Because I'm in Shanghai my menu is in both English and Chinese and so I thought it'd be interesting to play with the dual nature of drinking - the light and the dark. For the English, the language was rough and braggish and in Chinese instead of doing a direct translation I went the opposite and it flows almost poetically. Each menu item description lists the same ingredients but the message it conveys in the limited space tells a completely different story.
With every menu you should want to push it to the limits and show people that the best bars, no matter how well they're decorated or how shitty they look can always be Business in the front and Party in the back. 
Like a booze serving mullet. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Business of Booze

300,000 RMB = 50,000 USD spent in the club WTF

Booze is big business in Shanghai - it's not uncommon to see a table with 100 bottles of Dom Perignon competing with the table next to it with 101 bottles of Dom. These are Champagne wars and they're outstanding. But, the booze business is much different here then what I'm used to in the States and because of that, I don't know how I'll ever operate back in the west in regards to F&B. Like, China - it's just bigger. 

To understand the booze business you need to understand the drinking culture here. I think that it's a big trap that a lot of foreign companies fall into when they're looking to move into the China market. Booze companies see the staggering population numbers and feel like it's an untapped market. The truth is, outside of the major international 1st tier cities like Shanghai, Beijing and even Shenzen the market is pretty much non-existent. I read somewhere that 97% of the population only drinks local brands outside of the 1st and 2nd tier cities. Travel outside of Shanghai for two hours to a place like Mogan Shan (莫干山) and you'll see at the clubs the only bottles to be seen are beer. Cheap, local, plentiful and warm. 

Wait, hold up - this isn't a lesson in economics. For a moment I almost did some research. 
Let me change my train of thought. Here's Hooters Shanghai:

Monday, January 6, 2014

Creating a business relation in China or how I learned to love Baijiu

So, as I mentioned in the last post I'm opening a bar. This entry will be about business  dinners in China The key to any successful business relationship is trust. In my almost 4 years of living in Shanghai I've seen that the way the locals build trust is by getting completely shit faced drunk over a long dinner or a trip to a KTV. Oh, China...

Typically after you've got a solid business plan and investors you need to find a property in which to conduct your business.  Here, in Shanghai and I'd imagine most other places in China the next step after you acquire a property you need to meet up with the local government of your district and wine and dine them for specialty licencing

       (Hairy Crab, getting business done in Shanghai since forever)

Now, several things will happen at these dinners, there will be lots of chain smoking, oceans of Baijiu (a sorghum based alcohol) and rivers of red wine and or whiskey. For some reason that I can't quite understand most foreigners do not like Baijiu I however love it. It reminds me of burning hot firewater that takes a root in your throat, lights up your esophagus and warms up your belly. It's delightful and not for the faint of heart. It tastes of lychee and watermelon and bright faced exhilaration, after several shots served in tiny little cups it feels like anything is possible and my attitude and my paltry Chinese suddenly get much, much better. On the other hand though, if you don't like it then you'll probably puke. 

              (Chicken feet and cigarettes, the final thing I remember)

I've learned in China it's not the end of the world to puke or pass out at a dinner as long as you puke in the toilet and pass out at your seat. Being drunk is not a bad thing but being drunk at a business meeting when you're supposed to hold your own and is looked down upon. Yes, they will be trying to out drink you and yes you will be the host/victim of many toasts and shots but you can not falter. This is where I shine. As a beverage master for more years then I'd like to count I can hold my own with anyone from local government. That's when it starts getting crazy. Human nature is about competition, when it's two different nations being pitted together in the brotherly act of business drinking there only two options. Either surrender or leave the table of battle as equals. 

Every business dinner starts with a sizing up of the opponents. Usually, it's evenly represented - each side with an equal amount of people. Cigarettes are exchanged, with the heads of both parties receiving priority followed down the ranks. Then comes the toasting. I was once told long ago by a translator that if I don't like to drink I should say something like I'm sick or blame it on my religion. As a foreigner you'll be excused for these things. But, I'm not sick and my religion never held me back for taking out a table at a business dinner. 

Back to the order of events though, So the dishes are coming served family style,because this type of meeting with government always takes place at a Chinese restaurant that you're paying for. If you don't like Chinese food then don't eat much of it, but remember when your with government people the chances are that they've already ordered in advance. This is no problem if you have yourself a hardy before hand. Even if you like Chinese food, and I do, it still doesn't hurt to carbo load before you go in. Try to grab a huge dinner of rice or pasta, anything that will help you absorb the torrential rain of booze that's headed your way. 
After many interesting dishes made of things that you might not be comfortable eating do to moral, religious or textural issues the food is finally finished. Some fruit is served and the drinking begins in earnest. 

Someone told me a trick once where every time you cheers with Baijiu your supposed to take the shot and then chase it with a sprite or even water and actually instead of drinking your actually just spitting it into the clear non-alcoholic chaser beverage. This is for beginners and I've never tried this before. Why waste perfectly good alcohol. Keep in mind, these bottles are about 100 USD per bottle or even higher. When you're doing business with local Chinese government it's not cheap. I'm not going to say the "B" word here but this another form of it, hugely expensive dinners that foster business ties. If you want to do everything right, make sure all the forms are filled out, all the mountain of paperwork processed then these are the steps you need to take. Also, it's not my culture so I won't judge. I just know If I want a legitimate business then I need to go through the legitimate channels and these are them. It might be different if you're opening a flower shop but I sling booze and that's that. 

By now, everyone probably had a few shots and there is some etiquette involved. If your the head of your side you should make an effort to cheer the head governmental person. If you aren't the head of your side then it's the head of your sides duty to cheers the head government guy. It goes like that naturally with other people from the government side cheersing both you and your colleagues much the same way. Over and over and over again till the room is red faced and smoke covers the air, at this point there should be a few lesser governmental officials sleeping at the table. The toilets should be covered in puke and if you've succeed in not making a total ass of your self or being to drunk then the head governmental official will say that it's time to go. Don't make the lead government person loose face by getting him too drunk unless he's the one initiating it. If he stops drinking don't force the issue. Later, there will be an effort on their part to pay the bill. Whatever happens don't let them. Discreetly pay, also pay for their equally expensive take away items that they've already pre-ordered and then start saying your heartfelt good byes. After the dinner concludes both sides generally like each other much more and even though there is a huge ocean of language and culture for those few merry hours of complete alcohol overload the ocean turns to a puddle that's that's easy to hop over as long as you don't throw up. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

It's been awhile!

Fudge on a fudgicle. It's been awhile since I've updated this blog. It's been so long that even the word blog sounds stupid to me. But, that's me though. Busy, busy, busy. Over the last 3 years I've been the bar manager at Shanghai's top new clubs and now I'm going on another adventure. That's right, I'm opening my own spot. So, do try and follow these new adventures, whether they're mundane like selecting glassware or awesome like a day of hard core liquor sampling - I plan to update, post and edit things up and until the bar is open and running. Then it'll be a transformed blog (eewww...can we make better word then blog) of cocktail recipes, funny stories, customer reactions and more shenanigans. Who would have guessed, I'm going to own a bar. Boom

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Machine Gun Funk

Like all foolish things I set out to do this with the greatest of intentions, to dig deep and commit myself to writing about the nuances and craziness of bar tending overseas, of living the crazy American dream of little work, lots of money and a maid that comes three times a week. Then, the darkness crept up on me, I started to say simple little things like:

It’s cold here now in my second year of Shanghai and I’ve been racked with this terrible cough for the last few weeks. Before that I was food poisoned and even worse then that, I started playing my xbox religiously - these are excuses as to why I haven’t been doing any writing of late - haven’t been detailing my adventures in vigorous, whiskey numbed prose punching out words to a silent computer screen that reflects blood shot eyes and a devilish grin.

I had to stop that though - lying in bed all day, refusing either to go to the gym or to write and sleeping, truly sleeping in my desolation and depression was getting to be way to emo for me. The thing is that it’s not that I haven’t been having new adventures, new stories and favorite new concoctions but it’s just been that I’ve had no reason to write them down. Which is stupid because if I don’t write it out, experience it digitally again then sometimes the thing is like it never existed at all.

I’ve changed jobs since my last real posting, I left the half empty bar where no one would go except for my friends to a new crazy awesome nightclub where the only people I seem to meet are my friends or people who’ve always pretended to be my friends, bass music,vodka, champagne, loud uncontrollable nights that don’t end until way into the next day crowing themselves in the glory of the cold cloudy Shanghai winter days. In a way I’ve made my piece with the dawn, that ugly hour that sends us frantically scurrying to our homes in fear of the coming of the light. I’ve made my piece now with hangovers and wear them like a three piece suit, top two buttons clasped, last button open with a big pocket square.

I neglected myself for the last few months, I’ve put on a few kilos, got a few more grey hairs maybe stared into the mirror to much about my own mortality. Which means, while I’m unmarried and doing a job I love I should do everything about it to live the moment to its fullest, to grab the Jameson by the bottle and drink it up like life flowing from a shot glass.

Debauchery and diatribes ahoy...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

American style drinking versus Chinese Style drinking

I have a good friend out here in Shanghai who is from Singapore, named Karl. He's very well off, educated in the UK and an all around crazy guy, the other day he asked me why Americans don't buy bottles at nightclubs here but instead individual drinks? He told me, he just didn't understand it. As a Lao Wei or a foreigner as well as a bartender I always thought that with the exception of a few select spots,the cocktails in the mainland just sucked in general and this led to it being smarter and better to buy a bottle. It's one of those things I've noticed my entire stay, if there are a group of Asians they will almost always order a few bottles of either Champagne or Whiskey and Green Tea or Vodka and mixers for their table. In terms of Westerners, it's always rounds of drinks.

I thought about it a little bit, maybe it was due to the fact that most Chinese people I know don't like to rent - they buy. So renting an apartment is frowned upon here - you stay with your parents until you have enough money to buy your own place. Why buy a drink in a bar for 70 rmb (almost 10 US) when you can typically buy a bottle for around 700-1000RMB (or roughly $100-$150)?
In  the nightclubs - the local culture is to grab a table with your friends, order many, many, many bottles, girls,fruit plates, as you smoke lots of cigarettes and party all night.

In the States, while it's not unheard of getting bottle service at the club it's just extra VIP, balla status. Not the norm. In the States a huge mega dance club will have a big dance floor, huge bars and a small VIP section. In China, where the people are a little more conservative with how they’re perceived, the dance floors are much smaller and usually packed with Lao Wei and bottle service reigns supreme. There are even second and third tier cities where there is no bar, just a small dance floor, 300 tables, lots of black lights and Lady Gaga.

Karl keyed me in the fact that the Chinese are very communal. This goes from the way they eat, in terms of big family style shared plates, the way the families live together as a group and how most holidays are centered around spending time with relatives and loved ones to the the way they drink. A bottle bought for the table is the ultimate showing of community. It's a little feudal as well, Karl explained to me, when he orders a bottles at the club, it's now his table - he's king of the table. The girls, the booze, he's host of the table and it's in a way holding court and  as always  I am the strange and ruggedly handsome visitor from a strange and far off land. There is more to it as well, at a Chinese table there are tons of drinking games, dice, things with your hands, all designed around getting everyone at the table, involved together, communicating, getting hammered drunk and bonding over distilled grain products.

In a western table with individual drinks the conversations turn more individual, one on ones. If we are westerners together at a bar are conversations are for the most part centered around groups of two's and threes. Obviously the exception is for birthday groups or bachelor/hen parties but that is not the norm.

So next time you're at a bar or a club in the States and you can afford it, or grab your friends and pitch in for a bottle. If anything, a shared bottle at a table is much like a campfire in that everyone gathers around it, it's sparks conversations that you might not of had before, it creates memories and hell, it's a lot easier then going back and forth for another round of Appletinis. If anything, you've got a story to tell. Play drinking games, cheers loudly with friends and bond over that booze - it's one of the reasons life is great in the first place.

I wanted to make some kind of bold statement about the differences in mindsets is that Americans are a nation of individuals, we've been told since our birth to be unique, to stand out whereas the Chinese are taught from the beginning that the nail that sticks out gets hammered down hardest and that conformity was the name of the game - I wanted to make some far reaching metaphor about Justin Beiber and Chairman Mao but it's getting late and both Karl and the KTV are calling and you never want to turn down a KTV with Crazy Karl....