Saturday, March 20, 2010

Trouble at The Drugstore

Rarely has a fall from grace been more dramatic or more total...

Before Christmas, everybody was gossiping about newly-opened Apothecary (or The Drugstore, as Dr Manhattan and I preferred to call it) and the word was nearly all good. Since Christmas, everybody is gossiping about Apothecary, and the word is increasingly bad.

At first, I was a tad sceptical of this bad-mouthing. A lot of it seemed to me excessive or unfair; a lot of it seemed a tad self-interested, emanating from people with loyalties or affiliations to competitor bars. For example, I heard a lot of people bitching about niggardly pours there; I have always got a full pour, and most of the drinks seem to have at least two, if not two-and-a-half or three large measures in them, which seems reasonable value for money. A lot of people bitch about the prices - well, yes, it's a cocktail bar, and cocktails are expensive; but it's no more expensive (on one or two things very slightly cheaper) than any of its rivals (though it doesn't offer any special promotions; Fubar gets a lot of brownie points for its extended 'happy hours', and Q for its recently introduced two-for-one martinis on Wednesday nights). Some people have bitched about some of the bog-standard spirits they use; OK, Havana Club is not a nice rum, but.... if you're going for white rum cocktails, then what kind of quality can you really expect? I always drink whisky or brandy-based cocktails, and they use good brands for those.

But in my first review, I noted some reservations of my own: sterile decor, slow service (a lone barman left to do everything), the 'homemade' affectation not working very convincingly (their self-made ginger beer is pretty terrible), the snack menu offputtingly expensive (40 or 50 kuai for a very spare portion of pickled veggies!). It seems these problems have not been solved: even though they've now got two barmen on, the mixing of the drinks is happening in slow motion, and the waits are very, very LONG. During the soft opening phase, it was usually Japanese cocktail wizard Daesuke behind the bar; now that they're fully open, they're using (I assume, recently trained) Chinese staff, and they don't inspire 100% confidence.

I'd been irritated, too, by their erratic opening times. They stayed closed on Mondays - WHY? They took rather a long break at the start of Chinese New Year - and did nothing to advertise the fact, aside from a small typed notice on the front door (Beijing Boyce is usually more than happy to post news about temporary closures, promotions, refurbishments, etc. - for free). They don't open till 7 in the evenings - WHY? Not very friendly to the after-work crowd, is it? (Worst of all, I've heard of a friend who tried to go in early being turned away extremely uncivilly. Look, people, if the doors are open and the lights are on and the staff are there, it's not going to kill you to make someone a drink, is it? And if you are going to turn business away, you should at least do it politely and apologetically.)

To add to all of these woes, they have committed two colossal foot-shootings. First, they have introduced a 'service charge'. To my knowledge, they are the only bar in Beijing to do this (well, outside of a few of the hotel bars, maybe). When your prices are already quite high, a 'hidden extra' like this becomes a major irritation. And there is, I fear, a danger that if the service is a bit disappointing, some customers may decline to pay the added charge - leading to ugly scenes. Can we really be sure that all of this money goes to the staff? I fear not. I'm all in favour of discretionary service charges - you know, tipping: that would revolutionise service standards here. But a fixed 'service charge' just looks like money-grubbing by the owners. (If you want to pay your staff more, just hike up your drink prices by a few kuai; don't tack surcharges on to the end of the bill.)

So, the service charge is a major no-no. But even worse is the introduction of a bizarre "no standing at the bar" policy. What the hell is the thinking behind that? I like standing at a bar. In fact, I often have medical reasons for preferring, needing to do so: lower back pain from spending all day working at the computer, cramping leg muscles after a 10-mile run. What kind of crazy arrogance is it to try to restrict your customers' behaviour for no good reason? You should let your customers do anything they damn well want, within reason; anything that doesn't cause unnecessary hassle to your staff or the other customers. That's how you create a positive vibe in your place, get people wanting to come back. The guys at Apothecary have done the exact opposite. Even people who have no interest in standing (or even sitting) at the bar themselves recognise that it is an unreasonable rule that is potentially annoying to some patrons, and they're growing suspicious or resentful of the management's attitude. Whenever you hear someone talking about Apothecary now, the words that invariably seem to come up are: arrogant, precious, pretentious, dictatorial.... never going there again.

Even dear old Boyce - usually a fairly forgiving reviewer, and understated in his criticisms - has fairly let rip at them this week (although he is largely repeating the views of 'The Zippy', a guy who contributes some of the shrewder - and more ruthless - reader reviews on the website of City Weekend magazine).

I see Leon Lee, one of the owners of Apothecary, has just posted a response on that CW thread, but I don't think he's done himself a lot of favours with it. It's over-long, and not really on point. It seems to me more self-justificatory than apologetic, and is limited to explaining their recent introduction of a 'door policy' (and he denies that there is a 'no standing' rule; pretty unconvincing - if there isn't, why have so many people been complaining about being told they couldn't stand?!). It doesn't address other issues of poor service, excessive prices, taking too long to mix a drink, etc. [Zippy has already come back to him on that, and a few others, too.]

I'd really like to see Apothecary survive and prosper. In its first few weeks, it looked very promising indeed - much the best cocktail spot in Beijing. But they've started doing a lot of things wrong. And it seems to be an attitude or personality problem with the owners that's chiefly to blame.

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