Thursday, March 22, 2012

How not to do it - opening a bar

A couple of weeks ago, I was tipped off about a new bar opening in my neighbourhood - so, I thought I'd go and give it a try.

There are many, many bad and pointless Chinese bars opening up all over the place - particularly in my neighbourhood! - all the time; most of them I never get around to checking out; and most of them don't endure for very long. Therefore, I am somewhat perversely glad that, for once, I went to the trouble of scoping this place out... because it superbly epitomises so much of what is STUPID about most Chinese bar owners in Beijing, it is a text book on how not to.

Things that are probably better to avoid:

Setting up off the strip
Sure, some places - good places (like MaoMaoChong or Amilal or El Nido) - can establish themselves as 'destination bars', somewhere that's worth a small excursion off the more regularly beaten track. And more true 'neighbourbood bars', 'locals' serving the population who live in the immediate vicinity (like The Brick) rather than the general after-work drinking crowd, would be a welcome addition to the Beijing scene. But, in general, there's a reason why bars and restaurants cluster together around Sanlitun and Gongti and Nanluoguxiang and Houhai and Wudaoying and Wudaokou. Most 'lone wolves' die of starvation. Hence, the bar that inspired me to write this is immediately setting itself a bit of a challenge by opening up on Gulou Dongdajie (a street of shops and restaurants, not bars), mid-way between the Houhai and Nanluoguxiang bar enclaves (nearby, but perhaps not quite near enough).

Impossible to find/No name outside
The 'speakeasy' craze has tried to make a virtue of obscurity, elevating being unadvertised, unlabelled, hard-to-find into a quirky marketing gimmick. I don't like the idea much myself, but I can see that it might sometimes work - with a very special kind of bar (a trendy, upmarket cocktail bar). With most bars, it is simply commercial suicide: if you don't put a sign out front, you are never going to have any business. Guess what my new bar forgot to do?

Being upstairs, in a mall
Of course, I long ago identified this as one of the defining characteristics of a bad bar. If there is one thing that's arguably even worse, it's being upstairs in a mini industrial estate. Oh, and set back off the main street. At least this place is in quite a bustling area, a very central location in the city. And it's upstairs from a highly visible motorcycle-and-sidecar dealership, which makes it fairly easy to find once you know the secret.

Unclear or naff or multiple names
The bar in question is ostensibly called Zhou in Chinese. Apparently, that's the zhou that means 'axle', not the one that means 'porridge' (nor any of the other 100-odd zhou words; it's a troublesomely multifarious syllable - although I think this is the only one, or the only common one, with a rising second tone). However, the posters that flank the door proclaim instead iBeer - very hip and modern; and I'm sure Apple won't mind. Ah, but the business cards announce that the 'English name' is Eje Beer Club. The owner tells me that 'eje' is the Spanish for zhou, i.e., for 'axle'; so, at least there's some consistency there. Unfortunately, his Spanish is about as good as my Chinese, so I am unable to reach an understanding of why he has chosen to call his bar this... in Chinese and Spanish, but not in English. [One is reminded of the worst bar on Nanluoguxiang, which has long suffered the handicap of having not one but two of the most ridiculous names to be found in this city: LogIn Pub and Wiggly Jiggly's. And also of the little Moroccan restaurant opposite the April Gourmet supermarket on Xingfu Ercun, which has signs outside identifying it as Argana and Escobar and Casablanca; not naff names, but too many of them - this confusion of identity no doubt explains why it has never developed the kind of following that its prime location and tasty food deserve.]

Inconsistent theme or lack of branding
It was also unclear to me why such a very Asian bar (think Japanese or Korean: bright, garish, would-be space-agey, with lots of chrome and shiny plastic and mirrors) would give itself a Spanish name. And then specialise in Belgian beer. While playing (at least while I was there) exclusively reggae music. This is a bit too much of a cultural mélange: customers don't understand what you're trying to give them here.

Horrible decor
I already mentioned the gleaming plastic and the overuse of mirrors, didn't I? There are also some 'homemade' booth seats along the wall with the windows, which are too cramped for anyone - other than, perhaps, very diminutive Asian girls - to actually sit in, and are absolutely rock hard. The centre of the room is filled with small, high, round, gleamingly plasticky tables - most of which have but a single stool placed next to them. So, this is a "beer club" for the solitary drinker?? You'll probably need to wear ski goggles as well, since the lighting sears the eyeballs.

An unwelcoming attitude
It's good to get your mates in to support you in your early days, and to give the impression - however slight and unconvincing - that the place is attracting customers. It's not such a good idea to have these few guys always completely hog what little counter space you have at the bar.  And chain smoke, in a small, poorly ventilated room. (I suppose I should be grateful at least that they weren't playing dice. Although it seemed likely that dice, or cards, or some kind of drinking game would break out shortly.)

Lack of facilities
These days, your own loo - preferably a Western-style sit-upon - is pretty much de rigueur for a bar, or at any rate for one that aspires to be even slightly upmarket. As is a wi-fi beacon (despite half-hearted attempts by the authorites to outlaw wi-fi last summer). And at least one member of staff who can muster a couple of dozen words of English. Zhou may address these deficits in time - but I wouldn't bet on it.

Too near to rivals
Zhou may be just a bit too far away from Houhai or Nanluoguxiang to pick up much random foot traffic (er, if anyone knew it was there anyway...), but it is right next door to two other recent-ish bar openings, Temple and Jam. Temple is a large, divey bar, with Chinese/European ownership, focused on beer and simple cocktails, and putting on a lot of live music; Jam is cleaner, brighter, more upmarket, more Asian in flavour, with a "Japanese/Italian" theme (I kid you not!) and an emphasis on food and fancy cocktails. As it happens, I don't particularly like either of these places; but at least they have a fairly clear idea of what they want to do, and they do it way better than Zhou. I cannot conceive of anyone choosing to go to Zhou rather than to one of these two neighbours.

Falling between two stools
It's particularly unfortunate that Zhou is in many ways so reminiscent of its local rivals. Its emphasis on imported beers, and its attempt to keep prices reasonable (about the one good thing I have to say for it; I think it's probably got the cheapest bottle of Duvel in town at the moment - I just don't like Duvel, unfortunately) would seem to pitch it more in the 'dive bar' category, where it can't hold a candle to Temple (or El Nido). However, its decor and ambience (insofar as it has one) seem to be aspiring more to something Asian-friendly and slightly swish.... like Jam. It is not so much falling between two stools as taking careful aim and diving between them...

Perhaps it can attract enough Chinese - and Japanese and Korean - beer enthusiasts to keep it afloat. But, without some radical changes, it is never going to build any Western custom.

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