The Business Times

Shaken and stirred: What it takes to run some of Singapore's best bars

Opening a bar may seem like the cool passion project, but it takes much more than a shot of spirited zeal. The owners of three of Singapore's best bars share their stories.

Published Fri, Feb 22, 2019 · 09:50 PM
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THE era of bars is upon us, say bar owners and drinkers alike. Singapore's bars now ping on global radars. Young Singaporeans are lapping up artisanal spirits. At least one new bar opens every month. But it's not a tide that lifts all boats. For one, local competition may be friendly, but it is stiff nonetheless. Consumers' tastes are also evolving in sophistication, meaning they can be harder to please.

After 11 months of operation, Crackerjack, a popular dining and drinking joint run by the same folks behind famed speakeasy 28 Hong Kong Street, closed last March. An internal memo sent to staff said that despite the "quality of the programme and warm public reception, great financial numbers just haven't materialised".

Other bars that have also closed down over the past couple of years include Tiong Bahru Bar, Provisions, Manor Cocktail Room, The Library and The Cufflink Club.

Indra Kantono, co-founder of Jigger & Pony, says players can range from "making their money back in months... to losing everything in under a year". And he observes that not just from first-time entrepreneurs, but also experienced professionals who have had successful ventures before.

Costs have also increasingly become a barrier. Back in 2012, Jigger & Pony was set up on Amoy Street with around S$400,000 of its owners' savings. Now, they estimate it would cost around S$400 per square foot, and the same set-up today would have cost S$680,000. According to them, most cocktail bars these days range upwards of 1,500 sq ft.

The sunk costs of renovation aside, rental is probably the biggest chunk of costs for bar owners. Owners also face manpower headaches. The famed Atlas Bar, with its grand gin tower, runs on a total of 48 staff but still feels the pressure of securing and retaining the right talent. The crunch might become even more acute with the latest Budget's moves to tighten foreign worker quotas.

"Singaporeans need to understand that this is an industry where you can be passionate and have a real career," says Vicky Hwang, owner of Atlas.

Owners BT spoke to declined to reveal staffing costs. However, Boo Jing Heng, head bartender at Tess Bar and Kitchen, previously told The Business Timesa new bartender in a cocktail bar can command a salary of about S$2,400 a month.

That said, it takes more than just money to successfully run a bar in Singapore. BT goes behind the scenes of three popular bars to find out what it takes to stand out.

The bartending wiz turned serious bar owner

WHIPPING up innovative drinks for Tippling Club. Developing the beverage programme for the Potato Head Group. Kamil Foltan has been there, done that.

Surely that gives him an edge now that he's striking out on his own as bar owner? No, he says firmly. There are personalities around the world who make great bartenders, but they may not understand how a business works or lack experience with numbers and marketing, he points out.

Mr Foltan, 34, details the planning he and his wife put into setting up the bar. "We had an estimate of how much we wanted to spend and did research on rents. Based on that, we talked to contractors, gave them a brief and asked for a breakdown of costs," he shares.

The research also involved mapping the market and seeing which location had growth potential, while fitting their concept for the bar. In all, they worked on the business plan for a good year and a half before taking the plunge.

Passion meets business

The Czech Republic native, who has spent 19 years in the hospitality industry and done stints in Greece, Spain and Britain, attributes the planning to his experience of managing businesses in the past and the opportunity to learn from leaders.

Last September, the couple opened The Indigenous Bartender Headquarters (IB HQ) in Kampong Glam, near hipster haunt Haji Lane. Located in a shophouse built between 1840 and 1900, the space is an intimate 30-seater and cost under S$350,000. A long, custom-made wooden bar counter welcomes guests.

IB HQ is the physical extension of The Indigenous Bartender, a website Mr Foltan started to share knowledge with other bartenders looking to explore locally sourced ingredients and use them in cocktails.

He calls it a "passion-business project", where he has to continuously evaluate whether the business is sustainable or not, because it is now his livelihood. He works service shifts with the help of two bartenders he hired. His wife rounds out the team, and helps manage operations and marketing.

For now, five months in, he says they've been fortunate enough to break even and are "getting there" to turning a profit.

"I set myself a year but it's a numbers game at the end of the day," Mr Foltan says matter-of-factly. "Even if you're not profitable, you have to think when to move on."

That practicality comes through in IB HQ's fuss-free execution of cocktails - no "crazy garnishes for Instagram", just elegant glassware and subtle flourishes.

Because, do they make sense, he asks. It's a wow factor, but does the customer have to wait 20 minutes for the bartender to create the perfect garnish? And from a business perspective, there's an opportunity cost to the artful tipple - a fast drinker could have ordered and downed two drinks in those 20 minutes.

Fascinating concoctions

But don't think the serious business has killed the bartender's creative spark.

Ever wondered how matcha vodka or watermelon vodka tastes like? Now you can find out, thanks to his rotovap, which sits next to other high-tech equipment that can produce unexpected and fascinating concoctions.

If anything, being a bartender has taught him that "being creative, being able to put together a menu is a tool that sets you apart from everyone else". That means also being able to foresee what can be done differently and stand out from day-to-day operations, Mr Foltan says. And that comes from "really understanding the market, what's being done, and what's happening around the region," he adds.

A glass of IB HQ's flavoursome concoctions generally costs S$22++.

During the interview, Mr Foltan introduces a special Chinese New Year menu, which they had worked on since last September. The PiPa sounds like a curious creation. It turns out to be a combination of parsnip and pineapples, nothing to do with the Chinese cough syrup.

He offers a shot of the parsnip vodka - it's sharp, herbal and vegetal. Takes your attention.

The one with the hype

HOUSED in what locals call the "Batman Building", Atlas Bar opened to much fanfare in March 2017. It's still one of the most Instagram-ed bars in town, and it's not hard to see why.

Stepping into Atlas is an experience. The bar at Parkview Square, with its gilded furnishings and plush velvet chairs, harks back to the grand European lobby bars of the Art Deco era.

Its centrepiece: a magnificent three-storey gin tower, housing the world's largest collection of over a thousand carefully curated gins.

Owner Vicky Hwang won't say how much it cost to renovate, or what the bar's profitability is. She only reveals that "several millions" were invested in it, and they have been fortunate enough to have "exceeded (their) expectations and projections so far".

Explaining the investment, she says: "When we re-did the lobby, we looked at it as owners of the building as well. It adds value to the whole building, it's not just the fit-out of a bar - and you can't cheap out on it."

The building was also her late grandfather, Hong Kong property magnate CS Hwang's last major building project and so holds much sentimental value for her family. He was the founder of the Chyau Fwu Group, which today owns one of Hong Kong's largest housing estates and developments in China and Europe.

With new developments emerging beside Parkview Square, the family wanted to refresh the building so as not to look like "a tired neighbour next door".

After looking at the tenants and the build, they also felt there was a "huge opportunity wasted" in the lobby space.

Fraught with difficulties

While Atlas also serves meals now, Ms Hwang says a bar was a more natural fit for the iconic space than a full-fledged restaurant as they were constrained by the back of house. The kitchen is just 15 square metres.

The process of setting up Atlas - about two years of planning and five months of renovation - was fraught with difficulties for Ms Hwang, who had no prior experience in food and beverage (F&B).

"I got my first grey hairs after I started doing this project," quips the youthful-looking 39-year-old, who is also the managing director of Chyau Fwu Developments in Singapore.

She did not see her children for months and describes the last quarter leading up to the opening as "insane".

The work involved tearing up the original lobby and reconstructing the 7,000 square feet space. A challenge came from not knowing "who are the good people to partner with", as it was her first project in Singapore.

Construction projects are also tricky as costs can escalate and the timeline can get pushed back, says Ms Hwang. Issues with the furniture, which was bespoke and being delivered from Europe, had also caused a "hugely stressful" delay.

'Shipwreck champagne'

Attention was also devoted to "every single aspect, from the water that we have, to the tea that we pour, coffee and gin". Glassware came customised from a 116-year-old British glassmaker while staff uniforms were by a Singaporean menswear designer.

Among Atlas' offerings are extremely rare bottles for tasting, some of which come from the Hwangs' private collection - thanks to her Uncle George, a big collector of fine spirits and champagne.

They include 'shipwreck champagne' - 1907 Heidsieck & Co Monopole Gout Americain from the wreckage of the Jonkoping boat that sank in 1916. It's the same vintage that passengers aboard the Titanic were drinking.

Ms Hwang has learnt a lot and finds the whole experience rewarding: "It's so gratifying to see people not just talk about the bar, but about the building again."

She continues to keep tabs on operations by going down to the bar daily and holding weekly meetings with the general manager and group F&B director.

Atlas currently has a team of 48, including a sommelier, 13 bar staff, 16 employees for service and 12 working in the kitchen.

What's next?

"I just want to maintain it and make people feel like they've had the most amazing experience here," adds Ms Hwang. "Experiences are very important these days when we're all so time-poor."

Early movers in the cocktail scene

WHEN Jigger & Pony first opened on Amoy Street in 2012, there were some Wednesday nights when only five customers came in.

Most people hadn't heard of them, so finding staff was a problem. The owners slogged it out themselves - one pulled 15-hour shifts and the other worked weekends while holding a day job.

But fast forward to today, Jigger & Pony has grown from having just four to five staff to a food and beverage (F&B) group employing 60 full-time staff.

Sister brands have followed, including cocktail bars Gibson and The Flagship in Bukit Pasoh and Sugarhall also in Amoy Street. Jigger & Pony and Gibson have also ranked every year on Asia's 50 Best Bars list since it started in 2016.

But husband and wife Indra Kantono and Gan Guoyi, both 35, stress that the success did not come overnight. Instead, the process of planning for the bar took nearly two years. Despite having no prior experience in F&B, the affable duo were motivated by their love for hosting, drinking and having fun.

"We spent a lot of time coming up with the business model just to make sure that if we do (open the bar), we know what to do to make it successful," says Mr Kantono, who used to be in private equity.

They also spent time doing taste tests, gathering feedback from various people with different preferences.

Sophisticated tastes

Ms Gan, then a flight stewardess with Singapore Airlines, shares: "When I was back in town, we would host people at home and go to the extent of having a menu for drinks that day. We would invite five people and they each had to invite one person that we didn't know."

And till now, the work never ends, even for someone as established as they are.

Mr Kantono notes how Singaporeans' tastes for cocktails have become increasingly sophisticated and they are no longer impressed just by someone making a cocktail.

To that end, Jigger & Pony shut its doors at Amoy Street last July and reopened at Amara Singapore hotel with an entirely new look. While the new location costs more in rent, the 2,500 square feet space is also almost double that at Amoy Street.

Its cocktail menu was also overhauled. It now reads like a lifestyle magazine, replete with guest articles and stylised shots of new drinks.

The owners have also closed Sugarhall and are searching for a suitable location to open a new version of the bar.

Mr Kantono says: "We could have played it safe and did the same thing at Amoy Street, but we knew that that's not going to be enough. So, we have to introduce new things."

Delivering an experience

Mr Kantono acknowledges that trying new things is risky but says it's about calibrating the risk and getting consumer feedback. It's also partly "looking into the crystal ball and having conviction that this is going to be good", he notes.

That said, serving up great drinks is just one part of the equation for Ms Gan. She believes that it's equally important for bars to provide customers with good hospitality.

"Hospitality is not something you can easily quantify, but it's a driving force in succeeding in this industry," she says. "Because, anybody can put out a product - but can you deliver an experience?"

Day to day, the pair remains very much involved in the business even though they now have managers to help them run the venues. Ms Gan is in charge of hospitality and operations, and still does full-service shifts during busy times of the year.

On the other hand, Mr Kantono takes the lead for researching and formulating business plans for new concepts. He also works closely with the chefs and bartenders to develop menus.

To anyone looking to jump into the business, the pair would say, don't rush. "It's a highly competitive industry," says Mr Kantono. His advice is to take time to build your own skills or surround yourself with people who have the skills.

"Make sure it's sound, do your own due diligence," adds Ms Gan.

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