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Dispatches From Shanghai

March 31, 2020

Story: Kara Newman

photo: Nick Hensley


Dispatches From Shanghai

March 31, 2020

Story: Kara Newman

photo: Nick Hensley

Testimonials from bartenders, owners and community organizers in the wake of COVID-19.

Shanghai, considered by many to be China’s capital of cocktail culture, lies 500 miles east of Wuhan, the world’s first COVID-19 epicenter. Efforts to stem the spread of the virus resulted in a full shutdown of bars and restaurants across the country, an extension of Chinese New Year (January 25) closures, when millions of people return home to celebrate with extended family or vacation domestically. Today, businesses have been closed for about 10 weeks, all told.

Cocktail delivery service has long been legal in Shanghai, and when bars shuttered, many ramped up delivery, a model that some businesses in the United States now are emulating. A glimpse at social media feeds shows just how elaborate these delivery setups can be, with labels printed, garnishes lovingly vacuum-packed in plastic bags—sometimes, even fancy ice is included.

Some businesses, including bars, are only now beginning to crack open their doors, and the mood in Shanghai appears to be one of cautious optimism. For bartenders and owners in the U.S. hoping to peek into the future for clues about how to weather the storm, Chris Lowder, a Shanghai-based bar consultant who has run world-renowned bars in Seoul (Four Seasons) and New York City (The NoMad), has a message from the other side.

“Some of my communications with bartenders and bar owners in the States recently have led me to feel that people have been thinking, ‘OK, my bar is closed, I can just deliver cocktails and everything will be fine.’ That’s just not the case,” Lowder warns. “The sense that I get is that people still are not mentally preparing themselves for the deep sacrifices and long-term shuffling and scrappiness that’s going to be required to stay afloat. It’s going to be months of closure. People should be ready for it to be difficult.”

Chris Lowder | General manager, Proof & Company

After a New York bartending career—including at Amor y Amargo and The NoMad— Lowder relocated to Asia, where he is a craft spirits distributor, bar industry educator and consultant. He has been vocal about sharing cocktail delivery techniques and best practices on his Instagram feed (@getlowdernow).

Now that we’re two months in, I can say that the most important strategy has been to plan seriously, act decisively and pivot often. The businesses that I know that have managed these two months of closure most successfully were the ones that kept an open mind and stayed resourceful during this ongoing crisis. Forecast your P&L according to different fallout scenarios. As Bobby Heugel correctly suggested, make very aggressive cash flow plans to ensure that your business can stay liquid during this time. This includes negotiations with your landlord, negotiations with your suppliers, negotiations with your employees, negotiations with all partners. Get everyone on the phone and work out plans that will keep your business balanced. Also, stay on top of all government updates and subsidy/relief programs, and then redo all of your forecasting every few days to account for this new information. But I do not recommend that you wait for the government, big brands or your bar’s fans to bail you out. If and when that money comes, it should be supplementing you. Not saving you. Every bar, every business is going to have to dig deep and take control of their own destinies if they are going to make it through this mess.

As our friends at Hope & Sesame in Guangzhou have also shown, I recommend selling down anything that can be sold down. Start with using delivery to get rid of all of the kitchen’s perishables. Then consider selling off your glassware, furniture or other equipment and decorations to stay alive.

Delivery cocktails will help to keep some money coming in, but this is only one component of a larger solution. This is the level of scrappiness that we have seen by businesses in China who choose to fight to stay alive. Get cash, make it work, and stay in the fight.

Yao Lu | Owner, Union Trading Company

Shuttered for two months, the six-year-old Union Trading Company tried to resume serving drinks in early February, but after three days was ordered to shut down. Owner Yao Lu is hoping to reopen as soon as next week.

We have been [mostly] shut down since late January, and have been experimenting with alternative ways to bring in some kind of revenue. We have been doing bottled cocktail deliveries, streaming online cocktail classes, as well as taking this time to catch up with staff training, set up new sanitation SOPs, etc. Though these measures are only 5 to 8 percent of what our normal revenue would be, it’s just enough to give us a fighting chance.

The tough part of this whole situation is you have no idea when the virus and the fear associated with it will fade away. Cocktail delivery and streaming [cocktail classes] is a sustainable marketing tool [and provides] alternative income, so these are things we can keep in the long term. But at the end of the day, no one’s ever trained to deal with these types of tragic situations. We are all just throwing ideas on the wall to see if they stick.

For us, the light is around the corner. So when we reopen later this week, please come by, buy your bartender and your neighbor a drink, because we have all been through hell and back and the team has taken great sacrifices to ensure the survival of the business.

Colin Tait | Bar manager, Shake and Heyday

Prior to running operations for Shake and Heyday Vintage Jazz Lounge, Tait, a Scotland native, was at Bangkok’s Vesper. Both Shanghai bars have been closed for the past two months, and he is hoping to resume service the first week of April. As live music performance spaces, his venues face additional hurdles to reopening.

Both venues are live music–oriented so even though a lot of bars in Shanghai have been opening up over the last couple of weeks, we have had to wait a little longer to reopen, as there are reasonable concerns with the size of groups [that] live performances can bring. As it stands, we have been given tentative approval for the first week of April.

We have been able to keep on all our staff and paying them what we can to support them as best we can, while also maintaining rent and other fixed costs to ensure the business can come out of this in a fighting condition.

Initially we partnered up with Laiba bottled cocktails and Peddlers Gin [for cocktail delivery services]. They pulled on their resources and facilitated a lot of bars from around China to sell their own versions of bottled cocktails across the country, working as a co-op, so to speak. This has made logistics on this venture a lot more accessible for us and a lot of local bars.

We have also been putting out weekly content on WeChat and other Chinese social media platforms focusing on the music; soul, funk and jazz are as much a focus for us as cocktails. Music has the power to bring people together and right now, together is the only way through it.

Numbers and complete honesty are key here. We are analyzing everything with the worst-case scenario in mind and taking advantage of all government and industry support that is available, staying positive and realistic but without deceiving ourselves or our staff. We are aware of limitations and have made our people aware of these too so they can decide what’s best for them.

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