The Newest Venture By China Veteran Bob Boyce (blue frog, KABB)
With high-end cocktail bars becoming the new (and increasingly ubiquitous) trend in Shanghai, many in the fast-paced city are finding that bigger, flashier, and louder is not always better. For those more interested in real drinks made by real bartenders, rather than an ear-splitting velvet-roped scene, Shanghai veteran Bob Boyce (blue frog, KABB) has opened his newest venture, Brownstone. A stylish but unpretentious cocktail bar in Yongjia Road’s Surpass Court, Brownstone is all about drinks and music — tastefully presented for Shanghai’s non-nightclub set.
Jing Daily recently sat down with Bob Boyce to discuss Brownstone, his thoughts on Shanghai’s current nightlife scene, and how his new bar is adapting cocktails for the local palate.
Jing Daily (JD): What made you want to open a cocktail bar, as your other ventures, blue frog and KABB, are restaurants? Did you notice a growing trend with those restaurants in terms of cocktails or drinks?
Bob Boyce (BB): blue frog actually started as more a bar than a restaurant, and I’ve always liked the bar business. Over the last couple of years, I started to notice customers — there used to be a trend to go to very big clubs, to go out out. There’s still that aspect [in Shanghai], but I noticed our customers are looking for something that’s a little more intimate.
JD: Yeah, you can’t talk in clubs.
BB: Yeah, at Brownstone you can talk, and just have a more intimate experience, more in the neighborhood. The clubs are a destination. You go through security and the doorbitch and all that kind of stuff, line up. Our core group of customers don’t like to go through that whole process. They’ll do it every once in a while, but in general, they just want a nice place to go for a drink.
But also, I also noticed that there was a need for a sophisticated bar in this area because a lot of the cocktail culture is built around having to behave yourself. So you have to sit down, and you can’t stand, and if you go with a group you’re just there with your group. It’s hard to get to know new people. So the core of my business is built around community and getting to know the people around you. blue frog has always been about that, but I really wanted to get back to the bar part of it. The cocktails are what’s popular right now, but I don’t want to get away from the fact that we’re a place where you can come and let down your hair – in a sophisticated way, it’s not a dive place.
JD: You said your customers prefer a more intimate setting – what type of customers are you talking about? Do you expect mostly foreigners or locals, or a mix of the two?
BB: A mix, we already have a good mix of people and we always target a demographic. We don’t target a nationality, so if you look at blue frog right now, it’s a really good mix of people from all over.
Brownstone is really about appealing to a demographic, that’s white-collar professionals who’ve arrived, they’ve got disposable income, they’ve got money to spend, but they want a nice environment. They want good music. They want a good quality drink. They want to be treated with respect and they want good service and they want it close by. And they want a bit of face as well. We try to provide all of that.
JD: Do you see a difference in taste between Chinese guests and Western guests? Do they prefer different cocktails or different flavors?
BB: Well, I would say a Westerner would come in and order a gin and tonic or a vodka soda or whatever…whiskey soda or something. Just sort of the straight mixers. Whereas a local woman will come in and usually go after the cocktails. So they’ll order something fruity and sweet, kind of interesting, colorful. A Chinese guy will come in and order whiskey or a bottle. If it’s a couple and the guy wants to impress the girl or make an impression on his date or the person he’s with, he’ll order a bottle of wine and look as knowledgeable as he can.
There’s a lot of face in that knowledge. We recognize that and we try to help him out as much as we can.
JD: Is there any localization on your drink menu? For instance, maybe some cocktails with Asian ingredients?
BB: Yeah, the lychee martini and the whiskey and green tea are classics. You gotta have those. We’re working on a green tea, “Longjingteani,” that my bartenders are perfecting right now. The great thing about Brownstone is the small intimate space, so we can do more experimenting and interesting things than we can with blue frog. If we do something new at blue frog, we have to roll it out throughout the brand. At Brownstone, it’s a nice intimate space where we can really listen to our customers and respond.
JD: So how are you going to spend your time between Blue Frog, Kabb and Brownstone?
BB: Well, you know, my business is already in the hands of really capable managers, so I come here because I like the space. I enjoy being here. It’s really a place that I built because I was looking for a place like this, that’s why it came about.
JD: Do you take reservations?
BB: Yeah, but we don’t have a bitchy policy about it. The space is designed to be friendly so when we’re really really busy, we do reservations, we’ll have a minimum spending just because that’s what you have to do as a business. But in general, it’s designed to be flexible. You could bring in a group of ten or a group of two or three. This space is really designed to interact with both. What I don’t like is when you’re in a bar and there’s low seating and tall seating together so someone’s butt is in your face.
JD: It’s definitely a pain when you’re sitting down and someone’s standing up and you’re trying to talk to them. High chairs, low chairs.
BB: One of the other trends about Chinese customers, Chinese customers don’t stand. They don’t like standing. If they come in and they don’t have a seat, they feel uncomfortable standing. Western and foreign customers like to stand and what we found is that we often have mixed groups. The way we’ve designed this is like we’re doing now, standing, sitting, everybody’s comfortable and it works. When we get really busy, if you go from over here to over there, you’re going to run into three or four people that you know, if you don’t know them, you’ll get to know them. It’s how you build community.
JD: So right now, how are you spreading the word about yourself? Are you using new media, social media?
BB: Yeah, there’s a couple ways we work. One, we really work with our influencers, people we know who know people. We’ve been doing this a long time. In every group, there’s one or two people that organize the crowd, so we really work with those kinds of people and really make sure that they have a great time with their group of friends.
Which sort of ties into social media – it’s the social part of social media. You can have an online relationship with someone but unless you meet them, it’s not as meaningful. That’s what we try to focus on, providing a place to actually meet your friends.
We’ve also built a good group of core customers over the years and so we’ve been working with them to build our customer base [at Brownstone], and also working with media to get the word out. I think what we’re doing today is building a community. We like customers who come back over and over again, and it’s just about taking care of them when they’re with us, making sure they have a great time and helping them tell their friends. It’s really what we focus on.
JD: Strong word of mouth.
BB: Yeah, and that’s our bread-and-butter. If somebody has a great experience, they tell a lot of other people.
570 Yongjia Lu, near Yueyang Lu, Building 4.