Whines/Gripes 4: ‘Flakey Owners’ bane

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Another Bar: Another Gripe:

Octoberfest is waning again and while thoughts of beer festivals and the Autumnal wine harvests linger, concerns mount this month at the state of bars, here, in this town. Apologies, if this particular Gripe comes across like a parody of a stereotype wearing the xenophobic veil of cynicism. That’s maybe to some extent what a gripe ought to be, but it still irks somewhat to be appearing to be doing it.

Growth through life experience is like eating a bag of Revels, blindfolded: you never know when you’ll get the one you actually want. They each bring sensual trepidation; unless you happen not to like blindfolded Russian Roulette, Revel style, or any other.

The general raising of the bar of, err, bars, in quality terms, which was witnessed by this observer in the first 18 months in SH has, since then, been trounced by a tidal wave of failures and blanderization. This is one take.

Camel MirageOn-Trade Ideology

Quirky Expat watering holes are replaced by anodyne, yet sterile, anonymous Super-pubs. Tasty, Micro-brew experimentation has been usurped by ubiquitous fizzy blandness, that’s often unfit for consumption when this writer visits; deteriorating, month on month, in some cases. Where I was previously heard championing the rise of beer centric Bars, with wonderful variety and crystal quality, I am now myself, reticent even to venture anywhere near. Was it all a Mirage? What’s going on?

Did the bars change? Or was it the beers, the punters, the economics? Plumbing for the latter and explaining as we go: the contention goes that the economics since the 2008 meltdown has taken some time to work it’s way through the system and emerge in on-trade ideology. Rather like the analogy of a supertanker taking a considerable time to stop, the ebbs and flows in investment infrastructure, were delayed to decline well after the shit hit the fan in 2008.

This premise is evidenced by the mindset of bar owners. Finding dependable bar owners to work with is something of a task. Maybe both are part of a bigger, industry wide, inter-related drift off course.

Thirst for Knowledge

The bar odyssey since my arrival in SH in 2008, of seeking out the best beers and bars this town dealing with the devilhad to offer (albeit, on a small scale), was preceded for 6 years of similar ‘work’ in New Zealand. It turned out to be surprisingly few in that place. Avidly exploring in the UK for a decade in the 90’s by visiting pubs the length and breadth of Britain (for the best pints and most seductive ambience), by the time I made it to SH, I knew my pubs and I knew a good one when I saw one.

Here in SH, and on the Supply side, the shoe is firmly on the other foot. Here are a few local tales.

After helping out with training and consultancy at a few bars over the last couple of years, an unwelcome pattern typically develops: Following a period of mutually positive training or consultation with bar owners/managers (to boost their offerings or to keep them on course), they start to become distant. The warm welcome from my best new friends, who say,” Tell us everything you know, Wine Man” and are so keen to learn, suddenly cool and then fade. I then had generally found out that they had switched to a low cost Chinese Supplier. Security and Quality plummet. Profits maintain for some time, then decline rapidly. Smiles fade: customers who were initially oblivious complain about falling standards (often to us, assuming our continued influence).

One local pub (we’ll call it Pub A) has itself undergone consistent deterioration over the last 2 years. Regular food poisoning complaints were the common theme: Also, headaches linked to house beers & wines and blackouts from the Spirits (though it would be difficult to objectively isolate these under what is often anecdotal evidence). We were involved for about 8 months but could never really move the quality debate forward.

A Dark Underbelly

However, as long as these stories of ‘poisoning’ are often recounted in half outrage, half hilarity, they lose all credibility. Coupling that tacit loss of gravity with an epidemic of the ‘I want more for less’ dream, the population explosion of bars won’t slow down, or the quality, lift.

One must continue to wonder why, when conventional wisdom tells us that ‘less is more’, quantity remains for so many imbibers, the trump card which triumphs over quality.

Coincidently, yet more announcements of counterfeiting ring arrests recently (September, 2013) in Shandong. Counterfeit copsRemember that someone is buying this rubbish and passing it on down the chain to end users like you, often with a smile, and no interest in the consequences to your health.

Around 24 months back, Pub A dabbled briefly in adopting ‘real‘ wines through us, instead of the rubbish they had been annoying and more recently ‘poisoning’ customers with, but the owner and manager really just wanted us to get them exactly the same wine they were already getting from a Chinese guy. Their aim; to maintain the status quo, while ignoring higher standards at the time that consumers were openly demanding. It was astonishing. Unfortunately, suppling such awful wine was not an option for us. Their credibility would not improve and ours would be tarnished. Altogether, ‘the wrong strategy’ calls fell on deaf ears. We parted company before we really began, quickly followed by the manager’s own departure.

Cut from the same Dodgy Traders cloth

Cafe Bar B who initially wanted to be a major local alternative venue for wine drinkers, have ostensibly since denuded all their wine sales. How? Well, after 2 years of alternately demanding intensive training and much time, then resenting the supporting presence and sceptically ignoring any advice to help them understand ‘Western’ needs (usually concerning food menus) they simply stopped being interested in the ‘wine bar thing’. So after picking our brains for 2 years they opted for a Chinese supplier just over a year ago. Despite belatedly offering some western snacks (which still often miss the target) all hope of turning the place into a decent Wine Bar has evaporated, abandoned by the fretful owner. The fad had just been that. Fair enough to change tack but one always felt it was an uphill battle with only half the cards on the table at any time, and our hands tied behind our backs.

cheap red wineSame story at Restaurants C and D. All wanted to sell ‘western wine’, but without paying the price for the honest, reputable wines offered by business like ours, which come through verifiable channels. Most simply wanted to pick our brains to get to the point where they had sufficient knowledge to engage a frankly, cheaper, usually dodgy indigenous supplier: Unconcerned with any social responsibility and certainly uninterested in any form of quality approach; they were after anything cheap. Anything! Illicit goods, faked wines, spoilt goods or bankrupt stock. It didn’t matter. ‘Bigger Margin’, goes the mantra.

Another place, Restaurant E were initially very open and even ecstatic to have our input (except the manager, who adopted ‘cool’ after initial warmth). Everything was fine for a while, though communication was very slow. A worrying sign. Another was their quality and customer care orientation; or lack of it. They were continuing to sell (and insisting on keeping right beside our pristine bottles of great variety and lovely quality) wines SO OLD they were clearly rancid inside.

We pushed and pushed to have them removed or used up in another way but there were literally hundreds of bottles of it: years worth of shagged out old Vino Di Tavola that was either cooked or oxidised or both. It was beyond funny. Yet they laughed it off. Plans were devised for them to cut their stock, in positive ways. A nice guy who worked there would listen to the reasoning and just shrug his shoulders, saying, “The boss don’t care.” The Chinese owner lived abroad. The manager was unimpressed. I think laziness plays a crucial part too. And trust.

At that place, things between us started to unravel around payment times. It was a simple pattern. Ask for payment for the wines they used. They made it tiresome. Payments were fleetingly respected, seldom easy and eventually, things got nervous. All the staff were great but getting money out of the person holding the purse-strings was near impossible. They were never very good at paying for wines they had sold and been replaced, but it was getting worse. In the end (thinking they were just trying to pull a fast one) all 75 different wines were pulled out in 25 minutes flat, one evening, racing against the clock, cloak and dagger style, lest they bring in ‘heavies’.

With hindsight, the petty jealousies of the badly mannered Shanghainese manageress and a lack of standards for customer were the bugbears.

Crocodile Smileschina smile

There is a lot of jealousy, as it happens (and possibly a dose of resentment too) behind the smiles. Not really from the staff usually, but often likely from owners or managers. Resentment stems from their perception that they are not making as much money as they think they might. As they squeeze and squeeze it denudes the point of doing business.

Bar F recently announced it was going to close after just 8 months operation. In that time they ignored pretty much all advice except from customers wanting longer happy hours (Sparkling wine promotions: use of Blackboard marketing, etc. all ignored) It was regularly pointed out that telling customers they sold wine would have helped. The only advice they followed was to get a nearby restaurant to supply them with take-away menus so folks could order food and have it delivered to their bar. Really, they wanted to create a girly-groping, beer-bar without researching (or noticing) that the neighbourhood was in fact an unsuitable family area. A shambles from start to finish.

Themes that run through these tales are that Owners, whether bars or restaurants, just don’t care about the products they sell. Maybe they don’t need to, if they see the same indifference reflected back from their customers.

Life's to short...Where do we go from here?

How to reverse this trend concerning the quality collapse in bars? Finding the cause or apportioning blame might be a start. Is it ‘greedy owner syndrome’, ‘market forces’, the very nature of ’emergent capitalism’, customer demand for lower prices (via Happy Hours, etc) or some combination thereof, leading to quashing higher quality options, or perhaps the government imposed hefty import duties and sales taxes? Probably a complex mix of all those.

The only factor we can hope to affect is the nonsensical desire for lower prices at all costs. It is a negative force that is driving bars and restaurants into the dodgy world of fake, illicit drinks and dangerous outcomes. Period, as our American cousins might say.

Some leadership from the big boy wine importers would be encouraging to help battle for the positive health of the drinks-leisure business here in China, Despite the presence of some lovely people in those businesses, don’t expect any leadership or community spirit from there anytime soon. They have hard battles to fight too. That they are here to do exactly the same as the local bar owners is pretty clear, albeit with a notable love for their product in most cases. It’s a turf war with an air of respectability and decorum, nonetheless overshadowed by the spectre of loss of market share in an ever increasingly competitive marketplace. As we know, consolidation is an ever present threat in that marketplace. Indeed, Tesco announced in recent weeks it was pulling out of China.

High moral position and all that

Every time these societal and business environment issues come up, it seems a little more like Blade Runner out there. And they do come up very regularly in the press and through personal experience. Does anyone accept the way the wind is blowing? Growth through life experience may be like eating a bag of Revels, blindfolded: you never know when you’ll get the one you actually want, but sensual trepidation apart, it may happen that blindfolded Russian Roulette, Revel-style, (or any other) isn’t welcome as a system to engage progress or a necessarily enviable life-experience.

With experience comes wisdom and wisdom leads to cold hard decisions: “Come to us for wines, sure, but advice and support have a value and are now charged for, accordingly. Take it or leave it.” And what about the ‘posh‘ restaurants and hotels? Surely there’s some respectability and manners there? Even worse to deal with, according to the ‘grapevine’.

So, while there is a long hill to climb, from our perspective, to influence any improvement in the wines in restaurants and bars, the question remains; what to do about the perception of the decline in decent pubs (with which we generally have no business and even less social interaction nowadays): those which focus on the singular pleasures of beer consumption? Anyone with any tips out there, on decent pubs making real live,  interesting beers we can actually enjoy drinking, please get in touch and let me know.

TWM

November 2013

As we publish, note these relevant updates:

  1. Last week, smuggled wine was on display at a restaurant in Jin Feng lu.
  2. Earlier this month, the friend of an acquaintance asked us to help shift 200 cases of smuggled wines.
  3. Last month, a local expat-targetted supermarket in Gao Jing Lu closed after less than 8 months in which they were selling short dated / out of date products. After asking for and then ignoring purchasing advice they bought a 1000 bottles of wine (from the wrong suppliers, sold very little with VERY thin margins and  failed. (The causes are multitudinous; product ignorance, poor handling, poor marketing, lack of English, market awareness).

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