CHINA’S TIPPLING HUB
From hidden speakeasy bars to chic lounges and gastro joints, Shanghai’s booming cocktail scene has laid claim to being the best in China
When asked about the current problems in Shanghai’s cocktail industry, the first thing that comes to the minds of bar operators is staffing.
It may seem a rather strange phenomenon considering the size of China’s labor force, but Xie was quick to highlight several factors that have contributed to this situation. One of them is the lack of a supply line of talent. While there are several bartending academies in the country, Xie said that many of them don’t actually teach anything useful.
“Some of the schools are just out to cheat people of their money. Many of these so-called bartending teachers have never been behind a bar counter before. The best way to learn about crafting cocktails is through on-the-job training,” said the 34-year-old.
At the root of the problem, however, is the fact that most people don’t regard bartending as a viable career option.
“First, it’s the odd working hours. This type of lifestyle can be really tiring and disruptive to one’s social life,” said Xie.
“Also, bartenders in Shanghai don’t get paid more than their peers in other industries. When you combine these two facts, there’s really no motivation for people to want to join the industry.”
For Yao, another problem lies in the lack of confidence in many locals. He said that because individualism has never been strongly encouraged in Chinese culture, people often shy away from taking up responsibility and letting their personalities shine.
To address this issue, Yao put his staff through intensive training sessions which comprise bartending skills as well as confidence-building activities. He also makes it a point to rotate his bartenders between mixing drinks and service, ensuring that everyone will be comfortable with customer interaction.
To foster individualistic creativity, Yao challenges his staff every few months, usually before the change in season, to come up with new concoctions. The most outstanding creations are then included in the new seasonal menus, alongside the bartender’s name.
Yao’s training methodology has seemingly worked wonders for talent retention. Only one of his bartenders has quit since Union’s inception. One of them, Lucky Huang, has even gone on to emerge among the top three contestants in the Bacardi Legacy Shanghai competition this year.
Another major issue that Yao highlighted lies in the cultural stigma that age equates capability. For instance, he has received snubs from potential business partners because they deemed him too young — Yao turns 29 this year.
“Many people think that you have not earned your stripes in society if you’re young, and hence cannot be taken seriously,” he said.
“I’ve even gotten remarks suggesting that if you’re successful at a young age, you’re either a one-hit wonder or you’re backed by rich parents. Look, my dad is a journalist by day and a painter by night. He’s no millionaire.”
Award-winning bartender Yao Lu (third from left) helms The Union Trading Company, ranked ninth in the recent Asia's 50 Best Bar.