Thirsty work: how trial and error delivered Grande results
El Grande Holdings owner James 'J.R.' Robertson was born and educated in the San Francisco area. After graduating from University of the Pacific - where he picked up a taste for beer - and a period of training for the US Army Reserves, he joined Bank of America in 1969. His finance career lasted 27 years and brought him to Hong Kong.
In 1990, he and a partner opened the first Grappa's outlet in Pacific Place. In 1996 he left his job to work full-time in the food and beverage business. El Grande now operates more than 15 bars and restaurants in Hong Kong, including Domani, Inn Side Out, Cochrane's and Tequila Jack's. There are also outlets on the mainland and the Philippines.
Why did you call the company El Grande Holdings?
When we started Grappa's in 1990, I went to the solicitors' office to find a two-dollar shelf company. They had all these names along the lines of 'Long Life' and 'Double Happiness'. But they also had one just called El Grande. That's Spanish for 'the Big Company', so I took it, and we've kept it ever since.
What was your next step after Grappa's in Pacific Place?
We opened a Grappa's in Tsim Sha Tsui and it was a failure. We lost lots of money. Then we opened the LA Cafe and we were there for about seven years, made money for about two, and lost it for about five. The rent was just too high. As one of my friends said, 'Maybe you should have lost money on the first one, then you'd never have done the second and third', which was true. But we learned from our errors.
You have a lot of different outlets under various names. Is there a unifying theme?
The outlets are all essentially either Italian restaurants or pubs.
Do you like beer yourself?
Yes. When we started the East End Brewery in Quarry Bay I was buying from a company called Timepiece, which imported a lot of Belgian beers. I met some of the suppliers in Belgium and later, when Timepiece stopped bringing the beers in, I wrote to the producers to ask if I could buy direct.
So I started bringing the beer in myself. Now we have a company called Liquid Assets which imports beer and wine, and we're the authorised distributors for Chimay products, Duvel, and now Fuller's.
We have the distribution rights for London Pride for the whole of China, and we're doing pretty well up there. We also have Brooklyn Lager, which we bring in from New York. We're having fun.
What did you drink when you were living in the US in the bad old days before the micro-brewery movement?
When I was going to university in California, Coors beer must have had about a 75 per cent market share. They don't now, it's probably more Budweiser. But in those days everybody drank Coors and we thought it was really good. It's OK, but still pretty watery compared to some of the things we drink now. Brooklyn Lager has a lot of flavour.
Any other special favourites?
I must admit that because of age I can't drink as much beer as I used to, so I drink more wine now. But I like different beers for different occasions, and at different times of the day. On a hot summer day I like something like the Philippines' San Miguel. That's a beer for sitting on the beach. But in the evening, I like more flavour.
I like London Pride a lot, and I've become quite friendly with a lot of the people at the company. I actually have a flat in Chiswick [near the brewery] and I stay there a lot.
Have you visited the monasteries where Belgian beers are brewed?
Chimay is still brewed in the monastery, but the monks now have commercial guys running their production for them.
Their dormitories are 50 metres from where it is brewed and you can see them wandering around in their robes. But there are not many of them. Nobody seems to want to be a monk any more.
It's bottled about 10km away from the monastery, and there's a lovely little inn on a creek near there, and that's where I usually stay. I've been there eight or nine times. In theory it's to maintain connections, but it's also a pleasure. Some things you delegate and others you just have to do yourself.
What does the future hold?
I'd like to get into Allan Zeman's new building. I have an idea of something I'd like to do there. We also opened a Grappa's in Chengdu which is doing pretty well, and we're also looking at Dalian.