Not enough ‘guys wearing suits’ in Lan Kwai Fong any more, says owner of bar that’s closing after 13 years in nightlife hub
Hong Kong Brew House’s J. R. Robertson says bars and restaurants opening in Kennedy Town, Sai Ying Pun and Repulse Bay have drawn business away from Central, and new California Tower hasn’t had the desired effect
Across from the glitzy California Tower is Hong Kong Brew House, the sign’s font a reminder of North American Chinese restaurants serving chow mein and egg foo young. Inside on the walls are funny quotes and colonial pictures, while tables have baskets of shelled peanuts.
While the bar has stood its ground for the past 13 years in Lan Kwai Fong, its lease on life is running out and will close its doors for the final time on June 18.
Owner J. R. Robertson of El Grande Concepts promises a big party the last two days in business, though he says closing Hong Kong Brew House “breaks my heart”.
He’s been in the food and beverage industry in Hong Kong since 1990, when he opened Grappa’s in Pacific Place. He has seen food trends come and go, but says he’s proud El Grande’s stable of restaurants and bars have consistently served Italian and American fare of high quality.
His friend and Lan Kwai Fong landlord Allan Zeman had hinted that perhaps it was time to catch up with the times with a swanky, high-end cocktail bar, but Robertson says: “I’m not a hot cocktail bar operator. We still think we make great burgers, steaks and nachos and have lower prices than anyone else on this strip [Lan Kwai Fong].”
Hong Kong Brew House was one of the first bars in the city to offer craft beers, with a list of over 80 from the UK, Italy, Mexico, the United States, and Germany, and Robertson boasts his bars are probably the only ones in Hong Kong whose menus have a section called “Boring Beers” if customers want to have a Budweiser, Carlsberg or Blue Girl.
Originally the bar occupied part of the premises that now house Hard Rock Café, moving to its current two-storey premises six years ago. The intention was to have live music acts and live stand-up comedy shows on the basement floor and catch the clubbing crowd with a happy hour drink beforehand, but in the last few years the bar’s customers seem to have gone elsewhere.
“Once we moved we never had the same business,” says Robertson, who observes things worsened when the Occupy protests erupted in the autumn of 2014. “It shouldn’t have affected Lan Kwai Fong, but the taxi guys didn’t want to drive up here because of the road closures, so when the MTR wasn’t running, it was hard for people to get home. Since that time business got worse in the beginning of 2015.”
El Grande’s area manager, Jun Cruz, said they had hoped high-end clubs would come into the area, particularly the new tower, and waited over two years for the building to go up, only to find business there is struggling too.
Another problem is people in the area buying alcohol from 7-Elevens that are undercutting the bars yet don’t need to obtain liquor licences. “People would buy a draft beer, then go out for a smoke, then go to the 7-Eleven and sneak in the beers. The next morning we’d find empty tins under the table,” says Robertson.
He also says “guys wearing suits” aren’t coming into the area any more, but are instead heading up to Wyndham Street for a drink. He says some bankers have curbed their spending while others have lost their jobs and left Hong Kong.
Not only has the mix of customers changed, he says, but Hongkongers’ choice of places to eat and drink has diversified geographically.
“On the weekends, people living in Pok Fu Lam would either go to Cyberport or Central. But now there are many places in Kennedy Town or Sai Ying Pun they can go to,” he says. Meanwhile, The Pulse in Repulse Bay has offered residents in that area a spot nearby to drink and eat instead of heading into town.
“Our business on Saturdays and Sundays went off a cliff,” Robertson says. “We only have a good lunch business Monday to Friday, and even happy hour on Fridays isn’t that busy.”
Although the restaurant and bar industry is challenging now, the seasoned entrepreneur says the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic in 2003 was worse. “We had six to seven restaurants at the time and they all had negative cash flow for two months,” he recalls. “We didn’t know if it would be two months or two years. That was scary. But we got over that.”
More recently El Grande encountered setbacks with Swire not renewing the leases for Pacific Place Italian restaurants Domani in 2014 and Grappa’s last year. “We had the highest sales per square foot of any place in Pacific Place,” Robertson says. “I told them, ‘You’re forcing me out for something I didn’t do’, but in the end they gave me a good rate at QRE [Grappa’s new location in Queen’s Road East].”
He insists the restaurant group has good concepts, but that business is not the same. Nevertheless, Robertson intends to keep going; El Grande just opened the Mickey B Pizza Co. in Happy Valley.
“I have no intention to retire. We’re putting everything on freeze for the next six to 12 months,” he says.
For the final two days of business, Hong Kong Brew House will offer drinks at half price, and Robertson promises “a few surprises” for the final weekend party that will start on Saturday June 17 at 8pm.
Hong Kong Brew House, G/F & Basement, 21 D’Aguilar Street, Lan Kwai Fong, Central. Tel: 2522 5559