Conversation with Michael Callahan. Part 1.
The frank talk with Michael about the Singaporean bar industry and staff challenges he met there.
Moving to Singapore
Michael Callahan: Yeah, it was definitely interesting. It was 10 years ago and I didn't really even know at that time where Singapore was. I had never been to Asia. I never had thoughts of even look at coming out here. But the opportunity came when some of my partners, Paul and Spencer, found me in San Francisco. They were living in Singapore, but they weren't in the bar industry. They used to drink in New York in the cocktail bars in the late ’90s and early 2000s. It was sort of the Renaissance period for cocktails and all of the good classic cocktail bars were opening, you know «Milk and honey» and «Pegu club».
They were drinking there, and after moving here they missed it. So they wanted to bring it out here. I ran across them in San Francisco and they offered me open this bar for them in Singapore. It was definitely a bit scary because the amount of time was two weeks. They said, ‘can you be there in two weeks?’. And I said, ‘I don't even know what Singapore is. Two weeks is such a short amount of time, but okay, I'll do it. Let's do it.’ And I just kinda came out here and I was very driven.
I was committed to working with whatever I could find and I didn't expect it to be easy. And I was thankfully surprised by a lot of different things when I got here. There was a little bit of a scene there and it made me feel very happy and comfortable to see that it wasn't a mature scene, but it was two or three bars with three or four (maybe a maximum five) really passionate bartenders who were doing it on their own.
They were trying to read books and trying to come up with these drinks, but they didn't have any mentors. They didn't have any teachers. They didn't have much experience. They may have traveled to a couple of cities regionally, but almost none of them had actually gone to New York or San Francisco or Paris or London and gone to any of the classic bars. They were trying to recreate what they saw on the internet or what they saw in books. And that to me was beautiful. It was pure passion. And so that was lovely.
But the challenges started to unravel almost immediately. The biggest challenge here is staffing because there's almost zero unemployment. It's a very, very comfortable, very wealthy community here in Singapore. And the service industry is considered not desirable for most people's kids to work in. So if you tell your mom and dad that you want to be a server or a bartender, they would be ashamed. They’d say, ’No, no, no, no, you have to be a doctor or a lawyer. You have to go to school. You can't be a server that's below you.’ And that's fine. Cause parents always want their kids to have a good career.
With immigrant workers, you could only hire a certain number of them based on how many locals you hire. So the problem was none of the locals wanted to work in a bar. And without locals, I couldn't get foreigners.
Getting staff was extremely difficult and it still to this day is difficult, but it was even more difficult 10 years ago. Now, bartending and craft cocktail bars are now respected, much like chefs. So if a son or daughter of a Singaporean wants to go into the beverage industry, they can show international awards, they can show international travel that some of the local kids have managed to do. It's not exactly what your parents want, but it's a little bit more respected. As long as you can get into a celebrity bar or a celebrity restaurant, your parents aren't going to be so upset.
The other staffing issue was people. Zero unemployment meant if your job was too complicated, the staff could get adjusted somewhere else. Everybody was always hiring and poaching was a big problem. Basically there was a small pool of bartenders who would work at cocktail bars. So it was always the same: a bartender is going to whatever it was the newest bar, then they would just hop around, and go to the newest bar. And for the owners or operators, the only place they could get experienced staff was to go to the last most experienced bar and steal the staff.
It was a very, very dangerous and negative cycle where, you know, if you wanted to open a cocktail bar, the only place to get staff was stealing the other guy's staff. And then the other bars would no longer be as good. They will lose sales, respect, and eventually, they would close. So you never grew the scene because the talent was too small and the pricing was too high. I wanted to break that cycle immediately upon getting here.
I went to every single bar — there were only about four or five of them. So I went to all of the bar managers and I said, ‘Hi, my name is Michael. I'm starting a bar here in Singapore and I refuse to hire any of your staff. I will not poach.’ And I actually had people kind of laugh at me. They said, ‘Well, everybody approaches. You're not even going to have the choice when you open a bar. I mean, how else are you going to get staff?’ And I said, ‘That's okay. I will figure out how to do it. I just refuse to continue this very negative, very dangerous way of opening a bar by stealing everybody else's talent. It's just not conducive to growing a community and I refuse to do it so I won't do it.’ And that was step one.
Step two was trying to look outside of the box. And I've always done this. I don't necessarily like to go and hire bartenders who have worked at a lot of other bars, mainly because sometimes they have bad habits and you have to break them. But also sometimes they think that they're better than they are because they've worked at some great bars. And the thing is, I'm sure you worked at some great bars, but you've only been bartending for two years. It takes time to truly master your skill. You can't master it in one year. Sure you can get the technique. But the finesse, the ability to know when to employ that technique and how intensive you can be with your hospitality and technique, that takes time. It takes experience, it takes failure. And then getting back up and trying again. So I needed a clean slate.
One way I went about it was to look in places where hospitality was unappreciated. So I would go at like four or five o'clock (about the time office hours are starting to close) to shopping malls to clothing stores like Forever 21 and H&M. Cause you know, retail is a terrible job. You would see these girls and guys folding clothes and then the office workers would come and they would try to buy clothes. And they were always being so rude to these retail workers like, ‘Can I get this one in another size? Can I get this one in another size?’ And they're messing up the clothes at. These people spent hours folding and they really get shit on, like nobody respects retail workers. And yet I would see every once in a while one who even is smiling, no matter how rude the shopper is. And says, ‘Sure, no problem ma'am, I will get you another one. What size would you like? One size smaller. Would you like to try the blue one or the greenwood?’ I said, ‘Wow. You know, you get no respect and you don't make any money on this job. And everybody is so rude to you and you're standing on your feet all day. Yet you still smile and you still want to make somebody happy.’
So I would go to them and give my card and say, ‘Hey, you know, I don't know if you've ever done F&B before, but I'm opening up a bar. And with your hospitality, with your natural talent to make people happy, I think you'd be a good addition to our team. And if you're tired of working in retail and you want a job where you can have fun, and you don't mind working in the late nights, you should come to join us.’ And they would.
Retail shops, they don't care if you approach. In fact, the managers are usually not even on the floor. So retail shops, coffee shops, any place where the staff is oftentimes being picked on or they're disrespected and they don't even get that much pay. Man, that's a great opportunity to put that person into a position where she or he can really grow. So a lot of my staff came from alternative areas.
Another thing that really works very well for a 28 HKS was that we had gotten very lucky and found an alternative lifestyle group. At that time in Singapore, the gay community was more underground. It wasn’t very accepted socially. And by the government as well. Being openly gay in Singapore 10 years ago was a bit more taboo. It's still not exactly fully accepted, but at least it's less taboo. But back then you had to hide it from most of the people.
So we ended up hiring a lesbian and she said, ‘Hey, you know, I have tattoos and piercings and I'm a lesbian.’ And I was like, ‘I don't care. I'm from San Francisco. Come on, man. You could be tattooed from your eyebrows to your toes. And I don't care if you sleep with boys, girls or both, or all of them. All that matters is if you take care of the guests who come into our house and you take care of your co-workers. And I would not judge.’
And so this girl that we hired was so happy that she can be herself at her job. She told her friends and the next thing you know, we had quite a lot of the lesbian community joined us because they were able to be themselves. They could have their piercings out. They could talk about their girlfriends, nobody judged them. And all of these things. I didn't care. I was like, ‘As long as you're a good worker, you make the guests happy and you work hard for the family, you have a home here.’
So those two items really allowed us to build a strong family. And the original 28HKS family stayed together for almost four years, which was unheard of in a market where everybody was going from job to job every six months. Not one person left the first two years when I was still the general manager before we stepped over to open Proof&Co. And then afterward, many of the staff stayed for even more, up to two more years on top of that.
So we solved the staffing issue by addressing it in a unique way, looking for people who are underappreciated but have natural talents. We were giving them a home and allowing them to be free, to be themselves. And not try to mold them into something they're not but give them guidance to understand that family is the most important thing. It really allowed us to build a very unique staff.
Another approach that we took was the way I found Peter Chua and Leo Chewy. We had a party at one of my business partner's house. And we called a temporary service agency and said, ‘Hey, we're having a house party, do you have some bartenders we can hire for the night?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, sure, we'll send you guys down’. We did this three days in a row — Thursday, Friday, Saturday night. And each night they sent two different people.
I didn't tell them that I was a bartender and we were opening a bar. I just gave them three recipes and said, ‘Hey, these are the drinks we want to have tonight’. One was a sour, one was a stirred drink and one was a built drink. It was something simple. So every night I wanted to see how these people worked together not knowing each other (they may not have worked together before cause it was a very large agency). And it was not a real bar, it was a setup kitchen. I wanted to see how did they work in this environment, how did they interact with the guests, how consistent were the drinks coming out. So over the three nights, two guys really stood up and it was Peter and Leo.
So on the next Monday, I called the agency and I said, ‘Hey, you know, we had these parties and these two guys were there. A friend of mine is opening a restaurant and may want to give them a full-time job cause they were really enjoyable. Do you mind if we offer them a full-time job?’ And the temporary agency said, ‘Yeah. All of our employees are part-timers. So if you have a full-time job and they want to go — go ahead. It doesn't matter to us’. We offered them the job and they took it. So Leo and Peter were the first two hires for 28HKS. They were the first two bartenders and they stayed with the company for a very long time.
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