A note from Shlomo: This is the 2nd interview on our Dim Sum project – connecting entrepreneurs and students and bringing you quality interviews of them.
I just opened a new “interviews” category, so you are able to click on it and see all the interviews in the project. Enjoy!
Thanks to Joshua A. Raff for conducting the interview!
Background: Brick O’Neal is the American founder and owner of the BRICK Bar in Shuangjing, and the Beijing Drive-Thru in Sanlitun Soho. The Beijing Drive-Thru has the largest selection of import beers. But it’s not just about alcohol – you can also buy herbs, spices, and even bikes at Brick’s store. Startup Noodle managed to grab Brick in the middle of a busy day…
Startup Noodle: So the first business was the bar, is that right?
Brick O’Neal: Yeah, I created the “BRICK Bar” in Shuangjing, 2009…it was my gift to my wife for our wedding…
To open a bar?
Sure, give her a business, I mean what’s better than making a Chinese girl a CEO?
That’s a good gift.
It’s better than a car, better than a baby. It’s something that can support her as well as support me, it’s financial planning.
I think nearly every American entertains the idea of owning a bar. What made you think you could do it in Beijing?
Because, actually I can. We have misconceptions of foreigners thinking it is easy to come here and open a business without knowing what you can and can’t do. Due to previous experiences in America and doing my marketing here for a year, I had no problems. It was making the right connections. And we don’t use financial backing, no investors, it is 110% my own money. That’s important… because it gives pride. No beer company gave me this tap system, I put whatever beers I want onto it. So doing these types of things, having background knowledge, assholeness???, I’d have called it Rockefeller, just doing business. It seemed quite easy.
So that business [the Brick Bar] and this business [The Beijing Drive-thru] was all your own money? No investors?
Correct. I don’t see the need for investment. There is too much control, or bull-shitting, negativity, or who is better than who or whose ideas should be implemented. We are not controlled by Heineken or Carlsberg or [name your beer company]. The ideas, the concept of this shop and previously with the Brick Bar was my own. I did what I wanted do, my refrigerators! you know, that allowed me to grow with my ideas.
Let’s talk about the idea. The bar is a simple idea to grab onto but this is something else…beer, spices and bikes. So when you were looking for a second business idea how did you start?
It was already developed in my head. I looked at the Brick [bar] as it is, a brick, a foundation builder. It brought my wife up to speed on the F&B [Food & Beverage] industry because that wasn’t her career in the past. It also gave us the connections, the ability, knowledge of what we can and cannot work with and the legalities, licensing, etc. But it’s a bar, you can only grow with hamburgers or ladies night, there is not much more you can do, maybe a music venue, but it was limiting. Still, it did its job, it was a foundation. After we sold the Brick [bar], the wife and I took a year off.
[pullquote]Your marketing, your idea needs to cater to Chinese people because they are the ones with money to throw away.”[/pullquote]
Was there any discussion about the [next] idea? Is this a good idea or bad idea?
Never. I did what I wanted to do. It’s my money. It’s great to get some ideas, it’s great to see things…Not being conceited but you need a goal, you need to be driven, have ideas and push forward. If there is too much discussion, too many investors involved, what really gets taken care of other than paperwork. Yes, you need paperwork but this drags on the front half, the front half being taking care of customers, knowing what service is about. I’m sure you have a variety of businesses in China that are great on paperwork but when you actually go there to eat, drink they’re shitty.
Ideas-wise…bicycles, I grew up on it. I was always tinkering, customizing, etc. I did that with the Brick [bar].
You grew up on this…I think that was the bikes.ou were saying y
Hmm, bicycles, that’s a hobby. Beer is a habit.
Spices are a hobby?
Spices and herbs are a career. I’m a chef by trade. I went to all my culinary school, graduated with a Masters in Culinary Arts. That takes care of all my business understanding, all that powerpoint, marketing, how to do food & beverage, all this stuff about how to be a good chef, a good worker. I worked in the restaurant industry for a while but eventually I really hated being in the kitchen. But following the lines and something that I find creative is herbs and spices. We do our own fusion salts, fusion sugars, different blends for certain restaurants. We cater to Apothecary, Mao Mao Chong, Four Seasons, etc.
I had the impression spices were a small part of the business but it sounds like…
It’s the biggest moneymaker of the business. Spice and herbs, if you do it right…We value our spices, we have set locations outside China from where we purchase, we do quality checks here to be sure you get the right product for the right price. We’re one of the few places that do this kind of thing. There is a market for all of it, that’s why we designed a concept shop, basically 3 businesses in one location.
First there was the Brick Bar, then this [The Beijing Drive-thru], you make it sound like a 20-year plan. This is an end-of-interview question but I am wondering what’s next?
I have other ideas but it won’t be located in China. I know there is a growing market in China, in Beijing for a variety of reasons. Beijing…Beijing is where the real money is and I’m not talking about foreigner money. We don’t advertise to foreigners. Foreigners are the poorest people in Beijing. Your marketing, your idea needs to cater to Chinese pe
We were talking about ideas. Are there any bad ideas you want to talk about?ople because they are the ones with money to throw away …bicycles, beers…I don’t have any foreigners coming in to drop 150 RMB to 1,500 RMB for a bottle of beer but they will bitch that I don’t have 10 kuai Tsingtao’s. I don’t cater to that. The market is for the growing Chinese income that they don’t know what to do with. It’s no problem for them to buy a 50,000 kuai bicycle or pay for custom paint jobs because they have that expenditure.
I’ve been watching a variety of people doing their entrepreneurial things. I like seeing things, [a local business] pop up and grow but the only negative thing is that I don’t think these people are paying attention to their locations or their business licensing, etc…then you need guanxi or you are paying under the table, if not then somewhere along the line you will get fucked, landlord issues and the like. Some entrepreneurs, both Chinese and foreigners, don’t understand it does take a lot of work. You need to break new ground and create some waves, before us there was no craft bottle shop.
It was easy for us to sell the Brick [Bar] and sadly the second owner had to re-sell within a short time because he didn’t have the mentality to continue. It looks glamorous, [people think] “You must be making a lot of money.” Yeah, I am but I work. That’s me, I’m intensive. Too many people think it’s a popularity contest, “Hey, look at me.” They’re not working, they sit back and let 4 or 5 Chinese people run it. Then you are going to get bad customer service. Reall
One must have passion in what they are doing when it comes to developing a business. One must follow through to the end and to do that, one must give up a few luxuries – Click to Tweety you gotta work unless you have that enormous capital. I don’t have that, I have to work, I have to have a variety of help [and] people to make it grow.
At [The Beijing Drive-thru] you are the strategist, is that fair to say?
Are you also operations manager? Are you into the details?
I am everything. Except for accounting, the bookwork. My wife takes care of the distributors, she places the orders. Then I have Prima who is more or less an apprentice, seeing what we do is something to learn from. And Prima being Prima has taken upon the role of creating photoshops [for marketing] while I teach her PR and educate her in the ways of beer.
Both the Brick [Bar] and here are my designs, my ideas, my choice of location, my choice of what’s in, how it gets painted, the artwork, the beer selection. I only carry about 200 [different] bottles of beer. There is definitely more beer out there but I only carry what I consider the best.
After you returned from [the year off]
and you had this idea [The Beijing Drive-thru], what was the first concrete step you did to make it happen?
You need to work out a location and work out a landlord. Location, location, location is not always important. It does come down to who you are and how you can provide decent customer service. If you were focusing on one concept, such as bar, there would be better locations. Getting back to the point, I think try to seal a good reputation with the landlord. Because the landlord can make you or break you.
I’m not understanding that. Make you or break you in the cost of the rent? Or affecting your reputation?
There is a variety of things. Laws change. At the time [we opened] the Brick Bar you could buy a coffee shop license and open up a full on strip club, you could do Suzy Wong’s on a coffee shop license. Since then though you must have a bar, a liquor, a beer, a food operation license. All that has changed in the last few years.
Chinese people will take your money. Even though they know their location may not be suitable for your bar or restaurant idea, such as, in older residential complexes you are not allowed to have restaurants on the lower levels, no cooking, no propane tanks that could explode. Landlords can just take your money, whether you get the proper license to run the business or the government comes in to shut you down, whatever, tough shit.
If you have a good relationship with the landlord they can possibly help. If the location that you are seeking actually does fit the criteria of what you are doing and you make good with the landlord they can help you out in the long run, whether it’s money, governmental bullshit, paperwork, banking, etc.
[pullquote]…the landlord can make you or break you… If it wasn’t for the courtesy of the landlord it would be a little difficult to run this concept.[/pullquote]
I see a lot of foreigners go into the hutongs, start a business, then later complain that their business closed because of landlord issues. Well, I don’t think it was landlord issues. I think it’s that they’re uneducated, they think it’s cool to be in the hutong and they are missing the [point] that you can’t do that. Unless you pay under the table or have major guanxi because you can’t get a proper food license. And you are in a residential area, you are going to have the neighbors fighting you. Anyone who gets rowdy…us foreigners don’t know when to shut up, we get extremely loud…then the neighbors start kicking ass, call the cops and get the place shut down.
People need to understand their goal and find the proper location then be courteous with the landlord. Tell them the idea, see what you can work out. Keeping positive with the landlord has benefitted us at the Brick [Bar] and here. If it wasn’t for the courtesy of the landlord it would be a little difficult to run this concept.
It’s ignorance, not stupidity, but lack of knowledge, people thinking they can do it but they can’t. [They say] “The Chinese people are…”, well, they’re Chinese, you can’t. People need to do a little more homework before they actually choose a location or choose a landlord.
There are stories of entrepreneurs wanting to renovate their location only to find the landlord wants to choose the renovation company, for whatever reason, it sounds dubious. Have you experienced this?
Never. The two landlords we have had have been super-cool.
When you were searching for a location did you refuse other sites that might have been suitable because you felt like the landlord was not someone you could get along with?
Sure. We thought about being in Shuangjing but…I don’t play with anyone who is too money-hungry. There is the landlord who wants to work with you, the rich, old Chinese man who says, “I’d like to see it [the idea] work.” And there are the young [landlords] who got their [property] from the rich, old Chinese man…the young ones you don’t want to play with. The older Chinese folks, they’re cool.
You are foreigner. How much do you think that weighs on your negotiations with the land lords…
Nothing. I leave that to my wife. They know I’m there, they see me. But my wife’s Chinese, she knows how to handle it better than I would.
That’s the landlord. What about government officials, the licenses you were talking about?
We roll through agencies. There are plenty of legit agencies in Beijing who can provide you with the proper licensing if you pay them the money.
Therefore these negotiations are happening in Chinese. Do you speak Chinese?
I don’t speak Chinese. I refuse, I don’t want to. There’s nothing wrong with that. How many times do I have to answer, “Where are you from?” I can understand, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t want conversation, too busy trying to maintain my business. Due to population, different traditions Chinese people are in nooo hurry, they have plenty of time to waste, they looove to talk. I don’t like to have that much [time]. I don’t have time. My business relationships revolve around people who have a good English background or my wife translates. I don’t see a problem with that, either.
[pullquote]There is the landlord who wants to work with you, the rich, old Chinese man who says, ‘I’d like to see it [the idea] work.’…the young ones you don’t want to play with.[/pullquote]
You have all this beer. How do you go about finding suppliers?
We import for ourselves as well as working with a variety of distributors. It’s Rockefeller style, it’s hands-on. We fight for it, work for it. There is nothing like this in Beijing. 50% of our beers come through Hong Kong and Shanghai, to us exclusively. 50% of our beers you won’t find anywhere else in Beijing. Being in the market doesn’t allow me to play in the market. I don’t go to bars, I’d rather stay here at my place and drink, A) because it’s cheaper, B) because I have the best selection. Or I go to some of the craft beer places that have something I can’t have or I can’t get.
Are all the beers [at The Beijing Drive-thru] imported?
Yes, all the beer is imported.
If 50% of your suppliers are in China how do you go about getting that other 50%?
I kill for it. I piss people off, I make enemies. But the people that give it to me see me as an aggressive business person that will be educating [customers] about the product. I hear a lot of, “How come you have that beer and I can’t have that beer?” My answer is, “I worked for it.” A) I personally drove to pick it up or B) I went there and made the connections myself so C) you can’t have it unless you buy it from me.
This is what I mean by making enemies. We’ve signed contracts with importers that bring it into Shanghai and we are the only ones that can distribute it in Beijing. There is no finding that shit on the internet, there is no waiting for somebody to show up at the door. Over the last year and a half we’ve worked nonstop to be sure we can provide Beijing some of the best beers.
There are also people who import but may not know how to distribute, or how to get the product name out there, so they do look to us. For China, we’re huge. We carry the largest selection of imported beers China-wide. Having our website for people to see what we are doing, we get importers who come to us with X beer selling it for X price. I taste it, if I like it I buy it.
It’s China, it’s not straight. You need to be able to maneuver. Today you might be getting fucked, then figure out how to get unfucked tomorrow. I think plain and simple, opening a bar is easier. You only need to worry about the landlord. But what we are doing here is ground-breaking. Some people make fun of it, some people hope we lose, some hope we win, some people take advantage of it.
About the website, how important do you think that digital storefront is to your business? Where would you be without it? My first impression was not the store, it was the website.
It does well. It is inventory online. I can’t say we get a lot of hits, we get anywhere between 27 and 500 hits a day depending on what’s going on whether it’s a magazine, a negative review, whatever. It [the website] does get people to see this is not just another Belgian beer shop or another place to buy Tsingtao.
Right now the website is [focused] on beer but it should be changing next month. [We will display] our bike products, our herbs & spices. E-commerce, I’m learning. I’m more of a face-to-face person but I’m learning. It may not [generate] direct sales but it allows people sitting at their desk to see what we have.
Are the majority of your sales coming from through the website or otherwise?
I’d say coming into the shop generates most of our direct sales but…WeChat, Weibo, people will order through this because they don’t want to register online. [Apparently,] it’s horrifying to register your name and address online. We work with everybody’s mentality who wants to work with us. It comes in all shapes and forms, text messages, Weixin, Weibo, Foursquare, emails, phone calls and quite a few people who do register and order online, which I find the best way.
It’s a catalogue more or less. Most people want to come here and hang out, which at the beginning, we [discouraged]. This is not a bar, this is a retail shop. But like I said, you got to bob and weave and service your customers. Over time I got 3 little tables in, some stools, put in the taps and after 6pm or so people can hang out and sample some beer, take away or have it delivered later.
We have found that customers do look online and then come check us out [at the store] for themselves. They want to know we’re real.
I need to cut it. I need to make a delivery at Microsoft in 29 minutes.
Brick has no more time for further questions. As I leave he is gearing up to personally make that delivery to Microsoft.
Photo courtesy of Mark Fletcher.