RBL (Restaurant, Bar, Lounge), which included blues joint The Icehouse, bit the dust a few weeks ago. This was not surprising (see below) but it was sad, given that I love the blues and knew several investors and the general manager. I was about to write a post about the bar’s demise when reader DM sent me a detailed synopsis. Like DM, I had doubts about the place from the beginning:
… Icehouse reminds me of the New York Yankees baseball team. They spend outrageous amounts of money on their product, they have lots of strong backing and they have a good customer base (Icehouse has Chopschticks comedy shows, ASC wine tastings, Beijing Cheese Society events, etc.). The stars are aligned, but something just doesn’t feel right.” (See Fengshui Fiasco at Icehouse for the rest of that first review.)
DM explains what wasn’t right.
I just read your thing on The Icehouse problems. Maybe it’s old, but I read it this morning, so it’s new to me.
The reasons Icehouse failed were obvious to me from the outset:
1. Location: I have lived in Beijing for a number of years and in all that time no one has said to me, “Hmmm, I know what we should do tonight, let’s go down to Wangfujing and hit the bars.” Not once. Let’s go to Wangfujing and buy some books this afternoon, sure, but drinking in the evening? Nah, and I don’t think I am that unrepresentative of the Beijing expat bar goer, nor is my crowd. Certainly local ex-pats weren’t gonna do it.
2. Price: Again, why would I go down there and pay 50 kuai for a cocktail when I can get a drink for 10 kuai at Nan Jie, or if I want live music, I can get a drink for 20 kuai at Yu Gong Yi Shan, to name just two bars on the well-worn ex-pat track. I can even go to Q, and get quality cocktails and listen to jazz CDs, without having to make the effort [of going to Icehouse.]
3. Blues Appeal: As you probably guessed from my email name [bloozman], I have been involved in the blues scene for many years in many cities, and spent an inordinate amount of my life in blues bars, from Toronto to Dublin to Chicago to New Orleans. I can tell you, blues fans tend to divide into two groups. 1. Blue-collar, working class types, who are definitely beer/jack [Jack Daniels] drinkers and not going to be found dead in a bar like The Icehouse. 2. Yuppies who like the blues and like pretending they are into that lowdown blue-collar stuff, and therefore ain’t gonna be caught dead there unless there is a special event, like BB King is in town or something. And local musicians ain’t gonna hang out there and listen to the music cause most of the musicians I know in this town, especially the Chinese ones, can barely afford a 10-kuai Qingdao.
4. Pretentiousness: The locals ain’t gonna bother comin’ down, so that leaves the tourists. They don’t know the prices are expensive, they don’t know they can drink cheaper elsewhere… so where is it [The Icehouse]? Hmmm, when it opened there was no sign of any kind, just a sliding glass door leading into what looked like a lounge or a hallway with sofas. Eventually they put up a sign, a modest sign that said RBL. Hmmm, that really tells me it’s a blues bar. The upshot of this situation was that outside hundreds and hundreds of visitors were walking up and down eating their scorpions on a stick with no idea that behind that sliding glass door was a bar with live music. So you have a band inside playing to 15 people and hundreds, maybe thousands of potential customers were obliviously walking by outside, and even a sign saying “live music” or “blues tonight” would have caused some of those scorpion eaters to say, “Hey Martha, look at that. I haven’t heard good blues since I as at that convention in Milwaukee. Let’s check it out before we go back to the hotel.” But that would have run smack up against the ownerships pretensions, their delusions of cool.
In fact, the owners were hoist on the petard of their own pretensions, picking the building without regard to the demographics, to the potential customer base, but rather what they thought was cool. This is all too common a failing in bars and restaurants in this city and what annoys me more even than that – I mean if rich guys want to throw away their money, that’s their business – but what annoys me is that no one in the press ever seems to point this sort of thing out. All during The Icehouse existence you would read descriptions, certainly in the ex -pat press, of how cool it was, how trendy, and no one ever said in any review I read, “Wait a minute, only somebody with the brain scan of a dieffenbachia would put a blues bar in Wangfujing in the same complex as a fusiony-type restauarant, charge 50 kuai for drinks, put up no signage, and expect anyone to show up.”
If you build it they will not come, not if it’s The Icehouse.