Interview: COX and Saddle Owner Kris Ryan

I sat down with Cox (wings!) and Saddle (burritos!) owner Kris Ryan to discuss his new bar, to open next month in the two-story building that housed Midnight bar and Grappa restaurant, just south of where the Sanlitun beer mug once stood. Actually, by “sat down,” I mean that I was sitting somewhere and emailing questions and he was sitting somewhere else and emailing answers – you get the idea…

What kinds of drinks will you offer?
We’ll offer the full assortment of cocktails but I suppose the big ones for us will be the Margarita, the Long Island and the Hurricane. We’ll be doing the fishbowls again. We plan to follow through with what has been successful with the Saddle and COX. They are our specialties and are a general get messy drink for a pub atmosphere. We won’t go the Martini route as this has already been sewn up very well by Q Bar.

What kinds of food will you offer?
We are still going through our menu but the general approach is fresh and homemade. We will do pizza by the slice – California-style where clients choose their own ingredients every time. Wings, salads, burritos. We are going to put on a gourmet breakfast from 4 AM, which hasn’t been done in Beijing yet. We want to keep it simple, filling and value for money. We are also going to focus on takeout and deliveries in this place.

What makes you think you can succeed in this spot, where other bars and restaurants have failed?
I’m not sure why the others have failed but by the look of the existing design decor, I don’t think they have really thought out their position and clientele. We try to provide what people want and what is lacking in this market. I’m always hungry in Beijing. I’m sick of McDonald’s, KFC etc. I’m always looking for fresh, filling food at a reasonable price. I’m always on the run thus like something that I can carry and is quick. I think we can provide that and as long as our quality stays consistent and our beer is cold, cold, cold, we should succeed. The location is perfect in my opinion – we have an icon building, good visibility, and easily accessibility with a nice interior layout as well as an outdoor area. That, with all the sports, DJs, pool and a good atmosphere, should add up to a winning combination. I’m quite confident it will work.

How did you get involved in Beijing’s F&B scene and what’s the background behind your involvement in Saddle and Cox?
My real business is my design and construct company. I was looking for a new challenge and have always wanted to have a bar. I found a small DVD shop for rent and turned it into the Saddle with a friend of mine who shared my passion for trying our own bar. We originally thought the Saddle would go down the old South Sanlitun Black Sun bar route, but it formed into what it is now on its own. I’ve found that the bars become what the people in Beijing make them. It’s interesting to see that they have a life of their own. Nic has been involved in restaurants in the U.S and he looks after the food. I just run the admin and the operations. I also obviously design and build the spaces. I worked in countless bars around the world in my younger years. It’s great fun.

Many people think Cox has the tastiest wings around. What are the most wings you’ve eaten in one sitting (I hope it’s more than 25 or you’re losing all credibility!)?
In one sitting, I have eaten 25… yeh, sorry about that. I’m lame. There was one guy from the Canadian embassy – Billy – who ate 47 in one hit. We are still looking for contenders. The new bar will hold an annual wing-eating contest. More details on that to come. Our first event will be the opening on Friday the 13th. By the Chinese calendar, this is the perfect day for an opening. We’re looking at having a black party. By the way, we are looking to our clients to help us with a name. The person who creates our name will win a VIP card entitling them to a free beer or spirit on arrival for the first six months of opening. All ideas should be sent to jasmine@facility-asia.com.

The New Math II: Saddle + Cox = Sox?

That building just south of where the Sanlitun beer mug used to be, you know the one, that two-floor box that fronted First Cafe before it was torn down last year and that until recently held Midnight bar and Grappa restaurant – that place will soon reopen as an all-new bar. The brains behind Cox and Saddle has taken it over and will offer Margaritas, pizza by the slice, a 4 AM breakfast, and more. Check this site later today for an interview with the owner, Kris Ryan.

In the meantime, Kris is seeking help from the collective nomenclatural skills of the masses in his quest to name the bar. The reward for the successful wordsmith: a six-month VIP card entitling him or her to a free beer or spirit during each visit to the Parallel Bars (well, it would be a great Olympics-themed name for a two-floor bar, no?) or whatever it ends up being called. Get your ideas to Jasmine, at jasmine@facility-asia.com, by March 20.

The New Math: Whiskey = Cognac, Chile = Old World

A report published on just-drinks.com finds that international spirits sellers in China face not only “a highly competitive marketplace, a fickle consumer base with low brand commitment and [a] high level of counterfeiting and paralleling,” but also drinkers unaware that Cognac and Whisky are different.

One of the most alarming findings of the report for spirits producers – and one that must have distillers in both Scotland and Cognac blinking in disbelief and horror – concerns unfamiliarity with international spirits. In a poll, 471 regular international spirits drinkers in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou were asked if whisky and Cognac are the same drink. Some 19% said they agreed that whisky and Cognac were the same drink, and although 38% said they were not, a further 43% said they weren’t sure.

One factor: advertising for both pursues a “modern lifestyle” theme, rather than distinguishes what makes each spirit unique. Thus, any old Cognac or Whiskey – they’re the same thing anyway, right? – will do, at least according to one twenty-something white-collar worker participating in a focus group. “Foreign brands are always on promotion. I go to my favourite KTV about once every two weeks and they always have a new or different international brand on promotion. We always buy it as it is cheaper and when we mix it with tea, Coke or Sprite they all taste the same anyway,” says he.

Spirits makers aren’t alone with identity crises. This study last year for the California Association of Wine Growers found that a lack of familiarity with foreign wines was the second biggest constraint, after distribution, for those selling imported vino in China.

… in 1/3 of the stores that carried California wines, the clerk told us that they did not carry California wines. In several stores we were told that California (or the US) did not make wine. In another store, we were told that they only carried “Old World” wine, such as wine from, “France, Italy, Argentina and Chile.” When we pointed out that continental US was discovered long before Chile, the clerk told us that we did not now our world history and that wines only grew well in the old world anyhow.”

Putting aside who discovered what, the report notes the obvious need for educating wine store clerks. In the meantime, imports of wine and spirits continue to flow, pop, bubble up – whatever cutesy term you like.

(Notes: 1. China Law Blog recently posted on the topic of Scotch in China; 2. Given that I’ve written lots of reports, I tend to take many of them with a grain of salt, or at least a shot of 10-year-old The Balvenie.)