When Yao Lu first opened Union Trading Company in Shanghai six years ago, one of the hardest tasks in creating an American-style neighborhood cocktail bar was training the staff to be themselves — and friendly with guests — despite that being the opposite of the local service standards. “Hospitality, personality, firm handshakes, big hugs, and strong drinks,” he described in 2016, shortly before Union was first named one of Asia’s 50 Best Bars (an offshoot of the influential and sometimes problematic World’s 50 Best awards run by William Reed Business Media). That sort of physical connection has disappeared by necessity in recent months, as the spread of the COVID-19 virus has brought all of China to a grinding halt.
Now he’s faced with a bigger challenge: keeping his operation, one staked on personal interaction, alive through the uncertainty and isolation of a viral epidemic. “When the news broke, we realized immediately the toll it would take on business,” says Yao of the then-unknown lung disease spreading in Wuhan, more than 500 miles away. Attempts to mitigate the spread have evolved into the full shutdown of China, including its major metropolises like Shanghai — and it has worked: The city of 25 million has reported fewer than 350 cases and only three deaths. While Yao says that Shanghai residents have for the most part remained calm — people are encouraged to stay home, wear masks, and avoid human contact — any business, other than grocery stores, with potential to draw crowds was ordered to close, including Union Trading Company.
The crackdown began over Chinese New Year, when Union normally gives their staff a week off and an extra month’s salary bonus so they can go home and celebrate with their loved ones. They were supposed to return to work on January 30th, but due to the outbreak, authorities extended the national holiday until February 10th. Yao kept in contact with his staff members — watching where they were and how bad their hometowns were hit by the virus — as he tried to figure out what to do. “In absolutely no way was I going to reopen the bar if the staff felt uncomfortable or unsafe,” he says. But after many rounds of discussion and three different planned opening dates, the team finally decided to try to start serving drinks on February 9.
Despite the bar’s commitment to safety, it was a short-lived rebirth: on February 12, they were ordered to close again, and they were never given a reopening date — and still don’t have one. “We figured the virus would be contained by then,” Yao said of their thinking. As Shanghai’s neighborhood-style cocktail bar, they wanted to provide the escape that people needed from what was going on and a venue to welcome friends back from the holiday. “We take pride in being able to celebrate people’s victories and be a refuge for the wary,” he says of the hospitality industry, calling that a key part of his job that he loves.
“We were overly optimistic about the situation,” he now admits, in part because of how minimally Shanghai was affected by it and how good the health care is there. He also describes business as “absolutely fucking horrid.” They had expected things to be slow, but nothing quite this bad: in the three days the bar was open, revenue was down 90 percent.
But even as the virus seemed poised to take down his small business, Yao had a built-in defense system for the bar. “I showed the team our numbers, our costs, and shared the worst of my fears,” he says. Collectively, they decided to use their unpaid holidays to cover the first week of February when they hadn’t been allowed to open. When the bar re-closed, the team all agreed to take an hourly wage instead of their usual fixed salary, significantly lowering the bar’s payroll. “The whole virus brings out the best of the best and the worst of the worst,” says Yao.
Costs now cut, Union still has to bring in some money — without having customers come in-person to the bar. “We figured since people love delivery and are bored as hell at home, why not bring the bar to them?” Online ordering and systems for having almost anything delivered to your home were already ubiquitous in China, so the infrastructure already existed: guests place their order online, and Union pours the cocktails into sanitized glass bottles, vacuum packs the garnishes, and a courier service delivers the drinks. They partnered with Laiba Beverages, a bottled craft-cocktail company, allowing them to be able to bring drinks to all of mainland China, while also arranging to donate a quarter of their profit to the Shanghai Red Cross to help support the people fighting the outbreak.
Looking forward, with no timeline for business going back to normal, Yao and his team keep in touch with their regulars and continue to work on extending the delivery, including partnering with spirit brands and their resources, and developing online at-home cocktail classes to try to maintain their presence and keep at least some cash flowing. After all, if everyone’s sitting around at home, they might as well learn to pour a drink.
Finding ways to keep the bar open is “half throwing spaghetti at the wall, half desperation,” Yao says. “No amount of bar or operation experience ever teaches you how to steer a ship through a plague.” Instead, he just tries to keep minimizing costs and survive. “In a way, we are still doing what we love, just in a different platform and a safer setting, so that when virus concerns do fade, our regulars will continue to have that refuge in the neighborhood.”
He guesses in the current situation, they can maybe make it to the end of March. Shanghai has still had few confirmed cases, and he holds out hope that they’ll be able to officially reopen again soon. On that occasion, he has a small request: “When this whole bullshit is over, come and buy your bartender a drink, they absolutely deserve it.”
Naomi Tomky is a Seattle-based writer.