Last week we sat down with Justin Ho and Keith Chong, the co-founders of The Private Room, to share their personal experiences of starting and running a wine bar. They started out with just a wine bar, now they have expanded their business by bringing in a cocktail bar (The Pawn Room) and a restaurant (2nd Floor). Here’s a short transcript of how our interview went.
What inspired you to venture into the F&B industry?
Justin: Before we started this business, I did my degree in hospitality management. From there I slowly gained interest in the F&B industry. Then I was a chef for awhile and mainly focused on the ‘kitchen’ side of things. After that, I went back to university to obtain my master’s and I was offered a job as a lecturer in Taylor’s University. Thus, in a way I was already in the F&B industry from the start. Also, when I was young I traveled to Germany once and I got inspired by the food scene there, so I was pretty much into the F&B industry ever since.
Keith: We both came from different industry backgrounds, he was from the hospitality industry and I was from the banking sector. There are many similarities in the banking and F&B sector as both industries are relatively competitive, fast paced and some might even say vibrant. That was what got us both into the F&B industry.
When you just started your business did you know how to run a wine bar, or did you have to learn on the go?
Keith: Aside from Justin, the rest of us co-owners had to learn everything about the wine business from scratch. (Laughs.)
Justin: But despite having the slight advantage from studying hospitality, managing a business and opening one is quite different. I still had to learn a lot as well.
Keith: For example, take licensing. We didn’t know what licences were needed and how to obtain them at first. Because when you’re employed, somebody else is doing it for the company. But when you run your own establishment, you’ll have to learn how to manage everything on your own.
Justin: Another example was our first-time dealing with customs, the authorities came to inspect our wine bar at 12am in the morning. There are also unexpected things like this that you have to be prepared to handle.
Did you see the lack of F&B experience as a disadvantage?
Keith: Because we lacked experience in the F&B industry, it pushed us to think out of the box more. For example, initially our wine list has more than 300 types of wine from 12 different suppliers. From a business standpoint, it sounds absurd to have these many suppliers and you don’t get to enjoy better discounts from economies of scale, but we wanted to offer a wide assortment of wines that you can’t find in other bars.
Justin: We carry wines from Australia, France, Argentina, Chile, etc. Now we’re planning on bringing in more exotic wines from the middle east. Currently we’ve already brought in one label from Lebanon and we are exploring the idea of bringing in a new label from Georgia. We try our best not to follow the trend but be the trendsetters instead.
Did you have any doubts with this business, if so how did you overcome it?
Justin: Yes, I’ve had my doubts, because I noticed that the general public is still quite conservative when it comes to wine.
Keith: Another doubt was regarding our signboard. Our bar is located on first floor and we do not have a signboard up as we are adopting a ‘speakeasy/hidden’ bar concept. Many customers have mentioned to us on how we’re missing out on walk-in opportunities and advised us to reconsider putting up a signboard to make our bar more noticeable. We were unsure with this, but we decided to just stay true to our vision and follow our instincts.
Justin: Every entrepreneur needs to believe in the company’s vision, because there will be many opposing opinions coming your way and you can’t possibly accept all of them.
What were some of the challenges you faced while running your business?
Justin: We launched our wine bar first in late 2015. Initially, we didn’t have many customers, and it was only after 6 months that we managed to generate some sales.
Keith: We also couldn’t do much advertising because it defeats the purpose of being a ‘hidden’ bar. It wouldn’t be very ‘hidden’ if we publicized it in a big way. (Laughs.) The way we marketed ourselves was through word of mouth and this type of strategy takes a long time to see results.
Justin: One creative marketing idea that we came up with was the hashtag #findtheyellowdoor. We came up with this idea because the door to our stairwell that led up to our bar was yellow in color and there was only one yellow door in this entire block. It acted as a gimmick for us to interact with our customers.
Keith: I think there is a sizeable amount of people who still haven’t heard of us, which may not necessarily be a bad thing. This means we still have a large pool of untapped customers that we can look for growth.
I understand that you have expanded the business to include a restaurant and a cocktail bar as well. Was it challenging managing this 3-in-1 business concept?
Justin: Yes, it was relatively challenging because each business is unique, but we try to make them interconnected in a way. For example, customers can dine in our restaurant (2nd floor) and then pop into one of our bars for a drink. If they prefer wine, they can go to our wine bar (The Private Room), or if they prefer cocktails they can head up to our cocktail bar (The Pawn Room).
Keith: The good thing about managing 3 different businesses is that we get to borrow and leverage on some of the concepts or even combine them to form an entirely new strategy. For instance, we did a few wine tasting sessions at our restaurant that in turn helped us to promote our bar. Besides that, we also used our knowledge and expertise from our wine bar to create new and unique types of ‘wine cocktails’.
How did you guys decide on this location?
Keith: Before we started our business, our initial concept was to start a regular wine bar in a retail location, preferably on the ground floor. But after surveying a few locations, we ended up on the first floor. We were quite disappointed at first, but we realised that this could be an opportunity to try out our ‘hidden’ bar concept. It was quite difficult to get our stakeholders on board with the change but luckily enough, they eventually agreed and supported us on our decision.
Before we go, any last advice you would like to share with other young aspiring entrepreneurs out there?
Keith: You need to get out there and network yourself. Pitching is crucial when it comes to sourcing for investors. An idea will always be just an idea if you do not know how to sell it. So, learning how to convey your vision to others is very important.
Justin: A good tip is to equip yourself with the right knowledge and expertise when you’re trying to pitch your idea to investors. People want to know if you are a specialist in your area and whether your idea is trustworthy. Besides that, you’ll also need to build a team of talented individuals that can work well together.
Keith: Also, be mentally and physically prepared to face all the challenges that come your way. People assume starting a business is just about planning and but in actual fact, you have a lot of other aspects of the business to take care of.
Justin: Yeah, you’ll have to be prepared to be hands-on. Who would have thought that we would have to personally deal with leakages, fixtures, and equipment maintenance? We even had to personally change our own light bulbs. (Laughs.)
(Laughs.) We’ve reached the end of our interview. Thanks for sharing your insights and experience with us.
Keith and Justin: You’re welcome. Thanks for the opportunity too.
Tues – Thursday & Sunday: 5:00pm- 1:00am,
Friday- Saturday: 5:00-2:00am
48a-2, First Floor, Persiaran Zaaba, Taman Tun Dr Ismail
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Telephone: 019-334 6631