Luck of the irish, 2nd time around

When Zhang Aimin went to Australia 10 years ago to visit his son, who was studying there, he came across one of the liveliest places he had ever visited.

“I was walking on a street and suddenly I heard music and laughter from a pub. When I pushed open the door, the atmosphere there amazed me. Everyone was holding drinks, talking to each other and smiling.

“It was as if there were no strangers. Everybody knew everybody.”

Zhang’s first experience in an Irish pub convinced him to open one himself at home.

His Molly Malone’s is located in Jinbaojie Street, one of Beijing’s upmarket streets, behind the European-styled Legendale Hotel.

Those who spot the international clientele of family and friends, accompanied by the occasional baby in a pram, will certainly agree that Zhang has managed to replicate the warm, convivial atmosphere of the Irish pub that helps act as a refuge from the fast-paced Beijing life.

“There are few places like this on the street and the Guinness is good,” says Joe Yu, managing director of H-Line Ogilvy Communications Co Ltd across the street, whose colleagues were having a party in the pub.

“The friendly atmosphere was what touched me, so I wanted to start a pub where people in Beijing could relax and enjoy themselves,” says Zhang, 55.

Zhang started off as a construction worker 30 years ago, earning just 16 yuan a month. But he worked his way up to become chairman of the board of Beijing Three Leadbeater Investment Co Ltd, which is also involved in sectors like real estate and jewelry trading. Zhang’s company was also involved in holding three Miss Universe pageants in 2004, 2005 and 2006.

Molly Malone’s is not the first Irish pub Zhang has invested in.

He first started a pub in Beijing Henderson Center near the Beijing Railway Station called P J O’Reilly’s 10 years ago.

“But I made a mistake targeting clients for that pub,” Zhang says.

The pub was located where thousands of commuters passed by every day, but they were only concerned with having quick meals, Zhang says. He had to shut the pub soon after opening it.

But that did not stop him from trying again. In 2008, the Beijing Olympic Games brought about many business opportunities. Jinbaojie Street, where luxury brands including Rolls-Royce cars are sold, was being developed.

“I thought the street had potential. So I talked with my friend, who owns the Legendale Hotel, about opening an Irish pub. We both thought it was a good business concept to have such a pub at the rear of the building,” Zhang says.

But before the street was fully developed, the global financial crisis struck China and businesses in the area turned sluggish.

“My friends tried to dissuade me from investing in the pub because they all thought the street was hopeless. But I didn’t think so,” Zhang says.

He invested 733,000 euros ($965,035) in the pub, including hiring an Irish company to design the pub and supervise its construction.

In November 2009, Molly Malone’s opened.

To keep the pub authentic, Zhang also hired two Irish people to help with its management. But the two left at the end of 2011 after difficulties in applying for work visas and cultural differences.

“I still hope we can have Irish people to run the pub, even if the costs are high,” Zhang says.

To meet local consumers’ demands, the pub also offers Japanese food.

“This is the Chinese market. Although I want it to be authentically Irish, I still need to consider customers’ preference,” Zhang says.

That is why the pub also has one small library and VIP rooms. “Chinese people still go for private rooms,” he says.

Still, Zhang’s pub serves a sizeable number of Irish people. About 75 percent of the customers are foreigners, he says.

“Although it’s many thousands of kilometers from Ireland, it offers a traditional Irish experience and a taste of Irish culture,” says Emma Leonard, agriculture counsellor at the Irish embassy.

“Irish pubs in Ireland and around the world are very varied. However, the key element in any Irish pub is the welcoming atmosphere.

Molly Malone’s makes its customers feel very welcome and comfortable, as well as offering Irish drinks and Irish-style food. We are lucky to have a good selection of pubs in Beijing providing an authentic Irish experience,” Leonard says.

Zhang now leaves the running of his pub to his son and daughter-in-law. Still, as a businessman, Zhang is not satisfied with its performance.

“Revenue from the first two years was below my expectations. Such a big place on such an expensive street should be bringing in more than 10 million yuan, which I still hope will be achieved in the coming year,” he says.

There is more to it than just money, however.

“I hope this pub will become more popular. People will recognize it and like to come here to have a drink or two, listen to the music and feel comfortable and relaxed,” he says.

“I was very sad when the first pub failed. I refused to accept it and that’s why I decided to open the second one.”

Source: Yang Yang, chinadaily.com.cn

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