It takes more than having the best cocktails and bar foods in the world to entice customers cooped up at home to have some fun.
That’s why 28 Hong Kong Street general manager Justin Pallack is putting his 15 years of DJ experience to good use by leading virtual house parties for Singaporeans staying in due to the coronavirus. He realized that excellent cocktails and ambiance were not their most valuable commodity.
“It’s to celebrate, it’s to mourn, it’s to make new friends, it’s to meet a lover. People come to a bar for the people. People make the bar. People always have and always will. And in understanding that, we realize that our consumers are probably less interested in a tutorial than the experience that they have been missing,” the 39-year-old told Coconuts Singapore.
Ceilings and walls once illuminated by golden hues looked cold and dark behind where Pallack sat on his side of our recent video chat. Since 2011, the speakeasy-style bar named after its street address has been credited for boosting Singapore’s craft cocktail movement and regularly ranks among world’s best. But as COVID-19 rendered many businesses inoperable due to restrictions and shutdowns, some local bars tried to get by offering deliveries or conducting cocktail tutorials.
The New Yorker felt that they had to do more than that.
Beyond food and drinks, people needed to feel like they were socializing again and surrounded by good music; this is where Pallack comes in.
For three hours, Pallack and another bartender would entertain up to 10 guests in a virtual Zoom or House Party room, letting people let their hair down with tasteful hip hop music, conversations, laughter, and tipples.
“Just like you were at a bar, your host, who is oftentimes me, would ask you to dim the lights in your home and find someplace to recreate the vibe that you might feel in the room, we found the technology to pump our playlist into the room so that everyone hears it together in real time,” he said.
“We send the drinks premade and then they’re bottled and then they arrive. Similar to me, the bartender is an interesting personality who people enjoy chatting with … I would introduce him with an interesting bio which many other guests can question him on,” he added.
Six bottled cocktails on offer as part of its virtual house party experience include the 28 Mezcal Negroni, made with Alipus Mezcal, Mancino Rosso Vermouth, and St. George Bruto Americano.
Comfort foods include The Reuben, a sandwich made with house-cured Pastrami, home-baked Rye, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing.
To set the fun mood, Pallack said he’s jokingly introduced his bartending party partner as a “former zoologist” or a Haitian cocktail contest champion. The bartender also interacts with guests about what they are drinking.
“So yes he also discusses the drinks, ‘So hey what are you guys drinking first, what are you having for your second round?’ Neither of us stay in the room the entire time. We host adjacent parties,” Pallack said.
Pallack had been a DJ for 15 years in New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. He also managed Sweet Liberty, a bar on Miami Beach, before moving to Singapore to helm 28 Hong Kong Street two years ago. Running parties and entertaining people seems to be in his veins, and the definitive “people person” considers this an attribute for the virtual parties.
“As a host, as you’re learning very quickly here, I could talk a lot and so in hosting this experience I found ways to encourage people to engage in deeper meaningful banter and lower their inhibitions and feel free to laugh, and to forget about all the challenges of the world, the disease and the riots and all these things that are on people’s minds because they’re on the news,” he said.
At least four people are required for a virtual party to make sense. For the 28HKS House Party Experience, it costs S$88 (about US$63) per person or S$158 per couple.
But as much as the bar needs the revenue, accommodating larger corporate groups of 30 to 50 people is impossible because the “logistics of that is really difficult” and that having big groups would make the party seem like an online “lecture.”
“Our guests aren’t giant corporate groups, our guests are friend groups and we want to try and cater to the people who have loved us and supported us for all these years. We find that 6-12 people is the magic number,” he said.
Besides, hosting the virtual parties has somewhat helped the extrovert cope with the pandemic too.
“I love my girlfriend, and I love my colleagues but I need to see a few other people that’s why I got into this industry. That’s why I do this, I love people,” he said.
‘Profitability is not even a conversation’
But as much as he enjoys hosting the virtual parties, Pallack hopes that bars in Singapore can reopen safely soon because, at the end of the day, the industry thrives on high volumes of people coming together.
“When you’re used to 200 guests coming through at a night to talking to 12 guests in a night, the industry’s not cut out for this to last long and so again we found some way to generate some revenue in an effort to minimize the losses and we’re trying to lose as little each month as we can until we can welcome guests back,” Pallack said.
While hosting the parties provides some revenue, he said it’s not a sustainable model by far.
The bar first felt the effects of COVID-19 in late January, when Singapore began to impose travel restrictions.
“It was as soon as Singapore closed to China, Chinese tourism. We felt that right away,” he said. “We have a wonderful local crowd and we have a wonderful industry crowd and we have a wonderful tourism crowd and that includes our Chinese tourists. We were aware that they weren’t here almost immediately.”
That worsened as health fears intensified and more restrictions began rolling out. By late March, bars were among the first businesses ordered shut and remain so today. Even as Singapore enters its second phase of reopening this week, it is unclear when bars can do so.
But after several months of plummeting revenues, 28 Hong Kong Street decided to revise its business to prevent “tremendous loss.”
“As things started to become more apparent that this thing was spreading, more of our international tourism fell off and then as our local people started to become more fearful, were a little bit more aware of the risk here, that started to taper off as well,” Pallack said.
Cutting pay, streamlining resources, and looking elsewhere for innovation were among the first things that had to be done to stay afloat, according to Pallack, who names Guangzhou speakeasy Hope & Sesame among the bar’s inspirations.
“This has saved us from tremendous loss. In this time, it’s about how little can you lose, for how long? Profitability is not even a conversation, but we found a way to generate revenue, much needed revenue in this difficult time,” he said. “And really in a way that we’ve enjoyed. We haven’t had to sell our souls or anything like that.”
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This article, Singapore bar boss relives DJ days by packing people into Zoom house parties, originally appeared on Coconuts, Asia's leading alternative media company. Want more Coconuts? Sign up for our newsletters!