Innovation in the face of a pandemic

5 Mar. 2020
Hope & Sesame

Although bars are usually places where you leave day-to-day worries at the door, they don’t operate in a vacuum. The coronavirus outbreak as meant that in many Chinese cities, bars have been forced to bring the shutters down. Guanghzou’s Hope & Sesame, 35th on the 2019 Asia’s 50 Best Bars list, is one of them. In late January, when we spoke with co-owner Bastien Ciocca, the hope was that things would soon go back to normal. They haven’t. In order to mitigate the financial consequences, Hope & Sesame has worked hard to develop a line of bottled cocktails that are now available on delivery websites. They’ve also been hard at work on a vanguard line of canned cocktails to celebrate their fourth anniversary.

Hopefully, this will help the business stay afloat through this tough time. We think it will: Hope & Sesame’s success has been built against all odds.In 2016, after years of working in various luxury hotel chains across Asia, Bastien, his wife Marcia Xiao and business partner Andrew Ho decided to go it alone and launch their own bar. But Guanghzou (better known to Westerners as Canton) is not Shanghai or Honk Kong, as Bastien tells us: « Back then, there were maybe 4 cocktail bars — two for locals with little western influence and two for expats ». As if the lack of cocktail culture weren’t enough, Bastien and his partners also picked for their venue a neighbourhood quite off the beaten path. « It’s sort of central, has beautiful old houses and is full of charm but there was very little footfall ». To top it off, their budget was very, very limited: the bar was 100% self-financed and designed.

Initially, the concept was not very clear. They were not sure whether they wanted to open a cocktail bar or a restaurant bar. The venue sort of took the decision for them: « It was so hidden, we thought it was perfect for a speakeasy », Bastien now says. And so Hope & Sesame (by now we assume you’ve understood the pun behind the name) is found behind a traditional Cantonese café. « It’s a style of café that’s very familiar to people living here and it was the perfect front for our cocktail bar, where we wanted to keep a Chinese soul mixed with our European and American backgrounds. » Problem was that if the café was familiar to locals, western cocktails were not. « Our attitude was ‘let’s do what we feel like doing and we’ll see if there’s demand’ ». Luckily, there was.

« All our budget was based on the idea that we’d reach full speed on month five », Bastien explains — a very unrealistic timeline in Europe, it has to be said. « After three weeks, we were turning people away and we had to put a booking system in place ». The three partners, sole workers at the time, soon had to seek help — they now employ more than twenty people over two venues. For Bastien, this sudden success can partially be attributed to their newcomer status. « People were thinking ‘who are those guys?’. Usually, new bars are opened by local players. They have their clients and they think ‘oh, we’ll go and see them some time’. But not having that network can help: people get very curious, they want to know who you are. »

Establishing Hope & Sesame locally was easier than expected. Four years on, they’re still packed every night of the week. However, growing their reputation internationally has been more of a struggle. The bar’s nomination at Asia’s 50 Best Bars came as a surprise. « Very few people come here. Getting media from Shanghai is very tough. Any bar in London can find guest shifts in China. But if you’re from Guangzhou and want to do a guest shift in Singapore… It’s very complicated ». Here, at least, network came in handy and Hope & Sesame focused on hotel bars across Asia. They also quickly realised that part of their profits had to be reinvested. Their first European ‘tour’ was self-financed and done, rock’n’roll style, in a rented van. Now, though, their profile is interesting enough that brands have come circling around, making everything easier.

And so the next step has to be the World’s 50 Best Bars list — something Bastien sees as a bridge (or two) too far, but, hey, oh, what do you know. Strangers things have happened and the Hope & Sesame style — Western cocktails with Cantonese influences, delivered with flair and a little helping of cutting-edge technology — certainly seems to be list ready. Unfortunately, the current health crisis will make things more complicated. But Hope & Sesame will remain in the public eye. On top of their take-away offering, they’ve just released their best-known cocktails in… cans. The inner lacquer of the cans themselves is anti-oxidative, they add a bit of liquid nitrogen to push the oxygen out and then pasteurise the whole thing. « I spent a lot of time studying how cocktails evolve. With this method, their shelf life is greatly improved and we can even use some fresh fruits », Bastien tells us. That they’re using Havana Club in two of them is, of course, an added bonus.

François Monti