Montana-native Bob Boyce, 35, arrived in Shanghai nearly eight years ago. After studying Chinese in Beijing, he got a job managing a moving company in Guangzhou. That job took him to Shanghai. Now he owns the city’s growing Blue Frog/KABB empire, a highly successful restaurant/bar group he helped start from scratch. Shanghaiist sat down with Boyce at the outside patio at KABB in Xintiandi back in September (and now, three months later, has finally gotten around to transcribing the interview — sorry!). Boyce talks about the “old days” in Shanghai, getting drunk in your own establishments and the rise/fall/rise/fall/rise and impending fall of the Maoming Nan Lu bar street.
How did you get involved with the restaurant and bar business?I fell in to it. It just happened that way. I met my original business partner, Kathleen Lau, in Guangzhou. She had a restaurant down there. She moved up here to start a project, That’s Shanghai. At that time it was called In Shanghai. I was urging her to open something like she had in Guangzhou here, but she didn’t have time. I didn’t like my job. And there was nothing to eat back then. Six years ago in Shanghai, if you just wanted a normal meal in a nice place, or just a comfortable place, there was nothing. Virtually nothing outside of hotels. She didn’t have the time, she was running the That’s project. I was urging her to open, and she didn’t have time. I didn’t like my job so, we went into a partnership. A 50/50 partnership and we opened Kathleen’s on Maoming Road where the Blue Frog is now. Kathleen’s opened. That was sort of the beginning of the rise of Maoming Road. There was Judy’s and DKD opened a month before we did and then we opened, more of a restaurant than a bar really. And that sort of started that — a triangle of fun. And then it sort of built from there as other places opened up and as our business grew. And then Maoming Road , the first metamorphosis of Maoming Road was born. It was really fun. That was 1999. And then by the summer of 2000, it just reached amazing heights. It was such a fun place. The streets were packed and there were people from all over the world, all different walks of life doing all different sorts of things on Maoming Road until 4 or 5 in the morning. Everybody was just partying their butts off.
All different sorts of things?Yeah. It was really an amazing time to be in Shanghai. And then that summer — August 4, 2000 — police swooped in and closed everybody down and basically killed everybody’s business. [The good times] lasted about a year. We were actually allowed to stay open because we convinced them that we were a restaurant and the other ones were forced to close for a month. And then they reopened and it took another two years for it really to build up again.
Was this luck that you chose the Maoming Lu location? Or did you see the boom coming?Well, we saw the potential. I lived in the area so I used to walk around. I had it in mind to open something but I didn’t know where. We both had spent quite a bit of time looking for a space. And I was walking down the street one day and they had just built the building that we are in. They were just brick shells, basically. And a little dumpling restaurant had opened where Manhattans is now. And I thought, “Wow, what a great location.” So I called Kathleen. We met with Ruijin Guesthouse and did the deal right there, right on the street. And we opened Kathleen’s about four months later.
Easy as that?It was hard. Really hard. We ended up having big problems with the first contractor and the designer and the first person we hired to help us get through the permit phase was young. Two years later, when I went to apply for my next license, they were like, “We remember you.” Staffing was hard. It was hard. The whole thing.
Kathleen’s cousin, Shirley, was our partner. She was the original partner in That’s, as well. You couldn’t open a place like that now. You wouldn’t want to. But there was no other way at the time. It was under her name totally. There was a lot of trust there. You had to have a local partner, and the only way you could have a joint venture was if you had 220,000 USD in investment capital, which was prohibitive at the time. When you hear people getting screwed over, that is what happened. They used somebody else’s name because the registered capital [necessary] is much lower, and then that person shows up one day and says, ”It’s my place. Get out.”
Does that happen often?Not so much any more, because it’s easier to do it properly. But it used to happen all the time. People assume that it is always the Chinese partner’s fault. But there are a lot of crooked Westerners here too. It’s a lot easier to go through the right process now, so you are legally protected. It was always legal, but I had no protection at all. Anyway, about the time Maoming got cracked down on, we found this location.
Xintiandi.Right. I had been hearing about Xintiandi and I was walking down the street. This was a big hole. Boyce points to the area that now houses KABB’s patio. That house [One Xintiandi] was just what it was originally. All that down there, toward La Maison, none of that was there. It was being torn down and rebuilt.
Right. Tourists often think that Xintiandi is a renovated old neighborhood. But it’s a recreated neighborhood made to look old. Right?Well, it’s kind of in between. It was definitely leveled and definitely rebuilt. They saved some of the original walls. Like the wall along ARK, that’s the original wall. These bricks were brought in from like Hunan or something. They’re from old buildings and it was built in the exact fashion as the old building. But in the old building, the plumbing was nonexistent and they were wood, so they just wouldn’t have worked. There was no way you could have made it work. One Xintiandi is an original building.
When I first came to Shanghai, my office was right down the street [from the current Xintiandi location] and there was nothing to eat in this area. Nothing. It used to be a really miserable part of the city. But I looked over my shoulder and from here you could literally see 10 major office towers that are within a 10 minute walk of this. So I got goose bumps and called Kathleen and said you’ve got to get down here and see this. I called a friend who was involved with this project, got a meeting with them and negotiated really hard for this spot. They didn’t really know what they were doing at that point. They were going to put a gallery here. They weren’t going to use this courtyard here. Their vision was that this courtyard would be empty for people to stroll around in. They didn’t think about outdoor use. They used to make us put our chairs right here, where that door is. Boyce motions to what is now the side entrance to KABB.
What was different about opening up KABB, compared to Kathleen’s?Well, we decided it needed to be more up-market because of the location. That’s why we didn’t use “Kathleen’s.” So KABB. Kathleen’s American Bistro Bar. That’s where KABB comes from, for lack of a better name. It’s really hard to name a restaurant, actually.
Look at some restaurants around Shanghai and you can see how hard it is.Exactly. So, we had really great cash flow before the [Maoming] crackdown and really bad cash flow after, so it was stressful. Opening this up was really stressful. We opened in January of 2001. This was easier because Xintiandi really helped us a lot. They helped us a lot with the process. And this one we did a proper joint venture, which was difficult but ended up quite well. But just after we opened, Kathleen wanted out of the deal, so I bought her out.
So why isn’t anything called “Bob’s”?Laughs. It’s not a sexy name. I would feel really uncomfortable to have my name up there to be honest with you. I don’t need that. Part of our deal was that I not use “Kathleen’s,” which I was happy to do. It just became KABB.
Where did the name Blue Frog come from?We took “Kathleen” off of that venue’s name and called it KABB Cafe, which didn’t work. It wasn’t different enough. It confused people. I almost dumped it. [KABB Xintiandi] was keeping us busy and we opened at Seasons Villas. We were really focused on this venue and that venue. Maoming Lu was struggling. I almost let it go for a song, but went away to have a think about it and came back and saw that the street was coming up again. It was coming up more as a bar street. Manhattans had moved in and some other bars had moved in. And I was in a taxi one day thinking of names for a bar and “Blue Frog” popped into my head.
Naturally. There’s in place in Tucson, Arizona called Blue Dolphin, I’ve always really liked that name. There’s another place called the Blue Iguana. I thought, “Nobody knows what an iguana us here.” Blue Dog? Blue Frog? So Blue Frog was born. Went in and completely changed the original Kathleen’s into the bar. Made the bar big. The only way to really break with the past and what people’s perceptions of the place was to completely redo it. That was in 2002. I wanted to do something where people could really let there hair down. It was for my [Xintiandi] customers, so they could cut loose a bit. Shots became part of what we do.
Then Maoming Road built up again — the second coming of Maoming Road. The summer of 2002 was quite fun. Then, in 2003 SARS hit. SARS hit and it hit hard April 22, 2003. It really kicked us in the butt. But because our customer base is such a part of the community, we were down 50 percent while our neighbors were all down 80 or 90 percent, because they are expense-account travel-type venues. I’m so grateful to my customers because they really came to support us. Fortunately, it didn’t last very long and that fall it shot back with a vengeance. Our numbers just went through the roof. It was so busy. So busy. So the summer of 2004, that whole year, 2003 to 2004, was really a lot of fun.
Until they shut Maoming Lu down again.Yeah. Until they shut it down.
What is their problem with Maoming Lu?It gets too out of control. The first time, they didn’t know what to do. It came down from Beijing, there was some news in the press about Julu Lu about Chinese girls doing lap dances for Western men, and they had a video tape. And it came from Beijing. Somebody in Beijing, at quite a senior level, said stop what is going on down there. So one day — August 4, I remember so clearly — I was sitting in the window. It was 12 o’clock. We had heard that they were going to come down and start shutting people down at 12, but we were considered a restaurant even though it was definitely a bar and we were doing bar business and we were open until 4 in the morning. I was sitting there with Ian and 20 uniformed police came in and they went to Babylon [now Babyface], closed it down. Judy’s was absolutely heaving with people, DKD was heaving with people. They went in and ripped the CD player out of the wall and pushed everybody out. They wanted to make a point. They told us to turn off our music and told everybody to get out. We were supposed to close for 30 days, but we were able to negotiate our way into being open because we had booked some parties with the British Consulate. We convinced them it was a diplomatic thing. We were the only ones open, but they parked a police car outside our door and barked at people as they came in.
How did it go down in 2004?The second time was less dramatic. That was because there are these apartments attached to Ruijin Guesthouse that were built for senior officials from Beijing, and they moved in there and then started to complain about the noise. And to be honest, I live the area, and there were a lot of irresponsible bar owners who had speakers outside and they just didn’t care. They thought they could get away with it or negotiate their way out of it. It was loud. It was loud at 3 am. They basically made us turn our music off for a month, then the magazines started printing that Maoming Lu was going to get torn down and all of these wild rumors fueled by the magazines. “Rumor has it” blah blah blah. And “The Party is Over” on the cover of City Weekend. “The Day the Music Died” in That’s. It was all very dramatic. Of course, when it didn’t die, no one ever printed anything then. So basically the police shot it down and the expat magazines really put the nail in it. And right about that time they started installing a sewer pipe on Fuxing Road, so it looked like the road was closed, but it wasn’t.
So what is the status of Maoming Lu now?It’s lively. But it is likely going to go. The flower market and that whole area, I think by the end of the year will likely be torn down. Not [the Blue Frog] side, but the other side. It’s going to be turned into a theater. When it will happen no one is really sure, but I think in the next year it will happen. [More info]
What will Blue Frog do?We’re not sure yet. We’ll kind of evaluate the situation when it happens. We don’t really rely much on that location. It’s near my office and it’s never lost money. It’s a fun space. I really like that space. Partly for sentimental reasons — it’s my first restaurant. And partly because it’s just such a great area. In the daytime, when you are there having a cup of coffee and you are walking down the street, it’s really interesting.
It’s unfortunate. Maoming Lu is one of the few bar streets that has some character, it’s own personality.An atmosphere. A lot of people say that this was planned by the city. They planned to open Tongren Lu and had the police crack down on Maoming Road to get people to go to Tongren Lu. But they are completely unrelated. Tongren Lu was just very lucky.
Are there still noise pollution rules on Maoming?You can’t go over 60 decibels.
They come around with meters?They do. Less now, but they do.
Do you like the vibe on Tongren Lu? Places there have always kind of felt like airport bars to us.Tongren will change. It’s changing now. They are doing some stuff outside, there will be a lot more tables outside. They are doing some more green-space. It will change. It will develop. You know, some of the natural selection will take place there. People who don’t have great business will probably not survive and people who do will build on it. Our business is actually very good there. And building every month better than the last. That location from a long term standpoint is just a great location. Central to everything. The Shangri-La will go up across the street. All those apartment buildings going up nearby. We really have a long term view of that. We focus on bringing in our own crowd rather that what the neighbors bring in. I think potential is very much there.
Why are Shanghai bars so much more expensive than Beijing bars?I think the mentality of people in Shanghai is different. Shanghainese choose their venue based on the style of it, not based on price or even the quality of the food. They base it on atmosphere, and don’t mind paying for that atmosphere. Beijingers choose their bar based on the price of the beer, and they don’t care what it looks like. You don’t have to go into too many bars in Beijing to learn that. People don’t spend too much time on creating a nice space there.
What about an American expat living in Shanghai who misses American dive bars? Where he can relax and get a good, normal priced beer? Where do we go?We’re actually in the process of thinking about another venue that will accommodate those needs.
Being a bar and restaurant owner, when you have free time do you still hang out at bars?I do. I’ll usually go to dinner and then maybe one of the clubs if I go out out. I don’t have a local that’s not my own place. Not that I don’t enjoy other people’s bars, I actually really do, it’s just that I don’t have time. And I actually really like my own bars. And my circle of friends are around my bars.
Our latest theory is that Shanghai has about twice as many bars than it needs.It’s natural selection. Any town probably has more bars than it needs. The bar business is brutal. It’s a hard business to be in. But I think every guy has a thing about owning a bar. It’s a just a male thing. So people come into it and think it’s great. They see me here having drinks with friends and they see that as the good life: Don’t really work that hard and hang out at the bar and talk to people.
Damn. So it’s not really like that?No. For me it’s a business. Always has been a business. I didn’t start a bar because I wanted a bar. I mean, it’s a cool thing to have. But it’s my livelihood, it’s my business and I think of it that way. Probably for the first four years, I didn’t drink in any of my places. At all. Ever.
Now you’re just drinking all the time.Yeah, now I’m loaded all the time. No, now because my social life and work life is kind of a gray area, now I do. I remember when we first opened, our first party, had a big grand opening party, we had all this booze donated, and I got loaded — pissed off my face. And it kind of spooked me a little bit. Because I like to drink and I like being social and everything that comes with it, but I thought I don’t want to lead that kind of life. I don’t want to be drunk all the time or hung over all the time. You can’t run a business that way.
You’ve obviously seen a lot of bars come and go in Shanghai. What do you think is the average life-span of a bar here?It really depends on where they open and who is doing it. If they open in a high rent district, it can be three months, because it is expensive. There is nothing that drains your pocket book faster than a bar that doesn’t fly. A lot of people spend a lot of time on the front end and they blow basically all of their investment money on the design and the fit-out. And they assume they will open the doors and it will be busy from day one. It takes time to build customers into a client base. So if you spend all your money on the fit-out and you are in a high rent district, you are not going to last very long. Same situation in a low rent district. You have cheap rent but it is a lone venue in a part of town that has cheap rent. But then you have to get people there and in Shanghai a destination bar rarely works. There is strength in numbers.
But decor is important, especially in Shanghai. You have to have a stylish place. But some people spend all of their time on that and none of their time on taking care if their customers, making sure the bartenders pour a good drink, making people feel comfortable and welcome. And making sure the quality of what they are delivering is good. Any more, the price of entry is quality. To play the game you have to have decent quality. If you don’t, you don’t play. It used to be in the old days you could open and if you did a reasonably competent job, people would come because there was no other choice. But now there’s a lot of choice here and quality is accepted. If you don’t do quality, you don’t play.
And the “old days” are six years ago.Yeah. That seems funny now. Six or seven years ago.
Where were you hanging out back then? We ate a lot of Chinese food. 1221 was here. We’d go to O’Malley’s. O’Malley’s was very expensive though. Park 97 had just opened. Very expensive, as well. And I wasn’t earning huge money back then. We’d go to places like that and then little quasi Western places that are no longer here. It was actually difficult back then to find any sort of normal Western food.
And you fixed all that. Shanghai is such a dynamic place that people are willing to try new things all the time and when we first started, we were doing things that we had seen in the US but hadn’t seen here. It wasn’t rocket science to me to open up a place and serve a decent cheeseburger. Or to open a reasonably comfortable place with music that wasn’t the Carpenters or the Beatles. But these ideas were new to Shanghai and you could really run with them and develop them. And people were really enthusiastic about it.
When you go out these days, where do you go?I love M. To me it feels very comfortable. It’s a very comfortable space. I always feel taken care of. At Three, Laris is a nice place. The guys at Element have done a good job and are building a very good operation. Moon River, they are building a good operation. And Michelle over at 1221 continues to do a good job, provide a great experience for people. And Casanova — I love Casanova. Casanova on Julu Lu.
In terms of bars, after my own places, I’ll go to Park 97, but not too much anymore, or to Bar Rouge, if I feel like being abused.
Best burger in town?Blue Frog.
Third?I think Malone’s. Probably Malone’s.
Best steak?KABB. Alright, if I’m not in KABB, the Grand Hyatt. I really like the Grand Hyatt.
Best steak for the money?I don’t order steak outside of my place or the Grand Hyatt. I’m particular about meat. I grew up on a cattle ranch.
Some people have said there are some decent 69 kuai steaks in Shanghai.The only way they can charge a price like that is if they use local beef. And there’s nothing wrong with local beef for what it is. But beef is what the cow eats. And in China they don’t grain feed, they eat whatever is there. The reason an American steak is good is because it had been grain fed for almost a year. Australian beef is starting to do that, too. So if I’m going to order a steak, I’d just rather order something else if I don’t know if its going to be a great steak. Steak sells really well for us, because for many Shanghainese, that’s what Western food is.
Favorite thing about Shanghai?The energy. The vibe. Love the vibe.
Has it always been that way?No. Since I’ve been here I felt it, but I came to Shanghai 11 years ago and it was a nightmare. I was in Beijing and Beijing at that time was quite a pleasant place to be. I came down to Shanghai to visit some friends. The subway had just opened, but people were riding it all the way to end, getting off and riding it back. It was a ride for people. The elevated road had not been completed by then and all of these tall buildings weren’t here yet. The place was choked with traffic, polluted, damp and nasty. I left thinking there is no hope for the city. I think pretty much everybody at the time felt the same. That was 1994. And then I came back for business in 1996 and it was getting better. And I moved back in ’98 and the elevated roads were open, the buildings had been finished an there was an enthusiasm that was starting to build. It was just on fire, everybody was enthusiastic and excited. I feel very fortunate to have been here at that time and to be a part of what the city has become and where it is going. It’s been such a ride. And I think all of us who have been here feel the same way. We just feel we’ve been a part of something that is so much bigger than ourselves. I think most of us who have been here for a while have really started to notice a change in the last year. It’s changed from developing to developed. That’s also an exciting period of time, but I think there are more than few people who are mourning the loss of — not really an innocence, but an excitement of being part of something new.
Least favorite part of living in Shanghai.Traffic. It’s getting really bad.
So, are you in Shanghai for life?I’m not Chinese. China isn’t my home country. A long term lifer, who knows? But certainly I want to be part of the city for the foreseeable future. But at the end of the day we’re all visitors. People shouldn’t forget that.