When we last spoke with Bob Boyce, Montana-native and founder of Blue Frog Bar & Grill and Kabb, he had just opened a third Blue Frog on Tongren Lu, and was in the midst of expanding the Blue Frog/Kabb empire. In light of last month’s closing of the original Blue Frog on Maoming Lu after 13 years of business, Boyce shares his thoughts on the journey from its opening to closing, the evolution of Shanghai’s Western dining scene since his arrival, and future ventures.
Many would call the closing of Blue Frog on Maoming Lu the end of an era. How would you characterize this era in Western dining from Blue Frog’s opening to its closing? Describe some of the highlights/lowpoints of the era. The Maoming road of 13 years ago was such a different place and so if you were here at that time I think you can’t help but be nostalgic. At the time there were very few options for entertainment for the foreign community in Shanghai so just about everyone who lived here as well as everyone who passed through town ended up at Maoming road. For me it was an incredible time where I had the opportunity to meet a lot of great people. As was the case for many people from those days, my core group of friends are all people I spent a lot of time with on Maoming road back then. I think especially for the people who were here from 1999 to 2004, those were pioneering days in China. The future seemed bright and the party lasted all night long.
Why did you decide to shut it down now? Ruijin Guesthouse is tearing down the building. We have known for several years that we were on borrowed time.
This was your very first restaurant. Surely it must have been kinda painful to let it go? For me I have so many wonderful memories of the place, it was my first business, it was the place where I started to build an amazing team of individuals who have helped me build the company. It was also the place where I connected with a great many characters from all over the place and built long time, meaningful friendships.
Wonderful memories… But everything in a city like Shanghai progresses and so it’s time to move on to new adventures.
Still, 13 years in one location is a pretty good run by Shanghai standards! Man. Maoming Lu was just such a great place to be in the early days. It’s never been the same again since the great crackdown the subsequent makeover, and the flower market went down. Has business in that location been tough in the last few years? Actually one of the biggest bummers about losing the space is that business over the past several years has been really good. We have a great community of patrons and our numbers had never been stronger.
So what’s going to happen to the Wall of Fame? Is it going to be kept in a Blue Frog museum somewhere? The names on the Wall of Fame are going on a virtual wall on our website and will also be transferred to our Xujiahuai Blue Frog, so if your name is on the wall, don’t worry, you’re still a legend.
The original Blue Frog on Maoming Lu
When we first spoke to you in 2005, you had just opened up your third Blue Frog at Tongren Lu, and it was doing really well. What happened after that? We had a great run there but the area was redeveloped and so no one in that building had their lease renewed.
We will, however, be returning to the area this winter with a KABB in the new Kerry Center Jing’an. Our space there is amazing and we look forward to being back in the neighbourhood.
Blue Frog has six locations in Shanghai and another three in Beijing. And then there’s Kabb. And Brownstone. That’s quite an empire you’ve built up. What lessons have you learnt through all the ups and downs? A big part of us building a great business has been our people. We really pay a lot of attention to hiring great individuals. We then spend a lot more time on training and development. There are a lot of our team who have been with me since the beginning (the closing of Maoming was tough on our old timers because we all had so many great memories there). They have really been a huge part of our growth story.
The boring part of the answer is that we also have spend a lot of time and energy on systems, process and procedure. Everything we do is in an S.O.P. (Standard Operating Procedure).
I think the last part is that we have focused on how to do things the right way in China. As a company we don’t take a short term view. We’re here for the long haul and so it’s been important to build a strong foundation.
What’s the first thing you’d tell any would-be entrepreneur? Start out small so that you learn your lessons on an operation that is not so expensive and difficult to maintain. Build a network of friends and mentors with more experience than yourself and then milk them for information. (it’s amazing how much great advice smart people will offer up for the price of a coffee or a beer). Build systems, process and procedure into everything you do. Hire a good bookkeeper or accountant from the beginning. Stay optimistic.
What do you think the appeal of Blue Frog is? Why is it such a hit? (Besides the Montana Burger) We really pay attention to our community and our customers. Most of our business is repeat and so we try as hard as we can to make our costumers feel welcome and looked after. We also pay a lot of attention to consistency. We want you to have the same great experience no matter which place you are in.
What’s next for Blue Frog? Expansion into yet more cities? There is lots going on! We will open our newest blue frog in Nanjing this October and then will open our second KABB in the Kerry Center in Jing’an at the start of next year. Hangzhou and Wuxi are also in the works.
Are there no plans for a second KABB? Kerry Center Jing’an will be the second KABB. We have our eyes on a few other locations so we’ll let you know when they are nailed down.
And Brownstone? Are you happy with how your first venture into the
cocktail bar business went? I love Brownstone and spend a lot of my personal time there but right now we are really focused on expanding the Blue Frog and KABB brands so don’t have any current plans to expand Brownstone. You never know though.
Are there any wild wacky future projects outside of your existing brands in the works? We have some ideas we will be working on but for now the brands we have are keeping us really busy and we want to stay focused.
Compare Shanghai’s Western dining scene today to when you first moved here almost 15 years ago. How has it evolved and where do you see us going from here? Wow, so much has changed. Our original restaurant was started in response to a shortage of places to get decent Western food at a reasonable price. Back then our customers allowed us to make mistakes because they were so happy that someone was making an effort. Now there is an incredible amount of diversity in Shanghai and the market is competitive and unforgiving. An operator has to be good from the beginning and if they are learning on the fly they need to learn quickly.
Steering away from the topic of work, when you do get a break, where do you like to eat? Do you eat mostly Western or Chinese? I’m totally the wrong person to ask for recommendations for restaurants and bars because I spend so much time in my own. I’m a huge fan of the noodle place down the street though.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].