“We were losing money throughout the first year.” How Jay Khan of COA Hong Kong made it to No. 1 on Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2022 five years later

“Learning from every mistake will lead you closer to your goals. Just don’t repeat the mistakes.” – Jay Khan

“What I have now, this so-called overnight success is 15 years in the making. I’ve struggled a lot throughout the years, even just to get my foot into bartending. Nothing came easy but in the end, it’s well worth it.” Jay Khan, co-founder of COA, No.1 on Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2022, and No. 7 World’s 50 Best Bars 2022, a Mexican-inspired craft cocktail bar that specializes in traditional mezcal and agave tequila. He is also the co-founder of Mezcal Mission, a charity foundation helping underprivileged communities through mezcal tasting.

The eldest in a family of five children, Jay Khan grew up in Hong Kong and was raised by his mother and grandmother. He started from very humble beginnings with his first foray into the F&B industry was working in a dim sum place after high school.

Over the last 15 years, he slowly worked his way up as a floor staff at Hard Rock Cafe, Ed Club and Karaoke Lounge, and then to becoming Group Beverage Manager overseeing cocktail programs for Foxglove, Dr. Ferns Gin Parlour, and Mrs. Pound, to name a few. Over the years, this self-taught bartender was driven by self-improvement and spent lots of time pouring over books about cocktails and business management. He also moved to Melbourne for a year to gain more experience before moving back to Hong Kong in 2010 to lead Lily & Bloom.

It was in Lily & Bloom that he had his first taste of mezcal. Enthralled by the flavours, he started making regular trips to Mexican distilleries to learn more about this underrated liquor before opening COA in November 2017 to share his passion for “these misunderstood spirits.” Here, he talks to Set the Tables about his humble beginnings, embracing mistakes as a natural part of progression, and why it’s important to know that there are no shortcuts to success.

COA was opened in 2017 by Jay Khan as part of his mission to bring agave spirits to the forefront of Asia’s cocktail scene.

Reflecting on your own start that led you to opening COA, and speaking to bartenders who are just starting out and potentially lacking in resources to implement certain initiatives;

What would you suggest as an important initial first step towards building the proper foundation for success?

I had prior experience in consulting and leading projects for other companies, but I never actually had the chance to open my own bar until COA. COA is my first time being a business owner. When we first opened in December 2017, for me at least, it was all about having a space where I could make drinks. I didn’t give a lot of consideration to the business aspects of things, or even the tiny details like the furnishing, the choice of music, I didn’t think at all about how to create an ambience that guests would feel comfortable in.

We were losing money throughout the first year. We were behind by anywhere between the range of 50,000 HKD to 100,000 HKD every month.

We were so fortunate that our investors were very supportive. They never questioned the business, they believed in our passion and even offered more help in terms of finances because they knew the longer we are able to stay open, the better we were going to get. And they were right.

From the very beginning, we had issues with staffing, finances, and we struggled to educate guests to understand what we were doing not only with our mezcal menu but also with the space itself.

COA now boasts a cosy, open and intimate space with reclaimed industrial accents.

Like I said earlier, we didn’t give much thought to the space. We did not have the budget for a designer so the place was done up on our own. It was very raw. If you stepped into COA when we first opened, let’s just say that apart from our hospitable staff, there was no warmth to the space.

In hindsight, I would have paid more attention to these aspects in the early days. However, we learn fast and hard, and we are a resilient team.

We were constantly on our feet whenever there was a problem, and this just kept us going.

What kept your team going?

What played a huge part was and still is that we like to engage with our guests and we would always ask our guests, “What can we do to improve? What did you notice when you first entered COA? Is there anything you think we could have done better?”

We would have a lot of these conversations and, those guests would soon become regulars. And it paid off. From about late 2018 to early 2019, business picked up and we were able to just about breakeven, not in terms of the whole investment at that time yet but we were able to make monthly profits.

I’m curious by nature. I always like to ask questions and learn from my mistakes. What I learned is that it is alright to make mistakes. Learning from every mistake will lead you closer to your goals. Just don’t repeat the mistakes.

The past five years running COA was a roller coaster ride, but we also really enjoyed it. It is not always about the destination. It’s about the journey, and who we are journeying with.

“It’s about the journey, and who we are journeying with.” – Jay Khan
Longevity in the hospitality industry is more desirable now than ever before. How did the guiding principles at COA come about and how does it impact your business?

The core of the business comes down to its people, not the drinks.

We treat our staff like family. It’s a small team, but we want them to come to work and actually enjoy the process and be part of a strong team.

I would get their opinion on our menus, have them do some research and see if they could come up with a better idea or, just get them involved in all aspects of the business.

 

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We’d go out together doing healthy activities like going for a run or a hike. If you’re always in that service frame of mind where the stakes are high, it can be quite stressful because you’re always solving problems throughout the long work hours.

I don’t want my team to work 12-hour shifts every night, sleep and come back to work. I always convinced them to finish their work early, and get a life outside of work!

If work is the only thing we do all the time, we’re going to burn out really quickly, and might not perform at our best. So, we try our best to make sure that the core of the business is always about taking care of our people. And in return, our people will take care of the business.

“We work hard every day to make sure that we provide an exceptional time for our guests.” Care to expound on this?

In our team briefings, we always remind our staff to treat everyone who walk through our doors as welcoming guests.

The difference between a customer and a guest would be that when a customer comes in, they pay for a product or service whereas a guest is somebody who you would invite to your home.

Like if you invite a friend to your home, how would you treat that person? We want to bring that kind of hospitality to COA. It’s casual but not overly casual, it’s professional without feeling too corporate or intimidating.

I think it’s about being proactive and about attention to detail. It’s about observing the guests, how they react to things and offering them what they need before they even ask you for it.

On the wall of COA is a breath-taking mural of Mayahuel, the goddess of Agave, also known as the goddess of fertility in Aztec mythology.
Tell us more about COA’s culture. How do you train your staff?

Here, we do everything together. Our bartenders need to work on the floor receiving guests like a host or work in the kitchen and make the snacks.

We don’t have a bar team. We don’t have a kitchen team. We don’t have a service team. Here, we do everything together. 

That way, it keeps things fresh as well so you don’t feel like you’re doing the same thing again and again and again. We try and alternate the schedules that way.

Over time, we have developed a very strong culture with a distinct process for operations and because of this, anyone who joins our team has to start from the bottom no matter whether you’re an experienced bartender or not, you will have start washing the glasses, being the barback, preparing the snacks etc. 

 

COA has a 41 page spirit menu dedicated to agave spirits that deep dives into these rich, diverse but often misunderstood products.
What differentiates a good bartender from a great bartender?

I think a good bartender is somebody who makes good drinks and knows the basics of product knowledge.

The core of the business is our guests. A great bartender is somebody who actually proactively takes care of the guest, doing everything from the heart.

Some bartenders might not be very good with drinks, but they are naturally good with people. Would you prefer a guy who is knowledgeable and makes you the perfect cocktail or would you prefer a bartender that makes your evening a great one?

 

The menu introduces a new cocktail every week based on seasonal ingredient which are hand picked by the team.
The menu introduces a new cocktail every week based on seasonal ingredient which are hand picked by the team.
You’re a business owner and bartender. Any advice to young bartenders following in your footsteps?

When you first lead a team, you want people to acknowledge and respect you. If somebody doesn’t agree with you, there is a high chance that you’ll become arrogant, or defensive. I think everyone pretty much goes through that phase.

I was the same, but then I realized that was wrong. You need to build trust and respect from your team, and not the other way around. If you are able to earn their respect for you, then they will basically help you.

So that’s what I’ve learned, throughout my experience – you need to pass on your knowledge to your team. That’s the way you can open a platform for them to be honest. And when they do open up, listen to your staff. When a staff gives you a suggestion, don’t turn them down. Don’t think that you have to know it all and try to correct someone. It’s not about you coming up with each and every solution and then just telling people to do it.

Management is also about how to bring out the best in your staff. I used to read a lot of books about how to be a good manager and improve myself.

Are there any books you would recommend on management?
  1. Setting The Table by Danny Meyer on hospitality
  2. Imbibe by David Wondrich on cocktail history
  3. Liquid Intelligence by Dave Arnold on cocktail techniques
What is the most common mistake that you see new and young bartenders make?

I’ve seen bartenders being arrogant when the guests don’t know much about cocktails. It is our job to educate them to explore this wonderful world of cocktails and make them feel comfortable. If you don’t know something, it is alright to apologize, just be honest and say, “I’ll look into that” or “I don’t know how to make that however, I can create an alternative for you.” Don’t embarrass the guest if they do not know much about cocktails.

I think another common mistake that I see is they try to find shortcuts. Many young aspiring bartenders today want to become bartenders to be famous because they think bartending could bring them lots of attention.

I once interviewed a guy, and I always ask this when I interview somebody, “Why do you want to become a bartender?” It’s a simple, common interview question but it speaks volumes.

This guy came up with an answer that made me speechless. He said “I want to be famous. I want to be in a magazine, just like you.” The conversation went so well, and then he added this point where he wants to be famous and I was like, oh s**t, this is not good.

Being a bartender is all about being patient. There are no shortcuts. Some people will succeed faster if you’re a fast learner. But you have to go through the process. I mean, you have to walk before you can run, right?

What I have, this so-called overnight success is 15 years in the making. There’s nothing wrong with being a role model that people can look up to but all of this doesn’t just come naturally.

I’ve struggled a lot throughout the years, even just getting into bartending. Nothing came easy, but the journey has made everything well worth it.

 COA has opened in Shanghai, situated in a three-storey old house restored to an eclectic modernist expression of the bars in Mexico City and Oaxaca. Located in the Jing’An District with over 200 bottles of agave to be discovered, operations began in May 2022 and it’s already gained media attention as a bar to watch.

 

Image credit: COA Hong Kong. A huge shoutout to CK Kho of Coley Lumpur (Asia’s 50 Best Bars) for making this interview possible!

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Interview and written by Theri Burhan. Edited by Lim Aileen.

 

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