Pandemic is the new ban, but bar industry icon Shingo Gokan is turning Covid into opportunity

Shingo Gokan thrives in difficult circumstances with creativity. When he found the four-story elevator-free space for his new Speak Low bar in Shanghai, he had to ask customers to go upstairs. He created a separate concept for each floor and made the upper floors more exclusive so that guests were thrilled to climb up there. Fourth Floor membership has become highly coveted tickets among cocktail connoisseurs.

The 2021 edition of the 50 best bars in Asia was announced on May 6. Gokan’s SG Club in Tokyo ranked # 3 and it was named the Roku Industry Icon for its contribution to the advancement of the global bar industry. Also, his two other bars were included in the list: Sober Company (No.5) and Speak Low (No.32) both in Shanghai.

The theme of this year’s awards show was to celebrate the ways the hospitality industry has demonstrated its agility and resilience, while giving customers more reasons than ever to return to bars. Gokan has been recognized for his innovative ideas that turned the pandemic into opportunity.

When Covid-19 hit Japan in February 2020, the government introduced travel restrictions and Gokan was stuck in Tokyo. He lost 70% of his customers, mostly tourists, to the SG Club.

Then he proposed multiple original and playful strategies.

Since the onset of the pandemic, Japan has let the food industry remain open without a strict lockdown like many other countries.

In June 2020, Gokan launched a new program called SG Airways, which took customers on a virtual tour of the world through food and cocktail pairings at the bar. “First Class” and “Business Class” passengers received 11 courses ($ 200) and 8 courses ($ 150) respectively and each course featured a different city in the world. All of the cocktails were made with Gokan’s own mind, SG Shochu, which he launched in February at the very start of the pandemic. Shochu is a traditional Japanese spirit, which is regularly enjoyed with food.

“They say food and cocktail pairings are difficult, but I’ve always been interested in the idea. So I thought it would be fun for our customers to try something new and have some excitement to travel freely abroad through tasting unique flavors from the world, ”he says. “And the high priced prepaid tickets helped us get through the first wave of the pandemic.”

In February 2021, Gokan opened SG Real Estate. Or, more precisely, he apparently closed the SG Club and reopened it as a speakeasy. He climbed aboard the lobby of the bar with plywood and put up a sign “Looking for tenants: please call SG Real Estate” with a phone number. Simultaneously, he made an announcement on social media:

“These are strange times, but history is full of stranger times. In the United States from 1920 to 1933, the sale, manufacture and transport of alcohol became illegal, creating what we call the ban. During this very dry period, speakeasies proliferate to quench the thirst of city dwellers. It’s been roughly 100 years and, coincidentally, going to bars is banned again today. The next ban could be in 100 years, so to commemorate the occasion, the SG Club will transform into a real speakeasy, known as SG Real Estate. ”

Behind the plywood, he served cocktails like Bathtub Shochu and Giggle Water to celebrate the nostalgic speakeasy culture. Social media loved the concept.

Additionally, in March 2021, Gokan opened a Bell Sushi pop-up at Bellwood, its second bar in Tokyo, which opened in June 2020. A creative omakase-style sushi menu is paired with two cocktails (8 pieces of sushi with two cocktails for $ 50). “By combining sushi and cocktails, we are attracting a more diverse audience. Since the menu is only available by reservation, we can also effectively reduce food loss, ”he says.

Additionally, in May 2021, it opened SGLOW, its third bar in Japan. This is a new cocktail themed izakaya or a relaxed bar and restaurant. Cocktail bars tend to carry a sophisticated image in Japan. To make up for foreign visitors lost due to the pandemic, the new bar invites people from the domestic market who have stayed away from high-end cocktail bars.

Unlike regular izakaya, SGLOW does not have a traditional Japanese vibe. Instead, it looks like a cool New York-style bar with affordable prices. Food items are $ 5 to $ 15 and cocktails $ 7 to $ 12. The majority of patrons are younger generations and newbies to cocktail bars, as Shingo hoped.

Shingo’s inventive and flexible responses to Covid-19 have certainly inspired the bar industry. But for him, the real reason he has retained his success is his strong focus on delivering memorable cocktails and service to every guest.

Shingo moved to New York with no knowledge of English in 2006 and eventually became the winner of the Bacardi Legacy Global Cocktail Competition, effectively the world’s best bartender, in 2012. Before leaving Japan, he studied the ceremony of Japanese tea. “During a tea ceremony, all your attention is paid to the smallest details so that your guests have the best possible experience.”

The new industry icon is only 38 years old and there are plenty of projects going on regardless of the pandemic.

It will soon be opening a new bar and restaurant next to the SG Club. The theme is wine cocktails made only by swirling without a shaker or a spoon. “It will be a pioneering project to go beyond existing wine cocktails like sangria.” He launched SG Shochu outside of Japan. Plus, he’s returning to New York with a new bar by the end of 2021.


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