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Michael Callahan of 28 HongKong Street

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By Tim Oh
19 October 2012 4:11 PMUpdated 19 Oct 2012

Michael Callahan of 28 HongKong Street

Michael Callahan in his workshop | Photo: 28 Hong Kong Street

Not only is 28 HongKong Street one of Singapore’s most influential bars in the past year, it has spewed numerous copycats with its idiosyncratic promotional tactics via insider word-of-mouth among friends and tastemakers. 

The 'secret' - and we use that word freely in eagle-eyed Singapore - bar that has picked up numerous local and international awards placed 42nd on Drinks International’s 'World’s 50 Best Bars' list this year. (Tippling Club was 29th - the only other Singapore bar on the list.) General manager Michael Callahan finally gets loose-lipped about his work philosophy and tactics on staying ahead of the game:

 

"Regarding new 'secret' bars coming to town, I say, “Welcome!”"

28 HongKong Street (28HKS) kickstarted the secret bar concept here...
My business partners never wanted 28HKS to be secret per se. They wanted to create something authentically good, keep it a bit quiet, share it with people that could appreciate it, have those people share it with others, and so on. They wanted it to be the kind of place they themselves would love. When we met, it was immediately clear that we all had the same view on things, which is rare in this business. They convinced me to come to Singapore (from San Francisco) to help build this and handed me the keys - best decision I ever made!

Can you tell us more about your partners?
My partners had ringside seats in New York during the 2000s. New York City at that time was ground zero for the cocktail renaissance worldwide. When they shifted to Singapore, they fell in love with the food and beverage industry's energy here and felt the time was right for a venue like 28HKS.

Tell us about the bar's philosophy
The staff at 28HKS start every day with the goal to win over the heart and mind of every person that finds their way through the double doors and past the velvet curtains. We use knowledge, passion, and hospitality as our tools to do that. 

An elusive location, no doubt, but 28HKS's cocktails are definitely top-notch |
Photo credit:
28 HongKong Street

And your personal philosophy?
Since I was 15, my New Year’s resolution has been, "I will not be complacent". Each day I push myself and my team to be a little better than the day before. In this industry, you can expect it to take a lifetime of commitment to master the many facets of your vocation. It’s not enough to merely learn the standard protocols and turn up for work; to be excellent, you have to be committed to going the extra distance, to strive for personal and team betterment. For instance, we hold internal master classes for the staff on Sundays, which is our only day off. That’s the sort of commitment we’re looking for and which we reward.

There are new 'secret' bars in town, like the one known most adjacently as 'The Library'. Are these threats or friendly rivals?
In 2000, New York had maybe five truly great places to get a cocktail. Today it has dozens, yet those five or six originals are all still in business. The public appreciation for fine drinking grew as the number of good venues grew. Today people in New York are as knowledgeable about fine drinking as they are about fine dining, so there is lots of room in the market for good venues. Singapore seems to be experiencing something similar. For cocktail industry professionals working in Singapore, the key is collaboration, not competition.

So might we expect collaborations?
The best cocktail cities in the world don’t get to be the best by jealousy, fear or isolation. San Francisco taught me that being friendly, supportive, and respectful to each other, even collaborating with competitors, is the single best way to create excellence in the community. Learning from your peers makes you smarter. If your peers are also your friends, your life is just that much richer. Regarding new bars coming to town, I say, “Welcome!”

You guys are not so secret anymore…
Well, 28HKS never supposed to be secret in the first place. The wins make me proud of my staff – they have earned every gram of recognition and more. I have a goal of seeing each of them running their own cocktail bars one day when they’re ready. How will they build their own careers if we are forever secret? Besides, one year of success is not good enough – we still have so much growth left in us. 28HKS is just getting started.

What can we expect in the near future of 28HKS?
28HKS will stay fresh because we never rest. We want to bring our team shoulder to shoulder with the best venues in the world.


28 Hong Kong Street | Address: 28 HongKong Street | Tel: 65332001 | opening hours: Mon-Sat 5.30pm-late

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Tim Oh is a keen arts, cultural and lifestyle observer who moonlights as a stage actor for a living.

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