We know that [guests] have 1000 choices of great venues to go to in Singapore. If you're going to spend an evening with us and your hard earned cash, it better be worth it.
– Jay Gray, Co-founder of Sago House & Drinks International Magazine's 100 Most Influential Figures 2022
According to a famous American poet, if you’re going to try, go all the way; otherwise, don’t even start. Don't Try.
Singapore's vibrant bar scene is one of the most competitive in the world. If you want to stay in the game, you'd better be committed for the long haul. This could mean 10 years of hard work and more. This could mean devising creative and inexpensive ways to decorate your bar and raise funds. This could mean "killing your darlings" and completely reinventing a fresh new cocktail menu every week.
Created during the pandemic lockdown period of 2020, this is one bar with a fiercely independent ethos. Sago House was started by three individuals without relying on the pursestrings of banks or investors with deep pockets. The interior is almost entirely furnished and decorated by the team using recycled and reused materials. It's been only its third year of operation but impressively, this bar with scrappy beginnings has already been named by respected critics as one of Asia's Best Bars twice in a row.
It is one thing to succeed. It is quite another to succeed using very little financial resources. These folks are clearly on to something.
We talked with Jay Gray, one of the co-founders of Sago House– who strikes us with a disarming level of sincerity and a passion that we've only seen in the memoirs of certain great chefs. Read on for our full discussion with Jay.
[88 Bamboo]: Many people (including ourselves) dream of opening a bar one day, but few go on to actually make their passion come true. For us, you’ve been living the dream – and doing incredibly well as one of Asia’s Best Bars for 2021 and 2022! We’re curious to know what it takes and whether our dream is still achievable!
Could you briefly take us through your formative years, your time working behind some of the best bars in Europe and Australia, and how you landed up in Southeast Asia to co-found one of the most ambitious and innovative bar concepts?
[Jay Gray]: Firstly, thank you very much for the kind words. I am always so proud of the bar and the team when people tell me how much they enjoy it.
My career behind the bar started like many others, working in my local pub in Loddon, Norfolk, for some extra cash. I was always drawn to being behind the bar because it felt somewhat like a stage. Holding court with the guests was really enjoyable, especially as I am/was somewhat of an introvert. Having this new skill (more on the entertainment and commitment to quality side of things) allowed me to move around as much as I wanted whilst still holding down a stable income. Hospitality, as I learned then, was more about being able to give the guest a great experience rather than showing off tricks of the trade. The advanced skillsets come later as you cycle through new bars, bosses and concepts. I cycled through my fair share of bars in Barcelona, Nottingham and London before moving to Australia. At this point I would say I had a relatively well rounded experience and still a very strong commitment to bettering myself.
Taking up a role with The Baxter Inn was probably a turning point in my career. I learnt a lot more about focused trainings, community and team building than I had previously experienced. I moved around a lot in the Sydney bar scene due to the visa system they have. This again allowed me to continually change my learning experience based on venue I chose to work with. Moving to Singapore was quite a random experience. I literally got a phone call one day from Proof & Co about a consultancy gig... I said yes and I was on a plane a few weeks later. No expectations and I hadn't read up about it either. My life was a lot simpler back then with much less responsibility. The consultancy itself was only for a year and then I joined Monkey Shoulder as their ambassador to South East Asia.
This was a huge learning curve for me. Especially for trade marketing and corporate structure. It was quite a large role with 6 countries under my purview and a responsibility to the community and to the brand. I stayed in that role for far longer than I had imagined, 6 years longer than I had ever thought I would last in a corporate structure. That ambassador role lead me to meeting my partner in life and in business, Desiree Jane, and in turn both of us opening Sago House together (at the time) for fun.
[88B]: You have shared a heart-warming portrait of your “dream team” at Sago House.
Could you take us through a day in your life as owner and manager of Sago House? What are the coolest aspects and challenges of the business that most people would not know about?
Could you also share how you were able to assemble a “dream team” of eclectic personalities to run a top-tier cocktail bar?
[Jay]: Absolutely, I mean the day in the life of a bar owner is pretty varied (at least in my experience). It changes as well over time.
Our first year we were glued to the venue, pretty much spending every waking moment there to ensure nothing could go wrong or fixing small minute details that no one normal would ever notice. As time goes on we began assembling a team (originally it was just Desiree and I 6 nights a week). We were incredibly lucky with Sago, a mixture of awesome people gravitating towards the bar and some opportune timing. The hires we made were 100% personality based and almost all of our team were guests before they became family. With Sago we had 0 investment, we are 100% independently owned and we really couldn't predict if we would make enough money to actually afford staff (with no savings in the bank either). Essentially we recycled any money we earned into either rewarding our team for the hard work they have given us or hiring a new member to spread the workload out.
Building culture in our business became paramount. Desiree and I had both worked in toxic environments before, we had experienced different styles of management and we wanted to give the team a sense of ownership and accountability. This is where the 'Sago Scoop' came about. A social agreement between the venue and the team as a whole. Breading accountability and self discipline, independent of traditional 'top down' management structures. Going back to a day in the life of me, I didn't go to school for any of this so I almost non stop listen to audiobooks (I'm dyslexic so reading is a bit of a chore). From building a team and imparting the notion of personal and team accountability, we then set our sights on building structure. This is about the hardest thing I've ever tried to do because my mind is constantly exploding with ideas and I can go on a tangent in a split second. It's especially hard when we are trying to preach a flat management system. To this day a lot of what I will be doing is backing up or guiding the management team, ensuring that they have the tools they need for success. Making sure those who are told that they have ownership and accountability aren't trying to do their jobs with one hand tied behind their back. After this you've got the fact that our venue was built by hand using mostly up cycled or recycled materials. So there's a LOOOOT of fixes to either be done personally or via a contractor who actually knows what they are doing.
[88B]: Any first-time visitor to Sago House would notice a bright neon sign with Charles Bukowski’s words: “Don’t Try” – which according to some, is an exhortation for artists to be true to themselves and forget all about impure motives that involve financial success, Cadillacs, or fame.
How has the wisdom of the words “Don’t try” guided you through the thick and thin of running a cocktail bar and in life?
(Image Source: Epicure Asia)
[Jay]: Well put. This has been our guiding light since we started and continues to be the motto that keeps us on the straight and narrow as opportunities arise. Everyone needs a reality check and an ego check at some point or another.
Don't Try has been our moral compass working with suppliers, guests, media and our day to day operations. I think the good thing about being independently owned is that we only have a financial obligation to our team, our landlord and our suppliers. We don't necessarily covet much more than a safe, happy, fun working environment. We get offered stuff sometimes that isn't in line with our ethos or branding and we can turn it down with ease due to the fact we don't have and stakeholders to impress. Out of everything the team has accomplished, staying true to this motto is the most impressive.
[88B]: Sago House has a weekly rotating menu of original cocktails across six themes: strong up, strong down, daisies, highballs, sours and tropical, made from seasonal local ingredients. Once the week is over, those six cocktails would be gone forever. This is a true huge testament to your team’s mixology talent, passion, hard work and sincerity!
How did this concept come about? How much of a challenge is it to develop so many new cocktails on such a frequent basis – and have them all taste delicious?
[Jay]: We get asked this a lot and I'm always keen to make sure people don't think we invented this practice. I actually picked up the idea whilst working at one of my favourite bars, Bulletin Place. Sago was built upon the experiences of Desiree, George and Myself and we all wanted something that reflected what we believed to be the best of the best. The space itself also helped us decide what style of service we wanted to carry out.
So in essence the idea of rotating the menu weekly was two fold, my experience and knowledge that it could be done, and my complete fickle-mindedness. The idea of making the same drinks for months at a time really bored me haha. Now that we have a full bar team to consider it means that the drinks are even more diverse. We've actually written a training for consumers and bartenders that comprises all the elements that go into the weekly menu. But a simple analogy for our process is comparing it to a game of chess. The pieces are always the same but depending on the moves you make there are unlimited possibilities.
[88B]: And this leads us to Sago House's recently-launched cocktail NFT project that actually allows visitors to revive past cocktails that have fallen off the rotating menu. People are now able to purchase NFTs for specific cocktails and earn the exclusive privilege to order those cocktails even if they are no longer on the menu at Sago House.
Tell us a little about how this works! How does one go about acquiring one of Sago House’s NFTs? What other potential benefits could holders of Sago House’s NFTs receive?
[Jay]: So you can purchase the NFT's through our website or directly through Rareable. Its been an interesting experiment and we think the utility is super beneficial for the guest who purchases one. Essentially if you own that drink you get it at almost cost price ($10) forever or until you sell it on. Basically if you buy 1 now and you drink 10 tomorrow, you've made your money back.
Sago House (SG) announces inaugural collection of Cocktail NFTs to commemorate first year of menus
The NFT collection is Sago House's next initiative in their independent way of doing business, serving as a digital kickstarter to help fund their forthcoming first cocktail book, Don’t Try, Volume I. Sago House NFT holders will enjoy exclusive member benefits, including first access to the book when it’s ready and member events. Collectors can also compete for their spot on the NFT Top Fraggers list, a digital leaderboard mirroring the list on display on the bar to recognise the venue’s top regulars.
In meeting by chance, Jay pitched the idea of cocktail NFTs when catching up with one of Sago House’s first guests and regulars, who introduced him to Dan Clarke. A developer and marketer with experience at top crypto companies such as Binance, Gemini and now Polygon, Dan has launched various crypto tokens and projects, and has led the development for Sago House’s first NFT collection.
“I’d had the idea for a cocktail NFT collection for awhile, I just hadn’t met anyone who could work on it with us”, says Jay. “I loved the idea of a digital representation of our cocktails, to give them new life after the team worked so hard to create each of them for a week-long run at the bar.”
“NFTs are all about digital scarcity, but this a unique project because it’s an instance of real world scarcity combined with digital”, says Dan. “It’s an interesting way to create both an online and offline presence, offering something that has real world utility”.
The NFTs are ERC-721 tokens on the Ethereum blockchain and are available on all NFT marketplaces. Each is available for S$100, plus the initial minting gas fee.
For more information and to get your NFT: https://sagohousenft.com/.
[88B]: You have shared that the purpose of this NFT project is to “crowdfund” for Sago House’s independently-written cocktail book “Don’t Try, Volume One” (which NFT owners would receive priority access to purchase it), without the need to rely on external contracts, deals or investors. We also note that Sago House’s venue is one that had been constructed independently.
Could you share why is self-reliance a value so important to Sago House?
[Jay]: This one is a bit personal to me, but I know George and Des share similar feelings. For me, I've never wanted to be beholden to anyone, its not that I can't hold down a job or listen and learn from others, I've done that in abundance since I started in hospitality.
I personally just have a deep distrust for large banks that lend money or anyone in a position to take away what you've worked so hard for, simply because you come from a different financial upbringing than them. The idea of a power struggle in a business that is completely about serving others seemed disingenuous to the guests. i.e if the business isn't financially healthy during the pandemic or post pandemic and some bank or individual who leant us cash decides that our creative or service decisions aren't netting them a profit quickly enough, then I end up appeasing the investor and not the guest. Personally I just enjoy the freedom of being able to make decisions with my team knowing that win or lose we did it together and no one is going to get angry about it.
[88B]: When can we expect “Don’t Try, Volume One” to hit the bookstore shelves, and what can we find in the inaugural book?
[Jay]: This is the question we are all asking. Right now the crypto market is in the pan and I couldn't fund a leaflet with the proceeds of our NFT project. But if it rises up again we can start looking at options. I really want to stay true to the vision of our guests or NFT holders being part of the process. So I guess it will just take as long as it takes haha.
[88B]: As one of the forerunners of the NFTs movement in the regional bar scene, how do you think NFTs would continue to change the world of bars, spirits and cocktails moving forward? What sort of new opportunities would blockchain technology and NFTs bring to drinkers and bar owners?
[Jay]: I think we are too early in the game to be able to answer this question with any accuracy. But I am really excited to see what people in F&B/Hospitality do with the platform. Hopefully we can carve a small path for people to follow and build upon.
[88B]: You have shared that Sago House is a labour of love by you and your co-founders, who faced struggles and challenges through long careers in hospitality. You have looked to Bukowski’s wise sayings as a source of guidance. And despite “Don’t try”, Sago House has reached impressive heights of conventional success and fame in just two years of operating.
What keeps you going? And what advice would you give to younger people who are considering a career in hospitality?
[Jay]: Our drive comes from our team and our guests primarily. We feel we have a commitment to stay consistent and drive growth. For the team we want to see them take over the business or to open their own one day. For our guests we want to ensure that their never receiving anything less than our best, because we know that they have 1000 choices of great venues to go to in Singapore. If you're going to spend an evening with us and your hard earned cash, it better be worth it. We want everyone to feel welcome and at home when they are dining or drinking with us. We also never want to become stale or stagnant.
It's a really competitive market so if you want to be in the hospitality game you've got to be sure that 10 years down the line you're going to be as committed as year one. Building structure is paramount but it takes a lot of time and you'll rarely get it right on the first pass. Being present even during peace time is super important because it shows that you aren't just there to keep the business on track, you're also there to enjoy the space with your team and guests. Stay humble, don't get complacent and don't worry when things don't turn out as you expected– it's a marathon not a sprint.
[88B]: Could you give our readers a tip on how to unlock a great bar experience – whether at Sago House or at any other great bars in the region?
[Jay]: I guess the main thing would be, treat us as you'd treat your friends when you go over to their place for dinner. Turn up on time, be understanding and open to new experiences. We always try and guide you from your comfort zone to possibly something more experimental. Our team is here to make sure you have a great night and sometimes things don't always go to plan, but please don't take it personally, we hold no prejudices and we really just want to make sure everyone's night is great. I guess the other thing would be, be honest, if you don't like something or it isn't to your taste, just let us know, we really want to make sure you LOVE your food or drink and we have no ego to speak of, so you won't offend us but telling us something seemingly negative.
[88B]: And as we end off the interview – given your forte in whipping up new cocktails on the fly – could you be so kind as to whip us up a cocktail that we could make with even a home bar? Perhaps it could embody our values of – authenticity, passion, fun, openness for all and proudly Asian.
[Jay]: This one could be tough as everyones taste is different. However I'll give you a rhyme instead that we use when we are creating Punch Style drinks: "One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak".
1: 15ml Lemon Juice
2: 20ml Jackfruit Syrup (Juiced jackfruit combined 2:1 with sugar)
3: 45ml Brandy/Calvados
4: 60ml Black Tea
Combine all this in a highball glass with ice and stir or make a pitcher of it and keep it in the fridge for guests.
88 Bamboo would like to thank Jay Gray and the team at Sago House for their time, their honest insights from behind the bar and the recipe for the delicious home-made Jackfruit-Brandy punch!
If you'd be interested to check out Sago House's cocktail NFTs (and supporting their independent cocktail book “Don’t Try, Volume One”), be sure to visit their website or Sago House's profile on Rareable.
For slightly more culinary-focused adventures with Jay Gray and his team, also check out their other venues along Club Street, which promises some "tropical escapism from Singapore's concrete jungle": Low Tide Topside, Low Tide The Cave, and Punch & Consequence.
Topside on the ground floor offers an alfresco-concept with tropical drinks and a tiki vibe.