Monday, December 30, 2013

Secrets of Success - The Queen's Hotel


 Jerry Hong - Downtown business owner

On New Year’s Eve if you are planning to dance the night away at a downtown club, rock out to live music or ring in the New Year with friends in a neighbourhood pub, chances are you will find yourself in an establishment owned by Jerry Hong.  Jerry has been involved in the local business scene since childhood and he has worked diligently over the last six years to establish a fun and safe bar scene in downtown Nanaimo. This week he shared with us his secrets to success.

DNBIA: How did you get started in business?
Jerry:  I grew up working in my family’s business. We had a Chinese restaurant where Imprint is in the early eighties, the Hong CafĂ©. Then we had a restaurant at Terminal Park and at the Best Western and my Uncle owned the Green Garden.  I used to do my homework at the restaurant after school.

DNBIA: Did you always plan to follow in your families footsteps?
Jerry:  Not really. I grew up here in Nanaimo, went to Woodlands High School and then went to Malaspina University. Everyone thinks I have a business degree but I studied psychology, however, I didn’t want to be a psychiatrist. I graduated with a degree in community psychology and after that I went to Asia, everyone was making money overseas then and I taught English for three years.  When I came back to Nanaimo I began looking around at pubs and the Queen’s Hotel was up for sale and I decided to buy the building and the business. Now I use my degree to help me relate to the people in our community as well as the community of musicians I deal with – understanding what they need and having the foresight to plan.

DNBIA:  Tell us a bit about the Queen’s.
Jerry:  It was established in 1892 and it has gone through many changes in its one hundred years. Over the past twenty years it has been known as the local establishment for seeing quality acts for all types of music and entertainment. We have had some challenges overcoming the reputation it had from being a biker bar years ago, but when I bought it from Larry Simon in 2007 he had done extensive interior and exterior renovations, and it still retains so much of its great historical character and we have really worked at making it the local venue for live music in Nanaimo. Meanwhile, my dad had retired from the restaurant business, but he got bored so he asked me to build him a kitchen and that was when we added the Chinese food restaurant. We are open every day at 11:30 a.m.

DNBIA: Tell us about your other businesses.
Jerry:  After I bought the Queen’s I realized it was a good venture and in the music business you have more clout with music representatives if you have more than one establishment.  I had all these shows that we were booking but we needed another venue, so when the Club Malibu came up for sale in 2007 I bought that and started booking blues and hip hop shows. It is now the Spice Lounge. Then I started looking around and realized liquor stores were where the money was, so when the Oxy came up for sale in 2009 I bought that.

DNBIA: That’s a lot of businesses to run. How do you keep them all going?
Jerry: Well it’s great that they are all downtown. I realized early on that we had established a good business model at the Queen’s and it was repeatable. The main thing with these establishments is upkeep and keeping up with the times. Traditionally bars didn’t do that. Upgrading and keeping the buildings clean and maintaining the building’s persona has been really important. We didn’t shy away from what the building feel was. We exposed the brick; acid washed it and maintained the character of the buildings. It was important to maintain the historical value and the heritage. We tried to do that with all the renovations; we gave it all the comforts but kept the old feeling. The Oxy is the second oldest pub in Nanaimo and we have really worked at making it a neighbourhood pub and we are mindful of our neighbours in the Old City Quarter. We wanted to make sure that while we enticed new customers down, we didn’t lose the old ones. It is important to keep them coming back and maintaining the relationships we have with them. Of course we also offer the best chicken wings in town – we serve 2,600 wings a night on Thursday’s at the Oxy. But we couldn’t do any of this without our great staff.

DNBIA: How many employees do you have?
Jerry: Around 50 if you count the musicians and the people we employ every week to help with the music. It’s hard to judge the real numbers of people we support in this business. Of course almost everyone does this as their second source of income.  Our staff is mostly students going to school, so they are not full time. Except for Billy Marlow of course, he is 72 years old and has been working at the Queens for 35 years now and Jackie Gustofsen has been there for almost 30 years.

The staff is amazing and in the entertainment industry that’s why you go to an establishment. They have great stories to tell and the bar is like their second home. They treat our place like they are the owners.  I do all the hiring and manage the Spice and the Queen’s and I have two partners at the Oxy. It is important to know what is going on at all time. We are hand-on owners and partners.

DNBIA: Times have been difficult for bar owners over the last ten years, why are you successful?
Jerry: It’s about how we evolve with the times. When the drinking and driving rules changed, we decided to be proactive and bought the bus so that people can have fun without drinking and driving. We pick them up and bring them downtown, we are not a taxi service – we don’t drive them home, we just make sure that we get them downtown without bringing their car. It has been a huge hit for staff parties, stagettes, birthday and Christmas parties. People have dinner at a restaurant and we pick everyone up after their event to come downtown and go dancing. It’s a group service and people make reservations to book the bus and it’s free.

DNBIA: Will you buy more businesses downtown?
Jerry: I think I have stretched myself as far as I can go. I don’t want to start losing sight of things.

DNBIA: What about your businesses makes you most proud?
Jerry:  Our staff – the service that you get when you come into one of our places, and the reputation that we have from others about the quality of the shows and the events that we put on. People are always asking us how we get these shows to Nanaimo when we only have a two hundred seat venue; it’s about the relationships that we have built. Rick Salt been our sound technician for 20 years and he just makes it sound so amazing in there. The staff knows everything about putting on a good show. I rely on the bar staff to tell me how good a band really is.

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