At age 22, Mr Shi Wah Lee was the youngest manager for a brand in the world when he started managing Trader Vics Bar and Restaurant in the 1970s. With over 30 years experience, Mr Lee is a veteran in the industry and has owned, opened and/or operated cocktail bars in the UK, the Middle East and Asia. We sat down with Mr Lee to talk about the comeback of Tiki bars, his newest venture, Wahtiki, and to ask for some wise words from the master himself.
DRINKS WORLD: How has the reception been since opening Wahtiki?
SHI WAH LEE: The reception has been great! Many people are interested in this new breed of a cocktail, offering very drinkable yet potent concoctions. Most of our guests are particularly attracted to our exotic and feminine décor, which isn’t surprising as females customers are 75 per cent of our clientele!
DW: You’re training staff behind the stick at Wahtiki, have teaching methods changed since your bartending days or are principles still the same? And if so, how have they changed?
SWL: Most of the bar operations nowadays are very similar to decades ago, despite bars being more extravagant and bartenders using new ingredients. The major change I have noticed is an eagerness to promote bar staff with little experience. This, unfortunately, impacts on the training schedule. Back then we would train new barbacks to know and recognise all glassware.
We also required them to have a basic understanding of taste, texture, colour and alcohol content of all the spirits and liqueurs behind the bar. When you add in basic operations training, pouring, cleaning, hygiene and organisation, it would be at least one year before someone could call themselves a junior bartender. I have seen many examples of people filling the barback role for one to two months and then being promoted.
Even a bar captain or manager positions are being given out with a year’s experience. Personally, I would prefer to see people with a stronger foundation of the basics. This can only provide the bar industry better with more qualified professionals.
“The major change I have noticed is an eagerness to promote bar staff with little experience”
DW: When training and hiring staff what’s your core focus?
SWL: For me, it’s all about taking the job seriously and being dedicated. We want someone dedicated to the role, the company and the team. Attitude is key in many industries, and the same applies to the bar. Someone who pays attention to detail is conscientious and follows through with their duties is someone who is taking their job seriously.
I have seen many people who expect to be taught new things or rewarded before they have displayed the right behaviour and dedication.
DW: You’ve been in the industry for quite a few years, and worked at many well-known establishments. You must have seen it all! What’s one of your most memorable experiences?
SWL: For me, it’s acknowledgement that we can handle the most challenging and complex of events and deliver great service. The hardest thing to do in our industry is to set up shop away from your home ground and cater to a huge crowd. This requires meticulous organisation and planning. It also requires a team and teamwork at the highest level. Trader Vic’s London was highly regarded, and we were asked to cater a 2000 guest event by the Cuban Embassy at the Savoy Hotel.
Another time, we flew a dozen cargo boxes to Trinidad and Tobago along with a dozen staff to cater a 3000-person event for the newly elected President. The teamwork and speed of our work was remarkable when you think about the lack of technology and resources that we had in comparison to now.
One of my best cocktail bars, Nautilus, won best bar in London West End four years running, that was another great moment.
DW: You must have been given a lot of great industry advice through the years. What’s one piece of good advice you can share with us?
SWL: I’m an old school guy. I was lucky enough to befriend and learn from bar managers in their 60s and 70s who had worked in hotels since World War One! I was given advice on the original classic cocktails and learned how truly simple and balanced they were.
I encourage my bartenders to follow the original recipes and techniques as much as possible as a testament to the guys who invented them. I don’t want them to “reinvent” classics, thereby individualising their own cocktail but borrowing off the fame of a classic cocktail. If you want to make a cocktail, the proper way is to name it something new and hope that people will spread the news of your masterpiece!
DW: Over the years there has been a resurgence of Tiki bars opening up. How do you stay different and current in the evolving industry?
SWL: Tiki, or “Tropical/Polynesian” bars as we used to call them, went through a surge in popularity from the 50s to the 80s and a decline after that. The recent resurgence is a throwback to the “old days”, where people brought back something that they haven’t even seen before but was popular during the “golden years”. This is not easy, as many techniques and ways of doing things are not easily recreated, with many old masters having retired or changed career.
I believe that Tiki bars can evolve in style, organisation, and products due to technology, superior equipment, and higher quality ingredients. Finding creativity that still harbours the “spirit” of the old days is harder. We are trying to do this for Wahtiki, and hope that the major difference between our work and the old days is speed of service.
Trader Vic’s London bar made £100,000 a month on cocktails alone when they were priced at £2. That means 50,000 cocktails, or over 1600 cocktails a day, were sold at three bar stations. This is the secret of Trader Vics success, being able to deliver consistent, high-quality cocktails at high speed. No one wants to wait 20-30mins for a round of six different tiki cocktails. At Wahtiki, with our own tailored technique, we aim to take the speed of cocktail production from minutes to seconds. This will help a great deal in very busy outlets and at large-scale events, therefore helping us to succeed as a business.
“Trader Vic’s London bar made £100,000 a month on cocktails alone when they were priced at £2”
DW: And finally, what’s your go-to drink after a long shift?
SWL: Why an original Mai Tai made with our homemade Mai Tai Mix from Wahtiki, of course!