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Behind the bar at 50th Street

Published in The Myanmar Times on 17 December 2012

New Zealander Phil Blackwood talks to The Myanmar Times about his life as general manager of Yangon’s best known watering hole

Phil Blackwood, general manager of 50th Street Cafe, Restaurant and Bar. (Ko taik / The Myanmar Times)
Phil Blackwood, general manager of 50th Street Cafe, Restaurant and Bar. (Ko taik / The Myanmar Times)

Up until about three years ago, Yangon’s expatriate population was highly seasonal. According to Phil Blackwood, the general manager of 50th Street Cafe, Restaurant and Bar, about 2000 people used to leave Myanmar to spend Christmas with their families back home. While this is still the case for many expats, it doesn’t cripple the hospitality industry as much as it used to.

“We said to ourselves back then, ‘We can’t continue like this.’”

50th Street’s management decided to make the venue a place frequented by expats and locals alike. The idea had been floated back in 1997, when “50th Street” (as it’s better known) first opened. During a meeting between its managing director and a high profile general, Phil said the latter asked whether the idea was being considered by the bar’s owners, who also set up the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Phnom Penh.

“As the story goes, the managing director responded cautiously. ‘What do you mean?’ he asked. The general said, ‘All you would need to do is draw a line down the middle of the bar. We wouldn’t want Myanmar people having to mix with foreigners.”

Needless to say, a line was never drawn and although it took time to mix up the demographics, Phil’s desire to make 50th Street appealing to expats and locals isn’t driven by financial reasons alone.

He said, “I’ve never liked places that are only frequented by expats who just sit around complaining about everything and saying how good things are back home. ‘Then just go back!’ is what I think.”

Like last year, 50th Street will put on a traditional Christmas lunch of Australian wagyu roast beef, as well as a “hangover do” in the evening as a natural follow up to the late night Christmas Eve party with egg nog and Christmas tunes. Cricket matches will be shown on the big screen during Boxing Day and there will a 12-hour-long New Year’s Eve party starting from noon.

Phil knows how to show people a good time – as he said; he’s been working in hospitality “since I was legally allowed to enter bars.”

The science and commerce graduate from Wellington, New Zealand, was the manager of his university campus bar and used to roster the shifts to work around his lectures. Although he worked as an engineer for five years, including high profile projects such as renovating Wellington’s Supreme Court, Phil said he couldn’t see himself staying in the profession long-term.

“Engineering was an awesome challenge – I loved the problem solving aspect of it. But I saw guys that had been doing pretty much the same job for 20 years, some with missing fingers…”

Phil decided it was time for a sea change when the recession hit and someone from a rival firm told him that they were operating at cost price “just to keep the factory lights on.”

The antipodean moved to Yangon two-and-a-half years ago after getting the job at 50th Street from an Australian jobs website called seek.com.au.

As an engineer, Phil is particularly appreciative of the aesthetics of his workplace.

“Architecture is one of its assets. The building is over 100-years-old – no one really knows what it was originally built for. I’ve been trying to find out, but it seems to be part of Myanmar’s history which is shrouded in mystery.”

What is known, however, is that in 1988, the building was used to print kyat notes in denominations divisible by nine, after General Ne Win’s astrologer advised that the number was a lucky one.

Phil told The Myanmar Times that the cosy booths on the right-hand side of the ground floor bar used to be an alleyway.

“Look closely and you’ll see the brickwork is different,” Phil said, before pointing out the filled-in circular windows above the air conditioners.

“As an engineer, I love that the scars are exposed,” he added.

Phil estimates that some of the vintage signs would now be worth about US$300 a piece.

Phil has also added a few of his own modern flourishes to what is arguably Yangon’s best known watering hole – notably the music.

His iTunes collection contains 81,000 songs and he has created playlists for different times of the day and night. His boss was so impressed that Phil was asked to create a music list for a bar in New Zealand.

When I ask about the “I Love NPT” t-shirt for sale in a glass cabinet, he says with a laugh, “People often scratch their heads at it. It’s a sarcastic t-shirt.”

Unlike the violence that breaks out fairly frequently at Yangon’s nightclubs, Phil said that such incidents are very rare at 50th Street. In the two-and-a-half years he’s been the general manager, there have been three incidents.

“In New Zealand, it would be three a weekend. And it’s been nothing super serious and nothing really to do with the bar. Two Scottish guys had an argument while I was away…” he recalled.

As an experienced professional (who works seven days a week from about 11am until midnight), he never overindulges while he’s behind the bar.

“I never get drunk here unless it’s my birthday and people know that I am formally off the books,” he said.

50th Street Cafe, Restaurant and Bar. Ko Taik / The Myanmar Times
50th Street Cafe, Restaurant and Bar. Ko Taik / The Myanmar Times

Phil is jovial and friendly, but nevertheless cuts an imposing figure – the 30-year-old is six foot three and has “gangster” written in Myanmar on his arm. He estimates that he’s spent 70 hours under the tattoo artist’s needle.

“You know you are a tattoo person when you stop counting tattoos and start counting the hours,” he said with a laugh.

Phil is unabashedly determined to offer the best level of service possible and laments a number of shortcomings in human resources in Myanmar.

“I employ my staff, first of all, for their personality. I can teach my style of bar to any motivated person and I prefer people with no experience because I don’t have to untrain bad habits. My philosophy is pretty simple – I would rather be short staffed than poorly staffed.”

50th Street has 37 staff – some of whom have been working there since it first opened.

A waiter called Lil Lan can make it from the top of the staircase to the landing in one go.

“He comes out of the kitchen, pauses to see if anyone is coming down and then does a massive leap,” Phil said with a grin.

During the interview, the man who creates the food we know and love so well arrives.

Head chef Monis Siddiqui from Karachi in Pakistan told The Myanmar Times that he came to Yangon on holiday and never had any intention of staying.

However Phil and Monis quickly became “passing acquaintances” and Phil asked him to take charge for a trial period.

Phil said, “I am not a chef – I pour drinks and make cocktails. Monis was in control of the menu from that point on. We weren’t really making any profit at that time so I told Monis that I couldn’t afford a chef, but that if he could help me make money out of the food budget, I would give him a job.”

Monis, who is fluent in Myanmar, said, “I was given the space to experiment and to make mistakes. It was amazing, the best experience I’ve ever had.”

Phil describes the pair as a “dream team” who are also close friends.

Although the service charge is built in, Phil said that patrons are sometimes critical of the cost of a meal, which can include delicacies such as smoked salmon and rocket lettuce. He emphasised that the tax on imported food is 65 percent and concessions from import companies remain unheard of at this stage.

Perhaps surprisingly, complaints about smoking being permitted inside are extremely rare.

This could be because this is how things are in the overwhelming majority of Yangon’s venues, however Phil believes another reason is because 50th Street has high ceilings and air conditioners, so the air is constantly flowing.

“The people who have been concerned about [smoking] have been the customers with infants,” he said.

Phil’s experience of living in Yangon has completely changed in the relatively short space of time he’s lived here: he said it’s a far more comfortable place than it was in the past. However Phil – who has double booked himself on the day of the interview – said that one of the main challenges of his work is to fit into the “rhythm of the country.”

“You just can’t push things faster – if you want to achieve more, have more things on the go. You won’t grow a plant any faster by yelling at it. It needs water and sunlight to grow. If you want more to happen, plant more seeds.”

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