Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 15 May 2014
Following hot on the heels of the success of Union Bar and Grill is Gekko Restaurant and Bar, which officially opened in downtown Yangon on 27 March. The general manager of both establishments, Oxford-born Nico Elliot, talks to Mizzima Business Weekly about his latest addition to the city’s burgeoning drinks and dining scene.
How would you describe Gekko Bar and Restaurant?
It’s a Japanese cocktail lounge built around a charcoal yakitori [a Japanese type of skewered food] grill. I have a friend who owns a restaurant in Hong Kong called Yard Bird, which was the inspiration behind Gekko’s food and drinks menu. I love Japanese food and have spent a little bit of time in Tokyo, but I’m not an expert on yakitori. I just really like the concept of it. We’ve westernised the theme a bit, but as there are a lot of Japanese people in Yangon now, hopefully we can get some of them here. We also have a wicked sake menu. The name “Gekko” is Japanese – it has nothing to do with the animal – the two symbols are a direct translation of “moon” and “shine”.
Union Bar is very different from Gekko – Union is very much western food – simple comfort foods of pizza and burgers. Here it’s mostly Japanese items such as ramen, as well as a couple of Korean dishes. Gekko also has more of a sharing menu, a tapas style of eating. Except for the noodle dishes, everything can easily be passed around a table, rather than “Matt” is having this and “Ben” is having that.
Is Gekko more of a drinking den than a restaurant?
I’d say it’s turning out to be 50:50. It’s definitely got a loungey feel, but a lot of people are eating. But it’s the customers who will decide – we’re too young to know yet which way it will go.
Unlike Union Bar, which fairly recently introduced a non-smoking area, Gekko has no such limitations. Why is that?
For me, the noisy, smoky, drinking dens in Japan lend themselves to a smoky atmosphere so we’re going with full smoking and cigars are on the menu. We have proper ventilation – the air being sucked in and taken out as we have an open grill.
Why did you choose this particular building for Gekko Restaurant and Bar?
Someone told me there was a stationary shop that was closing down, so I went to have a look. As soon as I walked in I fell in love with the space. The tiles on the ground floor are stunning – they were made in Manchester and shipped put to Yangon in the early 1990s. I also love the original steel beams, which are from Scotland. I’ve met the great, great grandson of the building’s original owner, who filled me in with lots of cool stories. The building itself was finished in 1906.
We’d paid the rent up front long before we walked out the back of the building and saw what a disaster it was. There was sewerage a metre-and-a-half deep. It was worse than anything I’ve ever seen, but by then I’d paid up front so I didn’t have much choice but to go ahead. So I showed the mess a sewerage expert and he took one look and giggled when he saw it and said, “Good luck with cleaning that.” Initially YCDC charged us to do a very bad job at it so we decided to do it ourselves. It took us a month and a lot of people to get rid of it.
The music is very eclectic – who chooses it?
I do. I have a huge collection and I choose songs from the 1920s to 1950s – nothing beyond that. I also choose some jazz and reggae tunes, always with a slow tempo. Union Bar is a bit more upbeat.
Was opening a second bar and restaurant in Yangon something that was always on the cards – and will any others appear?
I’ve been working with groups in Hong Kong – Kothai and Aylmer Capital – who are involved in restaurants and we came here with a view to doing more than one, assuming we could make one work. I don’t have a food and beverage background so it wasn’t certain, but as the first was doing reasonably well, we decided to look for number two.
And yes, a third restaurant is on the way. It’s going to be wood-fired pizza restaurant and it will be uptown, in between Pyay Road and Kabar Aye Pagoda Road in Parami. There’s a huge amount of offices uptown and there’s a lot of people who would like to come downtown but it’s become too much of a hassle. We hope to open it by the end of June and it will likely be called Parami Pizza. However while the rent downtown is still pretty reasonable, that isn’t the case further north. But it was a real challenge to get Gekko opened, because like many of the old colonial buildings, there’s no infrastructure. We had no lighting, power, sewerage or water, so we had to put all those basic things in ourselves.
And if the first three places are a success, we’d love to do more. We could also go into hotels if we found an opportunity.
Are you feeling any heat from competition, as an increasing number of food and drinks establishments open up in Yangon?
For me it’s a case of the more the merrier. The more places there are that people like to go out to – and having many in one area – is a positive. There’s a long way to go before it hits saturation point. Personally, I’d also like to eat at more restaurants than the dozen or so I do. I’m all for it.
If you don’t have a F&B background, what is your professional background?
It’s a mixture of things – I’ve set up education-based businesses in India and in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, I ran a hotel school for two years. Dhaka is a tough place but I had great mates and good fun.
How do you keep your staff motivated to ensure great service in a city known for its lack of human resources?
Keeping my staff happy is key to making it work. I try to keep them challenged and we do a lot of training. I’ve brought in people from Singapore and Hong Kong to train local staff – having set up a hotel school in Dhaka, I have a bit of experience in training. And we try to have fun, not take life too seriously. Another thing is paying your people well. We try to pay the higher end of the salary scale and we charge a 5 percent service charge, the entirety of which we give to our 35 staff members here – we don’t charge 10 percent and keep five for ourselves as some places do.
Gekko Restaurant and Bar is located on 535, Merchant St, Kyauktada Township in Yangon
For more information, visit www.gekkoyangon.com