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How Uncle Mings Navigated The Challenges of Being One of Sydney’s First ‘Small Bars’

Q&A with Justin Best, Founder of Uncle Mings, Australia’s first Underground Dumpling and Whisky Bar.

Founded in 2012, Uncle Mings was the brainchild of Justin Best, who leveraged his experience in hospitality and familiarity with various trends to turn a small concept bar into something of an institution in Sydney’s CBD today.

As part of our ongoing Behind the Kounta series, we spoke to Justin about how he successfully navigated the complex licensing landscape to emerge as a successful business owner of two iconic bars, and what he’s learned along the way.

How did you find a space for Uncle Mings?

We walked past a suit shop which had an old run down basement. Small bars were becoming popular and this basement was exactly what we were looking for.

It wasn’t being used other than to store mannequins and boxes, so we simply asked the owner if we could lease it from him and we had a venue!

How did the licensing changes for small bars affect you?

Honestly? They didn’t. There is a misconception on the political impact of the licensing changes for small bars – the main change was a reduction in the licensing fees, which was great.

What actually started the small bar movement was early pioneers – prior to 2010, venues that had less than 100 people were virtually non-existent in the CBD.

How did the dumpling and whisky bar theme come about?

We knew we needed a theme looking at the other early successful small bars – we knew bars that were different got attention and people talked about them. We don’t have any chinese heritage and didn’t have a stroke of genius or anything, we just knew we needed bar food and wanted to offer something that was unique, tasty and simple.

The whisky theme was very organic. Back then, I’d never even tasted Japanese whisky before and we soon realised that aside from one or two famous ones they were largely uncommon.

We tried to source Japanese whisky and there was a limited range, so we broadened our search to Asian Whisky in general and found some other great ones.

Technically, we are branded as a Chinese bar, but that doesn’t really matter, we are more focused on offering our customers a great experience rather and having a good time than ‘making sense!’.

Whisky has since taken off worldwide, and in particular, Japanese whisky is four to five times the price it was in 2012. Demand has gone crazy since they won worldwide awards. We actually stock a few bottles that you can only get in Uncle Ming’s.

There are only two major distilleries in Japan and they are often all out of stock as they allocate most of their supply to the US and EU market, not even the Japanese can get them!

So, who is Uncle Ming and how has the bar evolved over the years?

The name Uncle Mings was one of many that we liked. We put a group of names on a Facebook poll and Uncle Mings was the most popular so we went with that!

At the start – like many others – we just wanted to open as soon as possible. We only had a half-full bar, no ornaments and no floor coverings.

Today, we’ve built up our decorations, our alcohol offering is substantial and even the lighting and music has been overhauled to become something uniquely characteristic that you can’t get elsewhere.

What experience did you have before opening Uncle Mings?

My experience was in hospitality, but not bars. I used to own a subway store in the 90’s which gave me a good feel for how to handle customers, staff and manage a product.

Essentially it is the same but there are definitely a few nuances to serving alcohol and the clientele are different, especially after a few drinks!

Dealing with alcohol suppliers is very different – there are a couple of big companies and once you get a bit of traction in market, you get to a point where you’re in a much better position to negotiate deals than you otherwise would be.

What has made you successful?

In general I believe success is reasonably random.

I have been in business for 25 years and have learned that you can have a great product, great location and still fail. Having said that, you’ll never be successful without these things, but luck really has a lot to do with it in my opinion.

Uncle Mings wasn’t financially successful for the first two years for example. Coincidentally about a month after we’d opened, Mr Wong (of Merivale) also opened their doors and there was a lot of confusion.

People would ask us if we were affiliated with Mr Wongs somehow,  and we got some unintended publicity out of that! It also helped that dumplings, whisky and small themed bars all experienced a boom and suddenly became really popular and that obviously helped us too.

On top of that, within one square block of where we’re located, 10–12 bars have opened, which is awesome for us as it has made York Street a bit of a hub now.

Was it easier to open a second location?

Door Knock has been way more challenging and actually took a lot longer. We’ve been open for 18 months now and the concept was modelled from Uncle Mings.

In the middle of our development application however, the lockout laws came in. With that our application was made defunct and sent back to us because the ‘general hotel’ license no longer existed.

So we needed to start from scratch and do another application plus heaps of other plans that covered works to the floor, air-conditioning, the impact we’d have on the community, liquor licensing, music and public noise.

In total there must have been about 12 or 13 additional plans that we had to look at. It was expensive. We also had to get an architect in, upgrade the kitchen and change the seating plan.

The whole process took us about two years. There isn’t too much difference in reality, we still serve drinks – we just have a more expensive kitchen and less people in the venue.

Have you noticed any differences in the community since the lockout laws?

The lockout laws have improved safety in Kings Cross, but these issues have also moved to other areas.

Overall statistics show that crime rates and alcohol-led violence is down, but so is the number of people in the area, which impacts businesses very significantly.

How do you approach marketing in the business?

We don’t have a lot of budget for marketing, most of it is social media and word of mouth. If a prominent hospitality blogger writes about our venue for example, there’ll usually be a significant uplift in interest.

We don’t usually enter awards or anything to gain recognition – we focus more on training our staff and having a really good product and offering.  

What does the future hold for Uncle Mings and Door Knock?

I think the future is very bright for both our venues. I firmly believe having the right offering in a good location and backing that up with great service will give you the best chance of success.Profitablemenu_Kounta