When 23-year-old Jan Vlachynský and his friend decided to open a bar in their local town they placed their bets on originality and customer service. Seven years later it seems their project paid off bigtime. He now co-owns five bars across Brno whose distinct character has not only made them popular among locals, but has been covered by prestigious outlets such as the New York Times and The Guardian. I popped down to the Moravian capital to ask him about the secret behind his success.
With me is Mr. Jan Vlachynský, the owner of a sprawling web of original bars in the Moravian capital of Brno. Mr. Vlachynský we are now in your bar called Slast, could you tell us how many you own altogether?
“With this one it is five bars. But it is not just bars that we own, we also run a catering and consulting service. So there are more projects, but just five bars.”
Becoming successful in the hospitality industry can be tempting but also very difficult, yet you opened your first bar at a very young age and took off. What is your secret?
“Well first of all, I have to say that I am not sure we are very successful. It looks like we are. To be honest however, only three of those bars are in profit and two others are still not. Maybe we will have to wait for a long time before they will be. So, you know, we have five bars and there are people coming in, but I don’t know whether that means success.
“I don’t know what the secret is. But what we like about our job is hospitality – making people happy, and we have to start with ourselves, so it is about making our people happy first and then everything else.”
So your employees?
“I think that it is a very complicated business. A lot of people open a bar and don’t know what they are getting into. Neither did we.”
I imagine that is every entrepreneurs worry, whether his business is profitable or not. What is it actually like to start a bar? Do you have any tips for prospective entrepreneurs?
“Well, I have one tip. Don’t do it. (laughs) No, I think that it is a very complicated business. A lot of people open a bar and don’t know what they are getting into. Neither did we. To be honest, if I knew what I know now about the bar business I would have probably started in a different field. I mean I do like it. I love that we are doing it. But when we started, we knew nothing and there are a lot of things that are much more difficult here than anywhere else.”
Just out of curiosity, what business would you go into first, with retrospect?
“We are also in the lemonade business and I would enter that one. It is much more scalable and the field is much more open.”
“We have 14 flavours right now and we want to have 50 in total. So there is no specific flavour, all of them are. It is called Zázračná, which can be translated as ‘Miracle Lemonade’ I guess. It is a sort of channel of creativity for our bartenders and we sell it not just in our bars but also across around 100 bars and cafes in the country.”
Speaking of drinks, it is actually thanks to an original drink that you guys broke through at a Christmas market in Brno some years back. What is the story behind that?
“Yes. The drink is called Turbomošt. It is made out of apple juice mixed with apple schnapps and some Christmas spices. We used to sell apple juice when we were students. I was 21 at the time. The next step was to sell our own drink at the Christmas market, so we did that and it took off, people were super crazy about it. This year it will be 10 years since that breakthrough.”
You took your inspiration from bars in New York and even travelled there to get tips. What did you learn?
“A lot of things. At the time we were visiting Alaska every summer, so New York wasn’t so far away for a bar detour. I remember going through tens of bars. I think it was 25 in New York and 50 across the USA, but it was a long time ago.
“What we noticed was that the bars tended to be long, ambient and dimly lit, with most people sitting by the bar itself. The bar tender would also talk directly to the customer, things that were uncommon in Brno.
“So when we got back to Brno we were like: ‘Wow! We discovered America!’, but of course we just discovered the American bar.”
“We ask you a lot of questions about the kind of spirits and flavours you like, what you found tasty in the past and what not. Then we will try and provide what suits you best.”
And the people in Brno loved it, am I right?
“Yes. The bar was full already on its opening night.”
I see in front of me a device that each table has, where you can press a button to order some more coal for your shisha or another drink. What sort of things do your bars offer that others don’t? I mean this device itself is quite uncommon.
“There are many things. For example, our bar Čtyři pokoje, which means ‘Four Rooms’ in English, is usually open 24 hours a day. It also changes all the time and so do the prices.
“As far as the device you mentioned is concerned, we did not want people to feel like they have to order things here. We just wanted them to chill out and do what whatever they wanted to do. If you want a drink, just press a button and we will come to you. In some of our other bars people feel like they can’t go inside, because they think it means spending a lot of money. That is not our intention and with this place we wanted to make it clear that it is not so.”
You also give guests the chance to come up with their own drinks. How does that work?
“Well, we can mix anything you want, that is true. But mostly we try to find out what would suit you. We ask you a lot of questions about the kind of spirits and flavours you like, what you found tasty in the past and what not. Then we will try and provide what suits you best. I think that is of the charms of cocktail bars, because that way we can make you most happy.”
Your bar is very popular among locals, do tourists also visit?
“Yes. Brno is not a very touristy city, but if visitors come here, a lot of them eventually end up in one of our bars.
“I would say that the most popular bar among tourists is Super Panda Circus, which is very small experimental cocktail bar. People say that they don’t see anything like it in big cities like London or New York, so a lot of them like it and go to visit Brno just so they can see it.”
“Brno is not a very touristy city, but if visitors come here, a lot of them eventually end up in one of our bars.“
I actually wanted to ask you about Super Panda. It was open in 2014 and you said you wanted to offer visitors a ‘psychedelic experience without the use of drugs’. What exactly is this psychedelic experience?
“Psychedelic means freedom to me, the chance to go to a different world where there are no rules that you know. So you don’t have to abide by the rules and instead think freely and be free. It can of course be drugs, but it can also be travelling, because when you go to a different country you will find yourself in a situation where you do not understand the rules.
Your bars also offer signature drinks. Are there any that you are particularly proud of making? If someone came to your bar, which one would you tell them they have to try out?
“There is no one drink that is best for everyone. Every person has their only tastes. It also differs a lot because our menu keeps changing.
“But, for example, right now in the Bar Which Does Not Exist [Bar který neexistuje] there is a drink that has little bit of gin, a little bit of pepper and our lemonade. And it’s completely pink. That is important, because we notice a lot of people pay attention to what the drink looks like. Often they say: ‘Hey, I want what he’s having!’”
Are you planning to expand outside of Brno, or have you already?
“Not yet. We wanted to, but right now with the five bars and 140 people in our team we are focusing on the here and now. Right now we are going through a bid decentralisation process, so I am not that closely involved in the decision making process anymore.
“If someone from the team approaches me and says that it is the right decision and rounds up the people to do it, then sure. But it could be any project, whether in another city, in Brno, or something completely different.”
Still, if you had to expand which city would you go into?
“For a long time I said it will not be Prague, but right now I feel more like - why not. So it could be Prague or Vienna, both big cities that are nearby.”
If you had to tell tourists why they should visit your bar in just one sentence, what would it be?
“We want you to have the best evening possible and find a way to connect with you. But yeah, it is hard to explain in one sentence.
“I also said that Brno is not a very touristy city and I think that is a great thing about it, so I would invite people to come and see what it is like not in a tourist way, but in a normal way. I think it is a good place to see.”