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On-trade Interview: White Mischief

Chinawhite is an enduring face in the London club scene. Co-founder John Stephen explains to Clinton Cawood how a mix of Champagne, celebrity clientele and plenty of Chinese silk can equal serious on-trade profit

Chinawhite is more than a premium nightclub in the heart of London. It is a phenomenon, a brand, and a venerable institution compared to the majority of similar venues in the capital.

There is no simple secret to Chinawhite’s success, but its prime location below Café Royal near Piccadilly Circus has probably contributed. The unassuming entrance, almost unnoticeable during the day, at night leads to a sumptuous, intricate interior, with numerous small rooms and private areas. John Stephen, who founded the club with Rory Keegan and Patrice Gouty, explains that a number of other people had looked at the venue before. Confident, and rightly so, he says, “They didn’t understand it. I walked in and understood the place completely.”

That was in April 1998, and by December that year, doors opened on what would soon become the equivalent of a household name in the club scene. “We got the timing right, got the partners and the design right – and just at that time London was the most cosmopolitan city in the world,” explains Stephen.

There is more to it, however. The loyalty inspired by Chinawhite in those who frequent the club has been gained in a subtle way. “We try to make it last by giving better service, better fun. We don’t try to rip off our customers like most clubs do. If you’re just in it for the money then everyone gets fed up and leaves,” says Stephen.

Due to this loyalty from the type of clientele it attracts, Chinawhite has undoubtedly set trends rather than followed them. Stephen claims that it was the first club to make use of Asian decor. “How many nightclubs have since developed this kind of style?” he asks. Strewn with cushions, Chinawhite is extravagantly decorated, with varying Asian influences. The octagon room, as Stephen says, “looks like the inside of a pagoda”. But China is a particular source of inspiration. The VIP Mao Room has formal Chinese decor, while Chinese brocade and the ever-present Chinawhite logo are repeated themes. Whenever Stephen goes to Asia, he contributes another statue to the vast number already in the club.

Champagne at large

The trend-setting doesn’t stop with interiors however. Anton Efimov, food and beverage manager at Chinawhite, believes the club led the fashion for larger-format Champagne bottles in London. “We started that, and it quickly moved to the West End,” he says. A number of magnums and jeroboams are featured on the extensive drinks list, along with a balthazar of Laurent-Perrier.

“Demoiselle [one of the club’s pouring Champagnes] was hardly known in the UK, and now you can buy it anywhere,” says Efimov. “We are very Champagne-driven and we have all the marques”, says Stephen. “Our house Champagne is Moët and we’ve had Veuve Clicquot as our pouring Champagne since we started.” At the other end of the spectrum, a jeroboam of Cristal goes for £6,000.

“We used to sell more Absolut than any other single venue, but there are so many vodkas on the market now that people order by name,” says Stephen. Sales of spirits by the bottle make up a significant amount of revenue, with a wide selection of brands to choose from. There is a particular emphasis on vodka with some larger formats listed as well.

Chinawhite offers a wide-ranging cocktail list, but this is apparently not a priority. “We don’t do a lot of cocktails because we seem to get so busy,” explains Stephen. And with sales of large-format Champagne and bottles of spirits the way they are, there is less call for cocktails. “We do have our own cocktail called the Chinawhite, which is delicious,” adds Stephen. As a place that sets trends, it is worth noting the increasing popularity of aluminium beer bottles, as well as a greater focus on rum-based cocktails, according to Efimov. And the next vodka likely to be listed at Chinawhite? Putinka. “It’s Cristall’s answer to Grey Goose.”

Drinks sales are unquestionably the primary source of income for the club, with only a small percentage derived from food sales, entrance or membership fees. Despite being a respected name for music, Stephen says modestly, “If we had music that was no good, we wouldn’t have anyone in here. It’s all part and parcel of the whole package.”

Another vital part of the package is the club’s clientele. The strict door policy, as well as the lack of grandiose entrance, add to the aura of elite that surrounds Chinawhite. The lengthy membership application process also helps, but this is not as simple as it may seem. “It’s not just to do with the money. It’s about who will mix socially. Money doesn’t mean class,” says Stephen. “We’re more about getting along with your fellow citizen and having a good time.”

The current clientele is, according to Stephen, a mix. “And we like the mix. We like the mix across the social strata, across the financial strata, and across as many nations as possible.” This, he says, is another secret to the club’s success. “If you like Italian girls, or American guys, you can meet them here. You can meet them from the music business, or the banking business. Not everyone that comes here is rich,” he says.

Celebrity hangout
Despite this, Chinawhite has become renowned as a celebrity hangout, although dealing with this kind of clientele is nothing new to Stephen. After starting out in the clothing business, followed by some time in real estate, a job at a speakeasy in London in the 1960s meant a customer-base that included a glamorous set of music industry figures such as The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix.

In the 1980s in Los Angeles Stephen ran Tramp for over four years. He tells a story that describes it well: “I was standing at the bar when someone came up to me and said, ‘On table one you’ve got every single James Bond except for George Lazenby, and instead of him you’ve got Michael Caine.’ So I said, ‘That’s alright, but I prefer table two, with Louis Jordan, Sydney Poitier and Elizabeth Taylor.’ And that was my usual clientele.”

From 1988, Stephen returned to London and worked at Mayfair members club Morton’s for just under 10 years, after which Chinawhite was born. Jeremy Hartley was later called in to handle legal and other back-of-house concerns, while Stephen has been “the face behind the name”. His role, as he describes it, is to “get business in, party organising, event organising, and ensuring that the place is running smoothly”. He can be found at the club performing this task five nights a week. Pitching Chinawhite at a premium market was the natural option. “Why would I deal with a different niche of people? You go for the niche you know,” says Stephen.

This personal touch and experience has undoubtedly contributed to the club’s success, but is just a part of the level of quality service that characterises Chinawhite. “You can get away with shoddy service to a certain extent, but we like to have good service. It can always be improved upon,” says Stephen. There is also a commitment to staff training. “A team is only as strong as its weakest link, so we find the weak links and train them up. If they’re no good, then you have to get rid of them and find someone else.” In addition, Stephen describes an “ongoing training system for bartenders or anyone else who wants to become a bartender. Maybe one day we’ll start a bartender training school.”

Party on…
In the meantime there is plenty of other Chinawhite activity. The club runs a number of events and members’ parties, usually reaching its capacity of 400. But the Chinawhite brand’s activity is not only limited to the club itself.

One of the major events that the club is associated with is the Cartier International Polo. “It’s held on the last day of July, and basically everyone goes away in August, so we leave people thinking ‘what a great way to start the summer holidays’,” says Stephen. In 2005, the Chinawhite tent at the Cartier Polo was voted the best party by the Evening Standard, and made The Sunday Times Style magazine top 12 parties of the summer. “That’s what we try to do,” says Stephen. “We try to give people a good time.”

A branch of Chinawhite, The Mao Rooms, did exactly that in Ibiza until planning permission to extend the building was refused. “We decided to let that go, but it was great fun.” The Mao Rooms were, according to Stephen, more of a pre-club bar with nothing of the scope of the London venue.

An earlier Chinawhite operation in Istanbul was closed down after Turkey’s economic crisis in 2001, which resulted in the government’s devaluation of the currency by 30%. “It was costing us money,” says Stephen, “but we were in and out of there in a heartbeat.”

The future may see some Chinawhite franchises. “We’re thinking of Asia, Europe, South America…” says Stephen self-assuredly. “We like to do our own franchises with people. To own the places ourselves is just too complicated,” he explains.

In the meantime, however, there are no drastic changes planned for this famous London hotspot. “I wouldn’t know how to change it radically without starting again, and what would be the point of that? Everyone seems to love it,” says Stephen. “It works.”


Chinawhite facts

  • Demoiselle is the club’s best-selling Champagne in terms of volume.
  • By bottle, the best-seller is Perrier Jouët, followed by Moët et Chandon.
  • Cheapest Champagne: Demoiselle Rosé NV at £70 per bottle.
  • Most expensive Champagne: A jeroboam (3 litres) of Cristal 1997 at £6,000.
  • Bottles of vodka start at £140 and go up to £320 for 175cl of Grey Goose.
  • Absolut remains Chinawhite’s number-one vodka, with Grey Goose and Stolichnaya in second and third place.
  • Stephen buys 2,000–3,000 silk cushions at a time for the club. They are so popular that guests frequently steal them.
  • Chinawhite was opened in December 1998. Before this the venue was Joey & Gina’s Wedding, an interactive dinner theatre experience.

The Cocktail
The club’s signature cocktail, the Chinawhite, has been the subject of a protracted trademark dispute. Chinawhite’s first head bartender, Matt Rymer, approached a businessman, Karl Harrison, a month before employees were required to sign a confidentiality agreement regarding the drink’s recipe.
  After tasting the drink, Harrison registered a company called China White, and applied to trademark the same name.
  The Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the club owners, deciding that the trademark application had been made in bad faith.
  Also mentioned in the case was the association between the name “China White” and heroin. Stephen explains that the name also refers to a colour, as well as to a kind of Chinese porcelain. During the case, the point was made that the club has “an active policy in preventing drug use”, and the Hearing Officer agreed that the use of the name was not immoral.
  The requirement given to Rymer for the original cocktail was that it had to be white, and have an oriental taste. The resulting drink is vodka-based, and includes Koko Kanu coconut rum.

© db August 2006

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