The world has enough 7-11s
July 29, 2020
I was crushed a couple of weeks ago when someone sent me a picture on Facebook of the building that housed my restaurant in Taichung, Taiwan. This beautiful Mediterranean style building, which was home to one of the coolest places to get a taste of Western culture in this city of 3 million, is now a 7-11.
I almost cried.
There were a bunch of postings from friends and customers who recalled different memories of this awesome place. Of course memories flooded back to me, too.
It hit home, I won’t be walking into a memory lane if I visit the place now. A hot dog stand where my bar was? I am not ready to see that. I want to remember the place for what it once was.
How it All Started
My young ex-brother-in-law and myself started this restaurant/bar in 2002 with a wealthy shoe guy. Up to this point, Taichung was a city made of nightclubs, KTV’s and Chinese style drinking establishments. There were no Western style restaurants in the city when I first arrived a decade before. In fact, the first few Taiwanese owners that started catering to Westerners in the city, hired me to bartend.
Don’t ask me why, but back in the 90s, the few bartenders in Taiwan that knew anything about drinks and brands could be counted on two hands at best. Most were in Taipei, the capital and largest city. Taichung, the third largest city, had me and a woman from New York named Madison.
Madison and I were hired to do the first expat bar. “Escapade” did well, but the owner moved to South Africa and the bar closed. Madison left Taiwan and the next thing I knew, I was in demand to bartend at all sorts of places. Huge nightclubs hired me, along with Western DJs, and before I knew it bartending became my major source of income in Taiwan. Plus, I got to know a huge segment of the Western community that lived in the city.
Taichung was once the shoe capital of Asia back in the day, before China took over. When I arrived to the city in 1993, the only remnants of the shoe industry were research and design departments that didn’t move to the mainland. There were less than a 1000 Westerners living in the city, mostly students at a nearby college. That changed pretty quickly in the next ten years. There are many factors to why Taichung’s Western population had grown to 30,000 by 2002.
Fred, my kid brother-in-law, had moved to Taiwan with his wife from Arizona in 2001. I had not seen him since he was about 16. When I met him in Taichung, he was in his late 20s and had been a chef for the Hyatt in Phoenix. He was pretty good, too. He once cooked for Julia Child.
We had been close during the years I was married to his sister, but the break had me leave the east coast when he was just starting to become somewhat adult. It was good to be reacquainted.
In 2002, Fred and I were approached to take over this Western-style building with a Western kitchen and turn it into a restaurant/bar. Fred had the chops to run the kitchen and produce fine dining cuisine. We both agreed the bar needed to be a show piece and we created a beauty from what was there.
All the years I had been helping others create bars I now had one of my own. We both scrubbed that place and painted what needed it, enlarged the bar area and, in about two weeks, we were ready to open. Or so we thought.
The Restaurant That
It was a two story whitewashed building with gardens on both floors. There were patios on both floors, too. Our first night we were packed and, I have to say, we totally dropped the ball. Our young college age servers were clueless once the doors opened. The week of training was like it never happened. My bartenders were making gin in tonics in martini glasses. These guys had worked for me before at other places and I thought they knew what they were doing. I learned a valuable lesson on being prepared and the value of soft openings.
The name Fred and I came up with for the restaurant was “fM”. The little f stood for Fred and the big M for Mike. Fred told me, everyone was going to say “Fred and Mike’s” place anyway, so we just made it easy. Plus, most everyone knew I considered him my kid brother so the little f worked in that way, too.
In the beginning it was not easy. Fine dining was popular enough on weekends, but many customers wanted bar food. We did almost too good a job on the bar. It made money, but the kitchen was bleeding. Fred was fairly resistant at first to change the menu until I pointed out we were really sinking.
So menu change along with DJ’s playing music Friday and Saturday night started the ball rolling. Next, we had theme parties once a month and advertised in some key Western magazines. Before we knew it, “fM” turned into the place to visit if you were in Taichung, and wanted Western food, drink and socializing. A lot of local Taiwanese frequented “fM” too.
For five years “fM” flourished. I even became Jim Beam and Ocean Spray’s brand ambassadors for the island because of the bar’s success. It was a lot of fun for me.
Not Always Golden
Restaurant/bars are not easy to run and things change constantly. Fred left to start another place after two years. All of a sudden, I was not only in charge of the bar, but now the entire venue and kitchen. Fred not only departed, but his new partner, was “fM’s” second in command in the kitchen. There were some tough moments pulling the kitchen and menu together and, trust me, many times I felt I wasn’t up to the job. But since we won awards as the best Western restaurant/bar in Taichung the last couple years from a few sources, I feel we did the job.
The best part about the “fM’, it was the meeting place for South Africans, Canadians, British, Australians and Kiwi’s, and, of course, Americans. Europeans came through too, but the nationalities mentioned celebrated their national holidays at “fM”. South African Day was my favorite. Besides literally drinking me dry in a day, the dances I saw whites and blacks do together made me proud how far these people had come since apartheid. The magic of “fM” was the people who came to support the place. In return, “fM” supported them.
For five years, I lived and breathed the restaurant “fM”. It truly was my life. Then an event, or actually a couple events, I was totally unprepared for had me leaving the place I had nurtured and grown.
It Was Over With Little Warning
The demise of “fM” is tragic, and it was hard for me to swallow, but being someone who prides himself on forward progress, I left Taiwan and “fM”. I didn’t look back much. I realized it was out my control and I had to make the best of situation.
I think I did for the most part.
Still, seeing the place I was so proud of at one time turned into a convenience store made me nostalgic and sad. Looking back was a little hard, but the look back reminded me it is important not to lose faith that things will get better. Time is the key.
Currently, events are throwing many peoples’ lives into a mess that is no fault of their own. It is inconceivable to me bartending is an endangered job because bars are being shut down in state after state due to COVID-19.
Many small business owners are taking it on the chin right now in a lot of industries. There is no end in sight of COVID easing up in many states and a vaccine is still months away, if not longer. A million workers are going on unemployment each week as businesses have to shutter.
I really feel for these owners as they watch all that they have built crumble.
Dark periods are hard to get past during normal times, and these are not normal times. Keeping confidence it will get better isn’t easy but we humans are resilient creatures, for the most part. Hopefully these uncertain times will eventually recede in the not distant future with most people’s lives intact.
Support Help for Small Businesses
Until that happens, I believe we have to support the small businesses that are getting crippled and closed in any manner. Many of these small businesses are like “fM” was, a gathering place for friends. These venues aren’t meant for social distancing. If America lets many of these small businesses close permanently, I believe the loss will hurt a little bit of the nation’s soul.
Trust me, nobody will want to see their favorite meeting place to eat and drink turn into a 7-11.