Bryce Jenner is a name many of you may know. Especially among Shanghai's small but elite group of expats who lay claim to multiple decades of living and working in this city. He's the man behind True Legend Hospitality Group, the F&B company that owns and operates Big Bamboo, Pistolera, Beast of the East Brewing company, Liquid Asian distributor and, now, most recently, Beast of the East Social House.
Jenner has owned or operated more than 20 establishments here in Shanghai over the course of two decades. In this interview, he takes us on a journey from the day he got off the plane at Hongqiao Airport in 1997, through several moments in Shanghai that have defined him, his business, and a future he envisions. He's driving the success of 6 restaurants now in Shanghai, and has plans for more — here and across China.
What you see is a man who takes hold of an idea and won't let go. You'll see cunning to get payback for what he's owed, and a fiercely independent soul that won't wear ties and refuses to work in offices. The man wears his heart on his sleeve and projects sincerity, but has a steel interior that's enabled him to last and prosper in an industry that very few do.
SmSh: What were you doing before Shanghai? And what brought you here?
Bryce Jenner: I was a businesss late bloomer in life. I did a lot of things before coming to Shanghai, but never had any idea that I'd build something like I have. But I always had an entrepreneurial spirit. When I was 12 years old, I had my own painting company. I was always sellin' something, makin' money. Where most kids had a paper delivery route, I had three.
But, what brought me to Shanghai?
Well, I was in Vancouver working for a bar there called Malone's. The guys out there wanted to send me to Shanghai to manage the Malone's they had out here which was one of the first "American bars" in the city. I remember the day when I came. The night before I got on the plane, we had this going away party at the bar when things got interrupted by a news flash on the TV — it was the night Diana got killed in the tunnel.
So, that was sort of a solemn 'goodbye'.
I arrived at Hongqiao Airport, which was a bit of a shock arriving at that place. It wasn't nice like how it is now. A buddy of mine picked me up at the airport, and he had a bag of beers. We got into a taxi and went down Yan'an Lu -- there was no elevated highway back then. Drinking in the taxi all the way to Malone's for my first night. It was an insane night of... uh... debauchery. We went from Malone's to Manhattan, then we went to Didi's club, then we went to New York, New York.
[Ed's Note: Venues so old, they never made it into SmSh's historical database.]
Coming from Vancouver, I was just shocked initially. I mean it was quite different back then. It was the wild west... I mean, the wild EAST. On the one hand, you could have these totally free, insane nights in Shanghai, but then there was this other contrast of things being a different system.
For example, the police back then wore army uniforms. I remember one night not too long after arriving, me and this Chinese girl Bonnie who was a manager back then, and my buddy Sean Doyle got pulled over by the police. They had a serious vibe to them back then, wearing these long green army coats, with these big fur hats. We weren't doing anything wrong except for Bonnie being there with us... Chinese girls weren't supposed to be in cars out alone with Western people back then. I mean it was no big deal, but it was so intimidating because, I mean, I was just this Canadian boy back then, and this was so different. But I grew to totally embrace it.
SmSh: So, take us back to the beginning...
BJ: Before I came to Shanghai, I sold everything. Liquidated everything. I came here with 10,000 dollars in my pocket, which I blew threw in a couple of months. After Malone's, I tried to do a couple things. There was a place called "Always Cafe" on Nanjing Lu. I'd go there all the time to hang out and I got to know the people who owned the place They had a little pool table. I made a deal with them, that I would manage the place and eventually take it over. I spent a month changing up the bar, the music, and the whole thing. And then one day, I just sort of realized, I was there one night, and I said, "You have no intention of selling me this place."
And the owner just said, "Nah."
So, I learned my first good lesson in Shanghai: Don't always take what's said as... the truth. So, I walked out, and I went over and talked to a friend I'd made called Chris Cooper who was the owner of Shanghai Sally's. He had gone through 4 or 5 managers there in what was like his second or third month of business. I did that for a couple months, but it didn't work out, so I packed my bags and went back to Vancouver in '98 for about a year and a half and worked as a carpenter, building stuff, bartending, worked at Malone's on the beach. But... I had a longing for Asia.
I first went back to Thailand but realized soon that Thailand was a great place for people who had money, but not a good place for people trying to make money. So, then, I went to Hong Kong for a bit, then back to Shanghai running Judy's, who a lot of people know — I went to go work at Judy's for a time making about 1,000 bucks a month (RMB 6,000 back then). It was on Maoming Lu, next toBuddha Barand across the street from the first Blue Frog.
Some old-timers in Shanghai might remember that we got permission from the government at the time to do a block party on Maoming Lu for a crazy Millenium Party. Anyway, I did like 3 months there at Judy's, then a five-star hotel on The Bund hired me to be their bar manager. I lived in the hotel and they got me an Armani suit. I had short hair and was wearing a black t-shirt under my Armani style suit.
When I came in they said, "Hey, we have a dress code, you need to wear a suit and tie."
And I said, "I don't do suits and ties", but I'll do this -- an Armani dress jacket and a black t-shirt.
I did really well, hit my targets, but about four months we started to clash heavily. I'm not a corporate guy...
SmSh: What would you guys clash about?
BJ: Well... Hmmm. A variety of things. I mean, I remember getting called up to the General Manager's office because I didn't want hookers in the bar.
I went to the office and the general manager said, "Bryce, Bryce, Bryce, please, we need to have the girls here. Because we don't want people leaving the hotel. Because if they leave the hotel they go to these other girly bars, and they get into trouble, and then the police call us, and we need to go get them. So we'd rather that people that come and visit, there's everything that they need right here in the hotel."
And other things like staff who were reporting me were just accustomed to doing things very differently than how I wanted things to be run. And I guess also top management at the time just wanted a "foreigner" there, but didn't really buy into the idea of me managing the space. So I ended up taking off.
SmSh: You went through a lot of jobs in Shanghai, most of them very short stints. What was the first big change for you in your career?
BJ: I got an offer from the group Chris Cooper was a part of. The owners flew me down to HK, and said, "We want you to work with us, be the general manager of Shanghai Sally's."
And I said, "Well, okay, sure."
And they said, "Okay, what do you want?"
So, we went over basics, they gave me a free place to stay, and they said, "What else do you want?"
And I said, "I want to be the boss. The boss."
And they said, "Okay, yeah, sure, we're down in HK, you're in Shanghai, you can be the boss. What else do you want?"
And I said, "Well... I want to be an owner."
And they said, "Oh, really, okay well, how much do you have to invest?"
And I said, "Well, I don't have any money to invest..."
And they said, "Okay, well, then how would you become an owner?"
So we worked out this deal of working for two years, sweat equity, then I would get a percentage. I think that's when things kind of struck for me, that I wanted to own something — for something to be mine.
I spent two years running the place, transforming it from a dingy, old place to something cool. Turned around their basement into something called The Underground. Shanghai Sally's was a British pub upstairs, and I made this live music place downstairs and hired an amazing Filipino rock band. It was great. We kind of became a late-night/early morning spot too, by accident. We were open late, so other people in the F&B and nightlife industry would just come down and hang out. These other musicians who performed other places would come after their gigs, and so would their friends, and the place kind of became a destination.
BJ: But by the time I was supposed to get my shares, one of the partners, this old really, truly evil British dude who lived in Taiwan — a big house, a Mercedes Benz, custom shoes, had several restaurants — he owned Sasha's and Zapatas... anyway... he wanted to screw me. Towards the end he was complaining about all sorts of stuff, blaming me for this or that and I knew they were just excuses to not make me part-owner, as we had agreed. I mean this dude was evil. He had pissed off all the other partners as well. So I went in cahoots with the other partners, borrowed some money, and just bought out some of the other partners for pennies on the dollar. And I went to this guy and threatened to sell my shares to another guy - Rob Young - that he really hated. So, he ended up buying me out, and I got $50,000 -- the money that was owed to me. I put a lot of myself into that place, so I was gonna fight for what was owed to me. So, I went from zero, to $50,000 in savings.
But I had had it. After all that, I said, "Nah, I don't wanna own my own place."
I had a 2-year-old daughter, and when you're in this industry, it's a thankless business. When you do this, you're married to it. So, I wanted just a normal job.
So, I went to work for a guy who was starting a live music brewhouse curry restaurant. He put me in an office, but I sort of started working from home after two weeks, and his secretary called me and said, "Hey, Bryce, are you working for us?"
I said, "I'm doing everything you want me to do, but I didn't sign on to work in an office. I've worked in an office, and I'm not working in an office again."
It didn't work out. I came home, and told my wife, "Honey, we have $50,000 dollars, can we please start our own restaurant?"
We were living in this small apartment, with her parents sleeping in the living room, and me, my wife, and my daughter sleeping in a tiny bedroom. And she said yes.
Then I started looking around...
The Story of Big Bamboo
BJ: There was this place on Tongren Lu — a club, two stories, really cool. It had this loft roof with these steel bars. It was a really cool club. I sort of fell in love with it and kept going back. But it was always empty and I couldn't get it. Eventually I talk to the manager and I say, "Hey, who owns this place?".
Manager: A Chinese guy.
Well... what does he do?
Manager: Oh, he works, he's a really rich guy.
I'd like to meet him.
Well, maybe he'd like to sell this place.
Manager: Nah, he doesn't want to sell this place.
Well, how do you know?
Manager: ‘Cause he makes lots of money.
Well, great... but... you don't stay rich by making lots of money and wasting it.
Manager: Ah, he doesn't care, he just brings his friends here.
Well, I been coming here for a week and I don't see anybody here.
So, finally, the guy introduces me to this owner. He's a rich guy, who works in that big office building, Plaza 66. I pitched him the idea: "we want to completely renovate your club". I did a deal with him that we'd be partners. That was within two weeks after my wife said yes.
So, we did a redesign, new bar, new music, and a DJ. I wanted girls dancing on the bar 'cause that's what bars did in those days. Pool tables, foosball tables, and I like arches, and hardwood floors, and one of the things Big Bamboo is known for is the bricks. We didn't know what we wanted to call it. I was thinking I wanted to do something Asian, like Raffles, with fans, rattan furniture, this Asian themed restaurant. But I closed the deal so quickly, that we just made it way more simple.
So, I hoped this was something I could build on. "Bamboo"... long living, grows fast, resilience... Bamboo I liked it, And it was a big deal to me - so... Big Bamboo. So, we called it Big Bamboo. A few weeks in we had a sports team that wanted us to sponsor them, so they asked for our logo.
You look at our logo now, it's two "B's" that look like feet. And that's supposed to represent a place where you just come as you are, no cover charges, whoever shows up can come in. I didn't want any of the pretension. Come in with ripped jeans in flip-flops. Whatever, come on in.
And it was everything that I wanted. Great sound-system, great music, we had people playing pool, we had beach parties. My wife and I would be there every night, and we'd literally talk to every single customer. We knew their names and people got to know each other. We became kind of like Shanghai's Cheers. We opened right when SARS was happening but we were still busy. I don't know how we did it because we were giving shots to everybody and drank with them! I swear to God, no exaggeration, I gave shots to everybody. I must have been drinking a couple of bottles of booze a night for a long time. I was there from 3 in the afternoon to 3 in the morning.
We hit our financial goals of making 10K USD a month. We had our own place, we were our own bosses, we didn't need to worry about stuff. But...one day, my mother-in-law had gotten to know the accountant of the rich guy who owned the place, and she said, "be careful, because the licenses this place has... they're fake...".
BJ: So I went up to his office one day, and I with my with my wife at the time and I said, "We've got a problem, I know you've given us fake licenses."
Rich Guy: Okay, so... whatever.
No, not whatever man. I just put my entire life savings into this. I've got a two-year-old kid. This is my dream and you're screwing with me. It's not "whatever".
Rich Guy: It doesn't make a difference.
It does make a difference.
Rich Guy: So, what, you want to walk away?
No way, this is my dream. So, here's what we're gonna do. You're going to get us real licenses, when that's all done you're gonna give it to us, then you're gonna give us all the equipment, and we'll be full owners, and you'll walk away.
Rich Guy: How you figure that is what we're gonna do?
What you did is illegal, and if I go to the police with this, you're going to jail. You forged documents, and they won't care who you are.
I learned some tough lessons. I was never like this in Canada, but I learned you gotta be tough, and you step up and get tougher and tougher in order to survive. Well, he got us the chops, the real licenses, gave us all the equipment, and he walked away and we never saw him again. Now, Big Bamboo was 100% ours.
I was a late bloomer, I was in my 40s with a young kid, and I'm a survivor, and I'm not gonna get screwed again. I'm an honest businessman and this is how I wanted to do it — with real licenses.
And this was another lesson I learned, that you need to leverage things in order to get what's owed to you.
We did about 18 months. We were soaring but then... landlord issues...
The BIG Big Bamboo
BJ: After the original Big Bamboo closed we had a quieter life. But we knew we didn't want to give up, so we started looking for a new place right away. And we went around and I pounded the pavement looking at places. I was pretty adamant that I wanted to stay in that area because I thought we had a really strong community of people that were coming. And I searched everywhere. We looked at places on Julu Lu and Fumin Lu — almost took the space that used to be Dr. Beer.
BJ: Then I stumbled on this place on Nanyang Lu behind The Portman. It was a Chinese restaurant. It was kinda a cool space, but same as before, it wasn't very busy. Big place but not busy. So, I introduced myself to the manager and said, "Hey, introduce me to the owner, I'm interested in the space" and the same thing: "Nah nah, nah, he's not interested." But I was persistent. I kept on sending my wife who was my business partner to talk to them, and they kept saying no. But finally, after the fifth or sixth time, the manager finally got us an introduction.
So, we met the landlord, and we made a deal to take the place. And just take the place outright this time, paying for everything. The reason why it was so difficult to get to this guy is because, same thing, this guy was rich too. He made lots of money but the place didn't make that much. But it turns out the guy we had been talking to, the manager... turns out it was his brother. And if we didn't have a job for his brother, they didn't want to do it.
So, he said, "Here's the thing, you can take it, buy it, whatever, but you have to employ my brother for two years."
I said, "I don't wanna employ your brother but I'll do it."
So, for several thousand RMB a month we paid him.
We told the brother, "You got a job, but I don't want you doing anything. But I'll pay you."
And the brother was happy with just taking the check and leaving. Then we had this massive place — three times the size as the original on two floors. And I'm sitting there thinking, "holy shit". We spent every single RMB that we had and borrowed a bit of more from my wife's mother just to get the place finished. And it was gorgeous. We had the woodwork, and the arches, and we had the bricks, the pool tables, and shuffleboard, DJ booth, we did everything — just on a much bigger level.
I remember the first night we opened, this 600-square-meter place was PACKED. And thenext day was packed too.
It was a success and brought in cash enough that we then jumped and expanded to the Baby Big Bamboo on Laowai Jie in Hongqiao in 2005 and a "Small Big Bamboo" in Jinqiao in 2007, converted the Baby Bamboo into a Big Bamboo in 2008 and the small JinQiao Big Bamboo converted into a Pistolera when the larger Big Bamboo opened in Jinqiao later that year in 2010.
Pistolera Is Born
BJ: When I opened the Big Big Bamboo in Jinqiao, I decided to keep the smaller location and decided to do a Tex-Mex place. I met this young Mexican guy who won one of Ken Walker's Chili-Cook Off competitions. It was this guy called Tabasco... like the sauce. He wasn't working, he was a student and his mom had her own cooking show in Mexico. I went up to him and said, "Listen, I've got a space, I was gonna do Tex-Mex, but hey... if I had a Mexican chef and partner..."
So, he decided to do it. He put a little money in there, I gave him sweat equity, he came in, young guy, 24... I gave him some staff and he built it.
Eventually, he decided to go to Canada to go to chef's school. He was at Pistolera for a year and a half. He put in about 15K USD, I bought him out so he used that go to school and then he left with about 150,000 USD in his pocket.
2015 Is a Hard Year
We opened a Pistolera in Hongqiao Laowai jie, but we ran into problems with the landlord because they already had a Tex-Mex place called Mexico Lindo. Landlord didn't want two Tex-Mex places. So we moved to a place on Tongren Lu. We lost more than 2.5M RMB on the place, so we shut it down.
Then the Blind Pig came about. We had been doing Big Bamboo now for more than 10 years, and I thought why not evolve, do a smokehouse. So we opened a smokehouse, but we did it too quick. Meats were coming out cold, and we just rushed it and so it didn't work out well. It was also slow in Hongqiao for that concept. All the same, we figured we had a good concept but that it would perform better if we moved it downtown.
So, we turned Big Bamboo into a Blind Pig.
I took a lot of abuse for that over the years. I remember a specific hotel owner that I know — he came up to me and said in no uncertain terms, "How the fuck did you kill Nanyang Lu? What were you thinking? Why did you change Big Bamboo? How did you kill such a great business."
I've thought a lot about it. It was not a wise decision to change the concept. It was an iconic location and one of the longest running places. I was keen on bringing the Blind Pig there. If I could change things, I would have put Big Bamboo downstairs and Blind Pig upstairs and kept both brands.
Here Comes COVID 19
SmSh: By 2019, you had four venues up and running, going strong, and had just started a craft brewing company Beast of the East. Now here comes COVID lockdowns...
BJ: When I shifted Big Bamboo on Nanyang Lu to Blind Pig, and then Beast of the East, I saw the revenues dropped significantly. And then it was a struggle. And, then, I was away for COVID, and, obviously, everything got hit. Also, things were changing in Jing'an. We got hit by this huge influx of restaurants and bars opening in North Jing'an. Wuding Lu, Shangkangli, Yanping Lu, Jiaozhou Lu. So, eventually we became a destination place, instead of being in the middle of everything, which is another reason why we thought to shift to another concept.
Then COVID hit. All our landlords helped us out with the rent, except the big location on Nanyang Lu. So, I decided to shut it down. And this had a huge impact on staff. Everyone questioned the decision, customers, partners, staff. But I did it. Our closing party was crazy, I was on a live video call, stuck out of the country because of COVID. There were 650 people. The cops rolled in to shut things down. It was emotional...
COVID's Silver Linings...
BJ: Two weeks after I shut Big Bamboo down, I get a call from my friend Byron the CEO of Shanghai Centre. He says, "Hey, you wanna take a space over? The one that Liquid Laundry had?"
I told him I didn't think so. I had just shut my other place down the road, and it's COVID we're all sort of holding on for dear life. This was March 2020, I mean people just got let out of quarantine in Shanghai and I was still stuck in Japan.
He offered a really good deal. I had my staff go and look at it. They came back and told me, "No, it's dead, you don't want to do it."
And I said, "Well, of course it's dead, we're in the middle of COVID. The hotel is closed, things might be different later."
But I didn't move, until Byron kept calling me, and wanting to negotiate an offer. So we did. And I got an unbelievable deal.
But I was still hurt from Big Bamboo closing, so I said, "What if I take losses? It's COVID, what can I do?"
I was thinking of the 400,000 RMB turn-key operation I did with a Pistolera on Tongren Lu, which ended up losing 2.5M RMB. I was still hurting from that. They ended up giving me a deal that was stellar and I felt comfortable going for it.
The Pistolera at Shanghai Centre is doing incredibly well. And today. Today. Today, I just found out that we got five stars on Dianping. The first venue we've ever had to break that mold.
And ya know...this served as a kind of validation of my guts, but more than that, it became something of a huge morale boost for the entire business.
We just came off of losing 2.5M RMB on the Tongren Lu space, and closing our most iconic flagship that had been running for 17 years.
COVID was looking bad for us, but then this happens -- this Pistolera has became a huge success. We opened in July and by August we had caught up with all our supplier payments for all venues. We went from feeling deflated, to then we all sort of blossomed. COVID wasn't going to kill us.
But I had to fight to make it happen. Everyone was telling me not to do it. They were telling me I was crazy, both internally and externally. Everyone on the executive board thought it was going to fail except for me and one other guy. I wasn't even in China, but somehow I believed it would work.
SmSh: And now you are in your second business expansion with Beast of the East. How did this place get set up?
BJ: Well, things picked up for the entire True Legend Group, and I thought to myself, that we have to ride this wave and keep growing. Do it now while things are good. Don't get lazy. I'm a builder, and building things gets me going. I started looking for places, and just wasn't finding anything. I was back in China at this point, but I wanted to be here and doing something.
One day at 11am in the morning I get a call: "Hey, we got a place you should come check-out". It was the Lucky You place.
I arrived, had a look, and said, "Yeah, I'll take it".
They said, "Uh, okay, well we gotta have another meeting."
And I said, "No. No need. I want it."
And they said, "No, no, we really need to have another meeting. We'll leave now, and come back."
So they left, and I was sitting outside waiting.
And Raffe from Cantina Agave passed by and he said, "Hey what's going on here!"
And I said, "Well you're looking at the next Pistolera haha!" Which I was joking, of course.
The realtors came back, I signed the papers, transferred the money, and this was all done in 3 hours. It's pricey, with a significant rent each month. We're going to aim to ramp up to at least 2M / month.
My places have always been based on "community". But because of the price tag, we couldn't do things like take up space with pool tables, foosball, so I wanted to create something different that had a similar spirit to Big Bamboo, but also something that was different and unique.
And so I go back to my roots and decide it's time Shanghai has it's own Social House, like the ones we have back in Canada. It's like a public house in the UK, but we involve a few more things like live music, or dancing, eating and drinking. We wanted it to be a place where you come and stay for hours, and it's not just a "one function" type of destination. We wanted to create a space that specializes in all forms of social interaction. This is going to be a flagship, a statement, it's True Legend Hospitality Group back in full force. We have a massive kitchen, across our menus we'll have over 140 items, and we'll be open late, yes, the kitchen too. People in F&B industry, nightlife, or people who are hungry after a night out, our kitchen is open till 2am on weekdays and 3am on weekends.
SmSh: So what does the future look like for you?
BJ: In five or so years, I want to make an exit. We should be up to 20 venues by then, in Shanghai and other cities. These days, investors want concepts / groups that have at least 10 – 15 stable, successful venues as a proof of concept that can scale, and this is what we're building now. I've expanded out my core team with some people that have great background and experience. We're looking at other locations in Shanghai, and seriously looking at places in Nanjing and Suzhou.
I think that once COVID is over and once the borders open, I think that things will soften business-wise. I think that there's just as much if not more opportunity in the future for us foreigners and the Chinese together. I've been here for 20 years. I don't know if I'll be here for another 20 years but certainly if I was... I think that the next 20 years will have just as much or more opportunity than the past. So, I'm not pessimistic, I'm optimistic. But you have to work for it.
If it was easy, everybody would be doing what I do, but even if it's hard, or scary I'm stickin' to my guns. And it is scary to be doing what I'm doing but this COVID can't last forever. I'm optimistic that things are going to get better and when things get better, I'm going to be here standing, striving forward. And when all those new people that are coming to Shanghai get here, it's going to be, "Wow, welcome to China, welcome to Shanghai", because things are going to be on the up and up. China's a great country. It'll always be a great country.
SmSh: How has Shanghai been part of your journey?
BJ: Oh man, there are so many things that make Shanghai special.
First, the city is safe. I remember back in the earlier days before Alipay, and WeChat, our venues were cash businesses. And man, it was so different. You laugh, I laugh too because you know what, that's one of the things I always love, love, love, and love about Shanghai — it is the safest city I've ever lived in my life. I would be walking around in broad daylight, in the dark early morning, sometimes stumbling and drunk from a night of work, carrying these huge sacks of tens of thousands of RMB. You know, you never even thought about danger, right? Never, never. I just love Shanghai for that reason. There's just no other place like it. It's a very safe, wonderful place.
Second, if you keep your eyes open looking for opportunity, you'll find it. It's everywhere. Sometimes it means going up and introducing yourself to someone, sometimes it's having the balls to say, "I want this place", and keep at it, till you get it.
Also, I don't buy-in to some negativity that people have about the current situation. When I came here, when it was the wild east and it wasn't as easy to live, but it is now, its much cleaner, much quieter, and much easier to get around. So many positive things.
SmSh: Lastly... where did the name "True Legend Hospitality Group" come from?
BJ: It came to me out of inspiration from a jeans brand company called 'True Religion'.
I thought, "Man, that would be such a cool name for a bar, or an F&B company."
But, of course, I couldn't take it cause it was already a well known brand. One day, I glanced down at papers on my desk, and saw the name of one of my Hong Kong companies, "Legend Champion". And it just clicked... "True Legend". At first, I was nervous about using that name — so nervous to use it because it just seemed like such a conceited name, right?
But then I went... "What the fuck. I came over here with $10,000 to my name, which I blew in a few months and I started this business with hard earned money that I made. And I've been over here and I've lived my dreams, I've done my thing."
So, you know what, I can do it.
It's not like I think of myself as a true legend, but... what has happened to me over here in Shanghai... is truly legendary... and it is for sure.