Hashigo Zake - the authentic Japanese beer bar

THE RIGHT STUFF: Dominic Kelly says running his specialist beer bar "feels a lot more authentic than sitting in an office for an investment bank".
THE RIGHT STUFF: Dominic Kelly says running his specialist beer bar "feels a lot more authentic than sitting in an office for an investment bank".

Self-confessed fussy beer drinker Dominic Kelly spent two decades developing software before quitting his lucrative career to open a bar.

Kelly had entertained ideas about owning an urban watering hole for years. The brains behind Wellington's underground cult beer bar Hashigo Zake, he was working in IT for an investment bank in Tokyo when he finally took the leap in 2008.

"I thought it would be lucrative and interesting. It did turn out to be lucrative, but completely unsatisfying."

He quit once the mortgage on his investment property in Wellington was paid off, and came home to the capital with a business plan based on big dreams to create a bar that specialised in the kind of craft beer he had developed a taste for, and the dark atmosphere of an Asian drinking den.

Several friends were keen to invest but it took many months to find the perfect location, in lower Taranaki St in the CBD.

He happened to walk past the site, then a bar called Vintage, with one of his investors and idly commented that it would be great if the property were available. Soon after, it was advertised for sale so he bought the business and all its assets.

"I kind of felt I had to buy it because I had got what I wished for."

Kelly, who learned a little about hospitality managing the Victoria University Students' Association bar in his youth, set about tackling licensing and organising the business to start trading.

One of the biggest challenges was sourcing the beer brands he wanted to stock, such as Baird Morning Coffee Stout from Shizuoka in Japan, beers from Belgium's Orval Trappist brewery and Ballast Point Brewing Company's porter from San Diego.

Out of necessity, Hashigo Zake acts as a distributor of about 200 types of beer to other bars, mostly in Auckland, and a handful of supermarkets.

"It's the only way to make it work. These breweries wouldn't be interested in talking to us if we only imported enough for ourselves."

To get the word out about the bar, Kelly went straight to the people who would appreciate the rare beers he had gone to great lengths to get in to Wellington. He introduced himself to local craft brewers in the capital and consumer group Society of Beer Advocates. Hashigo Zake sponsored annual festival Beervana to promote its name. "I made a point of getting known among beer nerds."

It took about nine months of planning and a quarter of a million dollars of investment to make Hashigo Zake a reality. The bar became profitable after six months in business. The distribution side took a little longer.

While his venture involved long hours at first, Kelly normally works an average 40-hour week now. He loves being able to dress more casually, making things happen without head office approval and working with interesting people, from his 10 staff to his many suppliers and customers. "It feels a lot more authentic than sitting in an office for an investment bank wondering if anyone will ever notice your work."


Dominic Kelly's advice to aspiring bar owners:

To start a bar I think you have to have a point of difference because it can be a pretty good way to lose a lot of money. It's hard trying to differentiate yourself on Courtenay Place . . . if you don't feel your concept is good enough to be located somewhere people have to walk a few minutes to, then I'd worry.

Contact Jazial Crossley
Wellington business reporter
Email: jazial.crossley@dompost.co.nz
Twitter: @msbananapeel

The Dominion Post