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Owning a bar or nightclub sounds like a dream job but has its challenges

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Dan Chang, a novice at the bar business, turned a small, off-the-beaten-track location in Waikiki into the popular Wang Chung’s Karaoke Bar.

Photo: Rae Huo

Change of Plan

Finding a niche helped Dan Chang, who owns and operates the popular but hard-to-find Wang Chung Karaoke Bar in Waikiki.

When Chang, an industrial engineer, moved to Hawaii from San Francisco in 2006, he did some retail consulting work, then got into real estate.

He got stuck with a location he couldn’t lease: a 250-square-foot nook – 367 if you count the bathroom – on Koa Avenue in Waikiki. So he leased it himself, and opened a bar with the plan to sell it within a year.

Only it wasn’t that easy: to build a bar, which he did, or to sell it, which he won’t.

Commercial rents in Waikiki are among the highest in the nation, and Chang pays almost three times more per square foot than owners in Chinatown. He estimated the build-out cost to be around $200 to $250 per square foot, or roughly $90,000. After being denied loans and lines of credit for the first two years, he decided to liquidate his 401k and Roth IRA from his previous engineering job and financed the rest with credit cards.

“I didn’t have any business experience prior to opening the bar. The truth is, I couldn’t even pour a drink,” says Chang, 32, who opened his bar in 2009. “I don’t drink and didn’t spend time in bars before planning to open the business. It wasn’t my dream to open a bar, but I did always want to open my own business.”

Despite the high cost to open and run the bar, and its easy-to-miss location in an alley off a side street behind the Hyatt Regency Waikiki, Wang Chung’s has flourished, thanks to skilled mixologists (who sing), unique cocktails, an extensive song list and the friendliest staff in Honolulu. (You might even get hugged when you walk in.)

The neighborhood bar brought something unique to its part of Waikiki, Chang says. Its early support from the gay community fueled its popularity. Now, Chang is looking for a bigger location in Waikiki.

“I really enjoy what I’m doing,” Chang says. “It’s still engineering to me – solving problems, making things more efficient, coming up with innovative solutions – but with the social aspect that has direct meaning and connection to people.”

Good music, friendly employees and unique cocktails help make Wang Chung’s Karaoke Bar a popular destination.

Photo: Rae Huo

No One-Trick Pony 

Kawasaki’s two businesses, Bonsai and The Villa, have transitioned from nightclub spaces to multiuse venues. That’s how he says he’s survived in this economy.

When Kawasaki opened Bonsai in 2008 in Restaurant Row, he wanted it to feel more like a lounge than a nightclub. So he built out the kitchen, changed the décor, added bars and staircases, and updated the wiring and plumbing. But, after a couple of years as a bar lounge, he shifted the focus of the 4,000-square-foot space so it is now open for lunch and happy hour on Fridays and private functions most of the rest of the time.

The Villa lasted for two years as a nightclub before Kawasaki opted to rent out the cavernous 9,000-square-foot space for private parties and events. It has hosted high school reunions, wedding receptions, business socials, networking events, birthday and graduation parties, fundraisers, yakudoshis and even a funeral service. And, with an established kitchen at Bonsai, he can offer full catering menus to customers.

“Even a nightclub can’t open and just be a nightclub anymore,” he says. “The key is you’ve got to diversify. You can’t be a one-trick pony.”

That’s the thinking behind M Nightlife, which aims to be more than just a nightclub. It can actually be whatever you envision, and that’s helped business.

The club, which is spacious by nightclub standards at 5,000 square feet indoors, has hosted everything from fundraisers to baby luaus with inflatable bounce houses. Once, a couple got married there, with the altar set up in front of the main bar.

The large space – since the venue also owns The Row Bar outside and can barricade that outdoor area to expand – is more of a problem for M, which still operates as a nightclub on weekends. (Its private events only make up about 30 percent of its business.) While it can see more than 1,000 people come through the door on a weekend night, M needs hundreds of bodies at a time inside the venue to fill the space.

“You have 100 people in here, it looks empty. A hundred people in (a smaller club) and it looks raging,” Varnadore says. “You need at least 200 to 300 people in here to make it look and feel like the atmosphere we want.”

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