Man, Myth, Legend: Yao Lu on Union Trading Co.'s Evolution

By Sophie Steiner, February 14, 2023

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If you've lived in Shanghai more than five minutes, and you haven't heard the name Yao Lu, do you really even live in Shanghai? We think not.

This man, myth, legend – all in one – helped develop Shanghai's bar industry by opening Union Trading Company (No. 48 on the 2021 World's 50 Best Bars list) back in August 2014 with co-owner and equally famed Shanghai legend, the late Austin Hu (Madison, Madison Kitchen, Birds of ParadiseHeritage by Madison)

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Yao has been a major player in bringing Shanghai's drink scene to the global stage. It is a move that has only happened in the past decade through true dedication to the craft by a handful of key players – a select few that have continually challenged the status quo to bring Shanghai a taste of what a top tier cocktail city can be. 

We sat down with Yao to get the down-low on just how far the Shanghai bar scene has come in the last nine years, what it's been like bourgeoning a cocktail bar into one now recognized as a World's 50 Best Bar and – no doubt – for a few cheeky tipples.

What else can you expect from us?

Image courtesy of Yao Lu

How did your bartending journey begin? Did you always know you wanted to be behind the bar?
I grew up in Texas and split my childhood between Dallas, LA, Vegas, Shanghai, and eventually Houston. I started tending bar when I was in college, mostly to gain work experience and to pay for school.

Working behind the bar was never the plan initially, I wanted to work for a corporate hotel and climb the ladder.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

It wasn’t until my second year of bartending, when I fell in love with the job, at Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston, which is now considered one of the most important bars in the US. I was a member of their sophomore opening team and learned everything I know now there. 

Where did the idea for starting Union Trading Company from? What was the concept at inception? 
It all started between Austin Hu and me on an equally drunk and cold night at Madison in the end of 2013. 

We realized we had a very similar approach to hospitality as well as training, and we figured we could combine what we each bring to the table to create a bar that reminds us of the bars we used to go to back home – no frills, delicious drinks, comforting bites, friendly bartenders who aren’t afraid to crack a dirty joke, Wu Tang Clan hamming on the speakers – an all-around neighborhood vibe.

The whole idea of: ‘When you’re here, you’re family.’

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

What were some of the initial challenges you and the team faced when launching UTC in Shanghai? And, on the flip side, what were some of the biggest upsides to being one of Shanghai’s first high end cocktail bars?
See, here’s the thing – I think the initial challenges we faced were that we were not high end enough.

The fact that we claimed to be a cocktail bar, but none of us were wearing waistcoats; there was no slow jazz reverberating from a smooth playlist; and our entire bar was built from Taobao.

We were dirt poor, what can you expect?

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

There was a divide between people’s perception of what they believed a cocktail bar should be and then – well – us. We were not what they were expecting.

But, it’s exactly that slight cognitive dissonance that gave us an advantage. We were edgy, cool, different. And this proved to be intriguing. 

Many say that UTC helped jumpstart and grow the cocktail industry in Shanghai. What was the cocktail industry like then, and what are the biggest changes you’ve witnessed over the last few years? 
We are flattered, but that’s not necessarily true. We happened to open the same year as many of our visionary colleagues, like Speak Low and E.P.I.C. , who all very much revolutionized the cocktail industry in China and were able to push the local bar scene onto a global stage.

We are just happy to be a humble part of that push.  

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

In terms of changes, I think guests now (compared to back then), in general, are much more educated; they have a clearer idea of what they want, and they hold bars to a higher standard, which is great for our city.

I always say a good cocktail city is a city that provides different options for cocktail bar offerings – different concepts, different crowds, different vibes – but regardless of these contrasts, they can all execute in a high quality, consistent manner. 

Image courtesy of Yao Lu

How has UTC evolved over the years to fit the changing drinks scene in Shanghai? And how has the drinks program and cocktail menu developed, specifically?
The core of UTC has stayed consistent. The focus was always good drinks, a cozy vibe and not taking ourselves too seriously. And that still remains today. 

I think changes have been made more on the drinks side, where we had to figure out what people enjoyed here, and how we can continue to use those flavors and ingredients to present them in ever-changing, yet fun and creative ways. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

What are some of your most standout UTC memories over the years that really embody what UTC represents?
I could literally write a whole book about this, but I would say all of my biggest memories were with the team.

For example, last year we were selected as a World’s 50 Best Bar, and the emotion of the staff in the room during the announcement party were palpable. It was such a bonding moment for everyone. 

Image courtesy of Yao Lu

But the biggest standout was when the pandemic hit and we were forced to close. We had many difficult conversations with our team regarding where we are and decisions we had to make.

Instead of feeling deflated, everyone on the team stayed steady and more focused than ever. Not a single person left during the pandemic, and when we were allowed to reopen, we came out stronger than ever. 

That sense of family with our team, with our customers, with the bar community, is what makes us UTC.

Who are the main people that have influenced your Shanghai career, life and overall experience the most? 
I want to give a shout out to my man Theo Watt from Drink Magazine for persuading me to come to Shanghai.

Also the Queen herself, Kelley Lee, for taking a chance on a young kid 11 years ago and giving me a crash course on how things are done here in Shanghai.

Image courtesy of Yao Lu

UTC recently moved locations, about a kilometer away from its original spot. What was the impetus for the change? And do you feel any of the spirit of UTC was lost (or gained) in the move?
Long story short, our lease was up, and that was that. But, also, the building we were in – as charming and beautiful as it is – was just really old. Moving has always been an objective for years, and I’m glad it’s finally over with. 

As for the spirit of Union, we lost nothing and gained everything. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Just after relocating, UTC was forced to close in March due to COVID restrictions and remained closed for a whopping eight months. Yet, you were able to avoid all layoffs and maintain full benefits and salaries for employees – a true testament to the ethos of the bar and team. How the hell did UTC (and you personally) overcome these odds and keep everything going while so many other Shanghai bar institutions fell?
First, we started off with full transparency with our staff; there were many very uncomfortable conversations about where we were financially and what steps we might take if things didn't get better. 

Image courtesy of Yao Lu

Luckily, we have the best team in China. Everyone understood their role and the sacrifices we had to make to sustain our bar.

We started off piggy-backing local coffee shops and restaurants – serving beverages on various premises around town with one-day pop ups organized by our bar manager Lio. After seeing people's enthusiasm, we started reaching out to our wider network across China.

We did a three-month pop-up with our friends at the Portman Ritz-Carlton, as well as two-weeklong bar takeovers across China in cities such as Suzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Shenzhen and many more. All proceeds went to staff and staff alone.

I strongly believe that Union Trading Co. doesn't need a brick-and-mortar setup; as long as the team can stay together, we can go anywhere and do anything.

Despite the constant traveling and cash flow worries, our team continued to serve everyone with pride and a smile. Their commitment and work ethic truly, truly inspired me and continues to inspire me every day. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Where do you see UTC fitting into the cocktail industry in five years? And what does the future hold for you as an individual and major mover and shaker in the drinks scene here? 
Inspired by my mentor Bobby Heugel, I always say: “We don’t train bartenders; we train bar operators.” 

For the next five years, we hope we can continue to bring people together within the hospitality industry through positive experiences. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

We hope to continue to be a driving force in Shanghai’s bar scene, but also to make sure every member of our team is set up for success when they eventually fly solo.

Many of our alumni – as I like to call them – are now successful bar owners and operators and I f*cking love to see it. Nothing makes me more proud.

Image courtesy of Yao Lu

As for me, last year I started my own consulting company, SM&Co, to help other owners and operators achieve their dreams of owning a successful bar.

I would like to expand my operations going forward, and I aim to launch more concepts with our amazing team.

Union Trading Company, 306 Hengshan Lu, by Yongjia Lu 衡山路306号,近永嘉路.

[Cover image courtesy of Yao Lu]

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