It’s the place where everybody knows your name – Jody Archer’s FUBAR on Oyafuko-dori. During his early days in Fukuoka, working as an ALT on the JET program, British-born Jody came to know the ins and outs of the city’s nightlife scene. When the chance came up years later to purchase the “Crazy Cock” bar where he had worked part-time, Jody jumped at the opportunity and renamed it FUBAR. Jody realizes the relationships between his staff and the patrons are crucial to creating a place that people want to come back to again and again. There’s an emphasis on communication and newcomers are always welcome. The recent crackdown on bars and clubs in Fukuoka forced Jody to change the bar’s license. The result being patrons can once again enjoy DJs and dancing until 1 am, after which it reopens as restaurant bar. Although Jody loves to work behind bar himself he says he’s got bigger plans in the pipeline. Stay tuned! Meanwhile, mention you read this article and Jody offers our readers their first drink for half price or a free shot on weekends (one per person until Feb. 28).
Fukuoka Now publisher Nick Szasz pulled up a barstool at FUBAR for a chat with Jody about how he came to own the bar, the state of Fukuoka’s nightlife scene and how recent police clampdowns have affected bars and clubs in the city.
So Jody, how did you come to own and operate a bar here in Fukuoka?
Well originally I went to University in Kitakyushu, in Kokura, as an exchange student for one year in 1999. I spent 6 months at Kitakyushu University, and 3 months in Ohashi, on a work experience program at Panasonic. That was the first time I came to Fukuoka. I liked it, so when I applied for the JET Programme, I applied for Fukuoka City, Fukuoka Ken and Kitakyushu City – luckily I got Fukuoka City. I came to Fukuoka on the JET program as an ALT and I did that for 3 years. And while I was an ALT I occasionally helped out at a few bars around town.
My mother is Japanese so I’d been to Japan many times, but for some reason Fukuoka seemed like home. After I finished as an ALT I went back to England and I didn’t really find anything I wanted to do there. Then I got a phonecall from one of my friends in Fukuoka saying that one of the bars I used to work at was being sold, so I thought… why not? And I came about 8 months later, and I bought this place 7 and a half years ago.
What year was that?
Golden Week of 2005. So, it’s been Fukuoka ever since.
You mentioned your mother is Japanese. She’s from Kyushu?
She’s from Hokkaido. It’s probably the furthest place in Japan you can get from Kyushu! I didn’t do it on purpose, it was just because of the great experience I had out here when I was with Panasonic.
All of my friends – there were maybe 14 to start with – stayed in Kokura. I was the only one who came up to Fukuoka. I was living in a dormitory with 30 other Japanese guys who’d just joined the company, so I was pretty much by myself which forced me to go out and explore the city. I didn’t know anyone or anything. And in those 3 months I came to know the city. Then when I came back as a JET, I originally planned to only stay for a year – but the job, and the city and the people were so good that I ended up staying for 3 years and I think that was it. At that point thought “I’m going to be here for awhile”.
So you were working part-time at some bars during the time of the JET program?
Yeah, that was during JET. I mean, we weren’t supposed to do any other part-time work, but I used to help out at the Happy Cock, and FUBAR, which used to be the “Crazy Cock”. I knew the staff, I knew the manager, the owner. When the old owner Jack planned on leaving he actually offered me both the bars – the Happy Cock and the Crazy Cock- asking if I wanted to buy either. The Happy Cock was more expensive, and I liked the atmosphere here at the Crazy Cock so I took it.
So FUBAR started in 2005. What’s the FUBAR concept?
I wouldn’t call us a club, and we’re a little bit more than a bar, so we’re that “in between” level. We’ve got a smaller scale than a lot of the other clubs in Fukuoka, so we have a friendly atmosphere. That’s what we try and aim for. The fact that we can’t hold as many customers gives us the opportunity to have more interaction with them, and I think that’s important. The customers enjoy it and it makes the staff’s job more fun. So FUBAR is more of a friendly club/exciting bar atmosphere.
It seems to me that you have many aspects of the bar quite systemised. Is that something that you started yourself or you’ve seen elsewhere? You have, for example, lots of clear promotions (nomihoudai times etc.) and so forth…
I think most places are quite systemised, everywhere has to have it’s rules, especially nowadays, with the police being a lot stricter. The rules provide a safe atmosphere. The nomihoudai was something we took over from the Happy Cock, and it’s one of those very Japanese things. You’d never find it in England or America, but it serves it’s purpose. It keeps people in the bar, and it’s a slightly cheaper alternative to other places in town. I think we get a lot of the younger crowd (people coming out to clubs for the first time etc.) because of these specials. In Fukuoka, for some reason, clubs have quite a dark and seedy image, which they haven’t managed to shake off for the last 10 years. I think that we’re welcoming to students who are turning 20, coming out for the first time. It’s a good stepping stone for that demographic to come into the nightlife scene.
Who are your customers?
We get a lot of the younger crowd- first time nightlife goers, and we get a lot of students. We still get quite a lot of foreigners, but not as many as when we first opened. The crowd we get here is not the main crowd you see in Fukuoka’s bars. I think we have a lot more regular, everyday people. Less of the Nakasu nightlife crowd.
How do you keep them coming back?
As I said, I think it’s the relationship between the staff and the customers. Because this relationship is so close, I think the kind of customers keep coming back for interaction. Elsewhere in town, you get a lot of people that just want to be seen – they don’t really care who the staff are, they just care that it’s busy.
The kind of customers we get at FUBAR are the type that like it if you remember their name or their face or what they drink. And when you get those customers together in a room, they usually make friends with each other. So I think it’s the interaction between the staff and the customers, but also between the customers themselves. You can come to FUBAR alone and pretty much guarantee you’ll see someone you’ve met before.
What if it’s your first time?
Usually if it’s your first time, you’ll come with someone, and they introduce you to everyone else. I try and make it a point that the staff introduce the customers to each other. The staff have their job to do, so if they can introduce the customers to each other, they’ll have a better chance to work!
What’s unique about your bar?
I would say it’s that interaction. A lot of the other places are too busy to do it. A lot of the customers who come here say “ We go to other bars and clubs but we don’t feel we know anyone, or they know us”. They like it, so they keep coming back. That atmosphere is FUBAR’S unique selling point.
As a foreigner what, if any, challenges have you faced as a bar owner?
Luckily in the bar business, there aren’t many restrictions that come with being a foreigner. I think being a bar owner or an English teacher are the only two industries in Japan that are very accessible to foreigners. Which is lucky for me.
So being a foreigner is an asset, perhaps?
Yeah. I mean a lot of people come in here wanting to practice their English a little bit, or wanting to meet a foreigner. So I would say it’s an asset to some degree.
The only problem I’ve run into is to do the police crackdowns of late. As a foreigner you don’t have as much access or knowledge to all the ins and outs of the law. Japanese owned bars have more access to information.
You recently changed the licence for your bar. Why?
That was purely down to the police. When you open a bar in Fukuoka, you know the law: your patrons are only allowed to dance ’til 1am. But in the 10 years since I’ve been in Fukuoka, the police have never really enforced that law. So it’s always been there, but only ever used by the police as a final straw. Then maybe a year and a half ago, the police starting clamping down – originally on Nishi-dori, and then they came over here to Oyafuko. They came in and said “Basically, you’re breaking the law. If you continue allowing the dancing til 5am, we’ll arrest you.” I want to obey the law, so we stopped our customers dancing for a period of three months, and then we changed the bar’s license.
Our patrons are now able to dance until 1am, and then after 1am we re-open as a restaurant – no dancing, no DJs.
In our case the changes have happened, but the problem with the police in Japan is that they don’t stick to their guns… they run with something for a while but they never see it to the end. So a couple of places have changed, some haven’t, and nothing seems to be moving on. A lot of places are changing back to the way it was before the clampdown. So it will be interesting to see what the police will do: whether they’ll clamp down again, or whether the whole industry will just go back to the way it was. I think either way, everyone should be on the same playing field.
How have these changes affected the bar, the customers and your business?
We lost a lot of customers because they couldn’t dance. Then when our license changed, a lot of those customers came back. I think the biggest change we had was that we picked up a lot of customers before the police came – people came over from Nishi-dori when the police first clamped down over there- and they weren’t our regular customers, so they were a bit louder and more boisterous. So even though our numbers have gone down now, I’d say the fact that we lost some of those customers is a good thing. Now we’re back to the customers and atmosphere that fits the FUBAR concept again.
Dancing has always been a big part of FUBAR. Now that your license has changed, are people starting to dance earlier?
Well we only changed the license maybe 2 months ago, so I still think the word’s getting out. Slowly but surely the customers that used to come are coming back. We’re doing a few promotions to help them come back. Hopefully by February people will be coming earlier – that’s the plan. At the moment, people start coming 10:00 or 10:30, but we’d like to get that to 9:00, 9:30.
How are things on Oyafuko these days?
A lot better than they were 4 years ago, but not as good as they were a year ago. I think the problem is that customers are really confused about what’s happening. There are places like FUBAR and Club X that are trying to obey the law and promote a new style of going out: to dance until 1am, then head to a bar or something. We actually did an event to promote that on Sunday, with FUBAR, Club X, Infinity, and some smaller bars. All participating bars actually closed at 1am, forcing the customers to go out to bars. So we’re promoting that pattern of nightlife. But there are still places that aren’t obeying the law, letting customers dance after 1am. It’s hard to explain these inconsistencies to customers.
How do see Oyafuko developing?
It seems a strange thing to say, but I think it needs the police to be stricter. If they came down and made everyone obey the same law, I think the nightlife would improve because the customers could go out, knowing that they’re obeying the law, and the club is obeying the law. Then, they could learn to start coming out earlier. If that system was put in place, I’d give it maybe 6 months to a year and I think all the clubs would be busy until 1am, and the bars would be busy after 1am. I think that’s what is needed to improve the nightlife here. Either that, or for things to go back the way they were. At the moment there’s a lot of tension between the different venues. Until now Fukuoka was one of the only places in Japan where the clubs are pretty friendly and on good relations with each other. That makes the job a lot more interesting and gives the opportunity to make more events.
What are your favorite events at Fubar?
I always like the fancy dress ones. It’s in the Japanese nature to like dressing up and being wacky occasionally. I love Halloween- it’s always a great party. We’ve also done masquerade nights, school uniform nights… those events are fun, they’re different.
Any advice for other foreigners interested in opening a bar in Japan?
I would say you need to get to know the industry in your city, and the people that are going out in your city, before you open anywhere. It’s very hard to just walk into a city and open up. You need to have a slight following or have a group of friends that are there to help and support you. In Japan it’s more about the customer service than the place you have. Unless you’re opening a multi-million dollar, huge place in tokyo. If you’re in a city the size of Fukuoka it’s more about the staff, the people you’re working with and the people they know. If you’ve got that base behind you, and you’re friendly and amicable, it helps. It pays to meet people, other bartenders, bar staff.
What’s the most rewarding thing about running the bar?
I think it’s the fact that you’ve got customers coming back week-in, week-out, month-in, month-out, year-in, year-out. And over time they become your friends. And things like customers who have met each other at FUBAR ending up getting married. Staff getting married to customers… stuff like that is quite rewarding.
What are your hours?
At the moment I’m trying to cut back on my hours. I used to be here everyday, open to close. Now I stay on the bar from when we open to close on weekends. Weekdays I come in 11~2. I’m trying to find someone a little bit younger to put behind the bar.
I’ve always been impressed that you’re a bar owner that’s behind the bar…
Yeah, that’s the reason I opened this place. Because I love working behind the bar. You get to interact with so many different people. I still enjoy it but I think there’s other things and projects I’d like to do. So I want to try and cut back a little.
If you weren’t running FUBAR what would like to be doing?
If I’d have stayed in England, I’d probably be working at a bank, or a foreign investor’s office or something. That’s what all my friends from University and my class are doing. So I’d probably be doing the same thing. If I was in Japan and I wasn’t in FUBAR I think I’d either be working in a bar, or being an English teacher and working in a bar.
Any ideas for a new venture?
I’d like to open up a slightly bigger place. And I’d like to also open up like a sports pub, but I’m sort of contemplating which to do first. The bar would be slightly different concept, as the industry in Fukuoka is very two sided: the “events” side and the “regular” side. The regular side seems to be based on hip hop music. Which has been so popular in Fukuoka for so long. And then the events side seems to be based on house music, and electric music and stuff like that. So what I’d like to do is open up a club with maybe two sides – so for the one fee you can get both sides. Up until now I don’t think there’s been a club with that system so that’s why I’d like to try it. You need 2 dancefloors, 2 bars…but that’s what I’d like to do. And I think people would accept it more than they would have four years ago.
What’s the capacity of FUBAR?
I’d say maybe 120~130. On our busiest night we did 470, in and out. But at one time, maybe 120.
How many staff on your roster?
Maybe, including myself, eight staff. And 6 or 7 DJS.
If people mention they read this interview – any special deal at the bar?
I would love to do a special, that’s what FUBAR is famous for. Anyone who mentions they read this article can have their first drink for half price or a free shot on weekends (one per person until Feb. 28).
Anything else you’d like readers to know about yourself, the bar, Fukuoka?
I think Fukuoka hasn’t got managed to get rid of the idea that clubs are a little scary. I’d like people to know that you should come, check us out, check all the other bars out. Everywhere is pretty friendly. Of course you get the occasional troublemaker, but you should be courageous and come check out a bar or a club. I can pretty much guarantee people will have a good time. Just give it a try.
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn170, Feb. 2013)