Coronavirus leads Indian expat to finally realise his dream and open bar in Prague
Coronavirus leads Indian expat to finally realise his dream and open bar in Prague
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The popularity of Prague’s historic centre among tourists has left it dotted with various bars, restaurants and clubs. Many of these businesses are still struggling after the coronavirus pandemic substantially cut travel to the Czech capital. But for one Indian IT businessman, COVID-19 served as a signal to finally realise his dream and he has now opened a new cocktail bar in the heart of Prague’s Old Town.
Beyond the Bar is a new bar that has opened up on Prague’s Liliová Street. Situated between the Medieval Bethlehem Chapel, where Jan Hus famously preached Hussite religious reforms, and Karlovy Lázně, a multi-story club complex that offers partygoers anything from sub-zero temperature bars to retro dancefloors, you’d think it’s in the perfect location for any tourist making his way through the historic centre during the night.
“One of the things that happened when this coronavirus pandemic appeared is that I thought to myself: ‘What if I die without doing something interesting?’ I told myself that it is time to open a bar.”
But this is no longer a certainty in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, which has left both the Czech capital’s tourism and gastronomy sectors struggling after tourist numbers plummeted and lockdown rules forced food and drink outlets to become partly dependent on delivery services. Even now, with Prague largely reopened, things have not returned back to normal. Travel restrictions are still in place for many countries and the Czech government has warned that it expects another COVID-19 epidemic wave to start this autumn.
Despite these new realities, for Harsha Kiran Gubidandi, an Indian from Hyderabad, the coronavirus served as an impetus rather than a deterrent.
“It may seem funny in retrospect, but one of the things that happened when this coronavirus pandemic appeared is that I thought to myself: ‘What if I die without doing something interesting?’ I told myself that it is time to open a bar.”
A quick look at Harsha’s CV would not suggest that the 34-year-old, who moved to the Czech Republic with his Slovak wife four years ago, has been dreaming of starting a bar for a long time. Growing up in the HITECH industry capital of Southern India, Harsha says he was fascinated by the art of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) from an early age and would spend 12 to 13 hours a day working on his SEO business after finishing college. But this fascination eventually became too time consuming and so he decided that he needed to travel.
“At some point you just call quits on it. It became too stressful. Or perhaps, rather than stressful, I’d say I got this feeling that I had been doing nothing for years, just focusing on solving some aspect of SEO or something.
“Also, I like the history of World War II very much, so I wanted to go to Volgograd – the former city of Stalingrad – and study Russian (laughs).“
The problem, Hersha says, is that his Indian passport did not provide him with many travel options.
“I like the history of World War II very much, so I wanted to go to Volgograd – the former city of Stalingrad – and study Russian.”
“Today it is OK, but visas were extremely difficult to get for us Indians back then when I started 12 years ago. It was impossible to get. It was such a mess. In any case, I did apply for a Russian visa and managed to get everything sorted in three months, my permission to study there, etc. But then one of my friends went to Vietnam and asked me if I wanted to come as well. I thought I’d make use of the three month waiting period to take a trip there and then come back. But I never came back (laughs).”
With his search engine optimisation business unrestricted by borders, Hersha was able to settle in Vietnam and it was in Indochina that he would also meet his future Slovak wife.
“I met her about a year after I arrived in Vietnam. She also quit her job and did backpacking around Asia and Africa. I think she started in India, but, in any case, I think she met me towards the end of her trip in Vietnam.
“We both went our own ways after that, but eventually we ended up traveling together for about three or four years around Asia and for about six months in Africa. Within this time period we lived in Bali for three years. Eventually, we ended up getting married in India and Slovak people only trust Czech or Slovak healthcare, so here I am (laughs).”
A wife and child may have brought Hersha to Prague, but it was his experiences as a traveller that first sparked the idea of becoming a bar owner.
“I had wanted to set up a bar for a very long time, from the day I started traveling in fact. I remember, during my travels, I came across a couple from Finland in Cambodia who had their own bar and lived there.
“I actually tried setting up a bar in India once, but the country was plagued by chronic corruption. Now it is OK, but back then it was really tough. They issue alcohol licenses for the bar and there is only a limited number of these. For example, you cannot open a bar if it is within a kilometre distance from a temple or a school. It is therefore difficult to find a spot and once you do find it, the issue becomes that reservations are based on the cast system. That was a measure put in place to help lower cast people, but eventually it gets bought by higher cast people or lower cast people…basically it’s a huge mess. So I decided not to open a bar in India.
“Eventually, we ended up getting married in India and Slovak people only trust Czech or Slovak healthcare, so here I am.”
“Then, after doing the initial research, I tried opening it in Cambodia. However, I was still relatively new to business and didn’t have much money or time. I also wanted to do some more travelling, so I could not make it happen.”
The plan was put on hold for several years and only reinvigorated by the lockdown induced introspection last year. Significantly more experienced as a business owner by now, Harsha says he followed the mantra of “let the experts do the job” and got himself some consultants. He was able to draw on the experiences of Lukáš Magera, the owner of the popular CO.DE café in Prague’s Žižkov district, and the Czech Republic’s Diageo World Class 2019 barman championship winner Tomáš Nyari, who helped him with establishing the concept of the bar and hiring the necessary staff.
The team that Harsha eventually brought together features another Diageo World Class finalist – Matej Brunovský – who made a particular impression on the competition’s jury with his focus on form and visual presentation.
“He is from Slovakia and is the guy responsible for the whole drinks menu and the glasses we use. We have got phenomenal feedback in those areas.
“Our second barman is Jan (Kalianko). He is Czech and has experience in fine dining and bartending from all around the world. Then we also have Lukáš (Matulík) behind the bar. All three of them are great and I have tasted all of their cocktails. I think that Matej is much more technical. Lukáš is from Slovakia and has a lot of experience in graphic design and photography. He improved our bar a lot and created our video.”
The bar currently offers eight signature cocktails, with much attention also placed on each drink’s visual appearance. The most popular one is currently Banana Banger which features an exotic banana-basement mixed with rum and tonic.
“I would say that at least 30 to 35 percent are Czech speakers and the rest are foreign tourists. We also have some pretty good luck with tourists. There was one who visited the bar for three days straight.”
The special focus placed on staff and style – all the way down to the fashionable leather sleeve gaiters that Beyond the Bar’s staff wear – seems to have paid off. The bar has now been open for three months and currently has over 50 reviews on google, all of them giving five stars. The patrons, he says, are a mix of locals and foreigners.
“I would say that at least 30 to 35 percent are Czech speakers and the rest are foreign tourists.”
“There are some Czechs and Slovaks who are returning customers. We also have some pretty good luck with tourists. There was one who visited the bar for three days straight (laughs).”
But despite the positive reviews, the owner says he is still waiting for the business to take off properly.
“I think that it’s a farfetched start if you are in this business for money right now.”
“I have to say that I was a bit more optimistic than what the situation is right now. We certainly thought that we would get more customers. I think the industry has been hit hard. It is really hard to make money here. Mine is a slightly different story, because I am able to leverage my other (SEO) business to sustain this one. But I think that it’s a farfetched start if you are in this business for money right now.”
Asked about any tips he would give to other prospective bar owners, he says that the key is to stick to a detailed business plan and not leave things to chance.
Nevertheless, as the name itself indicates, Beyond the Bar was not just founded as a business, but also as a tribute to Harsha’s travelling days and the opportunity to meet people that it offers. One day, he says, his parents might visit him in Prague and have a cocktail there too.