Joel Fraser: The man behind The Cufflink Club

Quitting school may be the best decision that Brit bartender-businessman Joel Fraser has made. He has boozed with the Beckhams, spent $100,000 backpacking around the world for two years, and just opened his second cocktail joint here


The Moneymaker:
JOEL FRASER, 31, the main man at hip watering hole The Cufflink Club and Latin American cocktail bar Vasco. He recently pumped in $500,000 to set up the latter with former Esquina executive chef Andrew Walsh and “my amazing No.2 at The Cufflink Club” Christian Hartman. The idea for the Latin American bar was inspired by a trip to the World Cup finals in Brazil last year. “We were drinking caipirinhas and eating Brazilian food in Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro and thought it was the right time to open a second venue. I love the Latin lifestyle — there’s a real lust for party and fun,” says Joel, who was backpacking around the world for two years when he ended up as head bartender at acclaimed bar Der Raum in Melbourne. He moved to Singapore six years ago to join The Tippling Club as a bar consultant, and set up The Cufflink Club in 2012 “with no money”. He roped in 10 investors to cover the $500,000 capital. “Bartenders don’t typically get paid well,” he quips.

HOME IS: A three-bedroom Cantonment Rd condo where he lives alone — mostly. “My girlfriend is a law student and lives in Paris so we both commute back and forth — we see each other once a month.”

HIS RIDE IS: Uber rides, and “I walk to and from work. But if I’m going to Marina Bay Sands for dinner, you can get a really nice Merc E Class Uber ride for around $12. It’s convenient ’cos it’s cashless, and the car is always clean.”

WHAT’S IN HIS WALLET: Stashed in this Braun Buffel money clip is a condo keycard, employment pass, an ATM card, a credit card, “my lucky US$1 note” and cash. “I took out $1,000 cash two days ago and now I’m left with $30. It was a big weekend with a couple of big lunches.”

8 DAYS: How did you get started in the bar industry?
JOEL FRASER: I started out at 16 as a glass collector in a bar. Later on, I started working in a member’s bar in a really cool part of north of England and was making some good money. During my time there, I met the Beckhams, Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, Jimmy Choo, and Hulk Hogan. People would tip about $15 per round. At that time, I was studying art in university but I didn’t complete my degree. In fact, I quit after four days. I thought, “I’m gonna be a millionaire being a bartender instead.” When you’re 20, it’s easy to get caught up in this lifestyle where the footballers know your name and you’re drinking champagne and doing shots with them. I ended up saving up about $100,000 in a year, and travelled the world for two years.

Which celeb is most generous with tips?
Ex-Everton player Marcus Bent was probably the most generous — he just didn’t know it. (Laughs) He had a running tab that he’d settle at the end of the month. I was a bit cheeky then, so I put all the drinks that I drank and all the drinks I bought for girls on his tab. It could come up to up to £4,000 (S$8,452) and he’d pay, no questions asked. (Laughs) The single biggest tip I’ve received, however, is over £100, for sure, but I don’t remember who it’s from.

Some studies show that bar owners turn up the music so people drink more. True or false?
False. You read your audience. If it’s 6pm and people have just come from work and you crank up the music, you’re ahead of your time. They will leave. To get people to drink is never on our agenda. Service is still the key to [keeping customers happy], and that goes from being friendly on arrival to being attentive when they’re finishing a drink. Being in the bar industry, you have to have a certain energy and can’t be shy. Young bartenders today should be reading the papers so that later in the evening, if they hear two guys talking about a deficit, they can be like, “I just read this.” People don’t want to come to a bar and get a lecture about the distillation process of a Scottish whiskey. They love to have conversations about world events, sports, cars, and whatever it is that the general public is into.

What’s been your most expensive life lesson so far?
You have to say $100,000 to go travelling is an expensive lesson. It teaches you to let go of being precious. You haven’t showered for two days, and you’re checking in to a room without air-con and there’s a cockroach on the pillow. You say, “Okay, great.” And move on the next day. Those lessons you bring with you when you’re at work. If there’s a wet coaster that should’ve been changed, you learn to let it go. There are bigger things to worry about. A wet coaster isn’t the end of the world.

Having lived in Singapore for six years, what do you think is the best thing you can buy here for under $5?
What I love more than anything are the juice stands at the hawker centres. You can get fresh strawberries, mango, or orange juice for just $2.40. In England, fresh juices are about £10. There’s a coffeeshop on the corner of Neil Road and Keong Saik Road where I get my juices every day. I have a running tab and pay them at the end of the month. It usually comes up to about $100 a month.

How much do you give to the aunties and uncles selling tissue paper around Tanjong Pagar, where Cufflink Club is at?
(Chuckles) I’ve had a love-hate relationship with them for a while now. We used to have one come around Cufflink Club. His name is David and he's unbelievably respectful. He’d say, “Joel boss, can I come and sell to your customers [hanging around outside Cufflink Club]? I always used to joke that they should be paying me 10 per cent of what they make since I pay the rent and bring in the crowd. There are also a couple of cheeky ones – no matter how many times you tell them not to come into the bar, [they still do]. The reason we do that is a bit capitalist and sort of psychotic, but at Cufflink Club, we spend a lot of time teaching the staff the psychology of service, like when it’s okay to interrupt customers. They may have an empty drink but they may be so engaged in a conversation that if you interrupt, there’s a negative effect. Sometimes, these uncles and aunties are interrupting this thing we’re doing. But I think the standard rate for the tissue paper is $2 for as many packets as they want to give — it could be one or 60.

How much did you spend today?
About $800. $400 on towels and sunglasses from Takashimaya, $65 on a sushi lunch, $8 on a pen refill, $300 on dinner at Osteria Art with my girlfriend, $9 on coffee from Ronin and $15 on two Uber rides.

What’s the most you’ve paid for a drink?
$5,000 for a bottle of 1952 Billecart-Salmon Champagne. It was a magnum bottle and four of us shared it. It’s champagne that’s been in the bottle for 52 years – that’s as old as my dad! It was quite exceptional. I make my money in food and drink, so I spend my money in food and drink as well.

What was the occasion?
It was Tuesday.

Vasco is at 42 Hongkong St. The Cufflink Club is at 6 Jiak Chuan Rd. 

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