Bar owner takes on prejudices

Lured by the prospect of running her own restaurant, Ma Hnin Yee Tun Win sold all her belongings in Australia and flew back to her native homeland during Myanmar’s democratic transition in August 2015.

“I returned mainly to do business. I planned to do it for two years and, if unsuccessful, go back to Australia,” said Ma Hnin Yee Tun Win, the owner of Father’s Office restaurant and bar on Bo Aung Kyaw Street in Yangon.

Having grown up and learned to be a chef in Australia, she decided to go into the restaurant business in her native Myanmar because capital investment is ten times cheaper here than in Australia.

Although she planned at first to open a restaurant, she opted instead to start a bar, as socialising in Yangon centres more around beer than around cocktails or wine.

However, her dreams were waylaid by challenges at the beginning. “Everything I had learned about equality in Australia was the opposite in Myanmar.”

The most terrible difficulty she encountered was Myanmar people’s conservative views of a woman operating a bar.

“I was told that a woman shouldn’t open a beer shop, especially a Buddhist woman. That hurt me,” Ma Hnin Yee Tun Win said.

What’s in a name?

After more than a month of searching downtown, she found a place in the middle block of Bo Aung Kyaw street, opposite the historic Ministers’ Building, or Secretariat.

While trying to think of a name for the bar, she remembered that General Aung San – the father of Myanmar leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – was called the “Father of the Nation.” As her bar was located across from the former offices of the national hero, she decided to call it Father’s Office.

The name has generated interest among people and helped her business grow, she said.

Still, she has had to put a lot of effort into making the bar successful.

Middle-aged local customers who visited Father’s Office were very judgmental and condescending when they learned that the owner was a woman.

“I deflected their criticism by drinking three glasses of beer. If four or five glasses, I’m OK,” she said, laughing.

Despite a desire to expand the business, such criticism and conservative views discouraged her from pursuing more opportunities at first. However, she has learned to ignore most criticism with the encouragement of her mother and friends.

Women who start a business that breaks with society’s expectations need to concentrate on their work and stop worrying about criticism, she said.

She has employed more female staff to ease the criticism and consoles herself with the thought that she is doing this for the next generation of women and the criticism will disappear one day.

“Some things cannot be changed instantly, but somebody must pave the way. The important thing is not to care about others’ words,” she said. Today, her business has been in operation for over three years and continues to draw tourists as well as a loyal local following.

Slowing economy

However, due to the opening up of the nation’s economy, competition has become more intense in the food and beverage industry. This has affected her bar, and she has lost some regular customers over the years.

More recently the Myanmar economy has begun to slow, which has made it more difficult to find new customers, so she has adopted marketing measures to avoid the fate of bars that have closed. As such, Father’s Office emphasises its customer service and quality food.

Despite these efforts and because of the economy, the bar has suffered staggering losses some months and had made only a little profit in others.

It is impossible to depend solely on the bar to make a living, so she has had to do other businesses. Using her cooking skills, she caters functions at offices, schools and for other groups. Sometimes she has to use the earnings from this side business to offset losses at the bar.

Considering the current economy, it’s hard to predict the exchange rate of the dollar, which makes it harder to estimate how much profit or loss we will make, she said.

“In mid-2018, we couldn’t manage to stay afloat at all, and we had to get help, but I console myself with the thought that I’m not alone,” Ma Hnin Yee Tun Win said.

Sometimes she cannot decide whether to sell the bar or to look for more investors so it can continue.

“I hope business will be looking up a bit in coming years. Without that hope, it would be just too hard to continue running the business,” she said.

Across the street, the Ministers’ Building is undergoing renovation, which she hopes will bring in more customers for the bar after its completion.

More importantly, she hopes that more Myanmar women will run bars in the future.


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