Spotlight: The Real Story of Brussels Cafe Icon David Wilmots in Wuhan

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Who’s the man behind the iconic beard, stirring up Wuhan with his fantastic twin-bars and Aids Charity events?

Please meet David Wilmots, the owner of the “Outstanding Bar of the Year”, one of the oldest and most notable expats who made their way in Wuhan running a business and a Charity.

On Wednesday, January 25th 2017, David welcomed Wuhan Social’s team into his lovely home and shared this remarkable story with us.

David in a recent photo at his family’s farm in his hometown.

Once upon a time, a village farmer’s son from Belgium, left his farm- and homeland for higher studies and an adventure in the wide open world. The humble man with the beard is now owner of two of the most popular bars in Wuhan, Brussels Beer Garden and Atomium.

David Wilmots in grade school.

“You don’t discover the world by travelling alone”

Chief Nurse David Wilmots

It all began with a bachelor study in nursing. David’s purpose was to get in to development work in Africa or South America, just like many young Belgian doctors and nurses would do to gain experience. “You don’t discover the world by travelling alone” David had said. Hard work, enthusiasm and a few dozen applications for development jobs had failed to deliver the result he was hoping for. And then, six months later, instead of getting a job in Africa David was offered a development job in China that would change his life completely.

David, top left, in matching blue jeans and jacket, poses with his nursing class in a university photo.

‘Hubei, Wuhan’ was written in big letters on the offer letter from the Belgian Government. Wuhan? Rice fields? David had no idea about China, neither had access to computers or the internet. At the provincial library only the Encyclopedia had provided some basic information on Wuhan, like the “Yellow Crane Tower”, the “Wuhan Yangtze Great Bridge” and so on. Nonetheless, David got on a plane to China and landed in Wuhan on September the 12th 2000 where he would set up a nurse training center for the head nurses of Hubei Province as well as teach communication skills for nurses and “An introduction to Belgian health system”, all with the help of international as well as local medical experts.

At the provincial library only the Encyclopedia had provided some basic information on Wuhan, like the “Yellow Crane Tower”

The first six months were hard for David not knowing anything about China and being accommodated in old and noisy dormitories, but soon he would fall in love with Wuhan and its local food, “So ridiculously cheap it was”.

The program ran for four years, and included an additional Aids-awareness program with funding from the UN. It was the time that David got in contact with Professor Gui Xi’en, a specialist in Aids prevention and treatment – A collaboration that would lead to the launching of the Aids Charity program years later.

So, after four years of development service, David left China on June 28th 2004 and returned to Belgium. “I didn’t like staying in Belgium anymore” David shared with us, and soon began searching for new job opportunities in Wuhan.

“I didn’t like staying in Belgium anymore”

Cafe Brussels 1

The first Cafe Brussels in Wuhan, 2006.

David had worked part-time in bars and restaurants during his studies in Belgium, and had silently been dreaming about opening his own one day. After talking to Toure, former owner of the legendary Blue-Sky Café, David began working on a business plan for his dream bar and restaurant in Wuhan. On October 12th 2004, David flew back in to Wuhan and immediately began searching for locations, while processing his business license. The result was “Café Brussels” located in front of a church, following a Belgian tradition, on Tianjin Lu (天津路) in the heart of Old Hankou. The opening was on June 8th, 2005.

 “Café Brussels” located in front of a church, following a Belgian tradition

Café Brussels was actually more restaurant than bar, but unfortunately and after only four months of success, David was being told that the place had to be demolished because of the construction of the car tunnel linking Hankou and Wuchang. David then successfully fought with help from customers and friends for getting an unlikely compensation for his loss of investment.  The first Café Brussels had to close on January 3rd 2007.

Cafe Brussels 2

Cafe Brussels #2 in the heart of old Hankou historic district.

Three months after closing “Brussels 1”, David opened “Brussels 2”, only a few streets away on Shengli Jie (胜利街) in a historic and highly attractive building. David’s dream was still alive and kicking.

“Cafe Brussels” was a meeting place for people from all over the world, with a huge and cozy dining room and a varied menu.

Large dining room on the first floor of Cafe Brussels #2

Old customers, mostly foreigners, easily found their way to the new Brussels bar and restaurant, although more customers were needed as David was facing higher costs. The new customers, local Chinese with a living-abroad-experience, would flock to Brussels Café with their friends for fine Belgian and French dining. The specialties of “Café Brussels” were the mussel dishes as well as the Belgian beer beef stew.

The business was performing well and Brussels Café had become a “place to be”

Outdoor seating area and terrace at Cafe Brussels #2

The business was performing well and Brussels Café had become a “place to be”, but still David was faced with challenges. In 2008 Wuhan was hit hard by the winter lockdown, coinciding with the world financial crisis seeing a lot of expats fleeing Wuhan.

“I was eating ‘re gan mian’ for lunch and dinner while selling more than a hundred steaks a day.”

Things got tough for some time, even experiencing financial struggles. “I was eating ‘re gan mian’ for lunch and dinner while selling more than a hundred steaks a day.”

And then, in a bold move, David decided to close Café Brussels. It was during Easter 2010 holiday and at the time that his parents were visiting Wuhan so David had no other choice then to bring the bad news to his parents. “I remember my mother crying and begging me to come back to Belgium”.

“Come home, why are you so stubborn”

But David believed in his dream, knowing that Wuhan would continue to provide opportunities for a western-style bar and restaurant.

Brussels Beer Garden

Still holding tight to his dream and with no time to lose, David opened the next “Brussels” merely one month later. The new location on Xibei Hu Lu (西北湖路), right beneath the Blue-Sky Café, was small and cozy and easier to manage.

This one is the actual “Brussels beer garden” very famous among Wuhan’s expat community.

Newly opened Brussels Beer Garden at Xibeihu Lake.

Six months later, business was going well and “Brussels Beer Garden” had become the first and ‘biggest’ bar in the Xibei lakeside providing authentic Belgian Craft Beers and a small but excellent food menu. In the following years, expats as well as Chinese were flocking to Brussels Beer Garden, enjoying the best views of XiBei lake from the terrace of 150 seats.

Lakeside terrace seating for up to 150 persons.

Atomium

“Brussels” was getting too small to contain all the customers, so David decided to open the “Atomium” in 2013. His customers called him crazy as David had just become the competitor of himself. He had opened the Atomium two doors away from Brussels, with a different concept and a different type of customers. Success followed instantly, especially because of the enlarged terrace.

“MY CUSTOMERS CALLED ME CRAZY AS I HAD BECOME
THE COMPETITOR OF MYSELF”

Running his business happily, David got surprised when he saw a notice on October 2015 that all the terraces on Xibei Lakeside would be closed down. It terrified David. The terrace area is now filled with flower pots still the business is performing excellent, even with a cutback on the sitting space.

New plant boxes moves into the walkway to prevent overcrowding on the terrace.

“I was thinking that it would be the death of Brussels”

Being the first one on the Xibei Lakeside to run a successful and popular bar, where all types of customers could gather and spend quality time, “Brussels Beer Garden” has become an institution in Wuhan. Frequented by expats from all over the world, high and middle class chinese locals as well as students have chosen “Brussels Beer Garden” as the place to be.

“You lose some customers but you also gain some too!”

Despite ups and downs, Brussels has remained to be one of the best bars in Wuhan. The arrival of competitors in the XiBei lake area has even strengthened Brussels Beer Garden’s reputation of a bar where you can find authentic and original drinks in a friendly and cozy environment.

Q/A Session

Wuhan Social: What is your biggest regret in the last 15 years running Brussels?

David: The most painful one is without doubt the first person you have to fire. Ohhh that’s painful! I am a nurse, I help people, but usually don’t fire people!

Wuhan Social: It must have been a difficult decision to close the Cafe Brussels 2. At what point did you realize that it was going to happen?

David: When I decided to close the second Brussels, I did not want to take the risk to go on after struggling two consecutive winters, nor end at a point where I would not be able to pay my suppliers or staff. Also, as a farmer’s son, my father has always told me, “Keep your accounts clean”, “Do not buy anything you cannot afford”, and I saw it was getting close to that kind of situation, so I had to make the tough but wise decision. However, giving up was never in my mind and I believed from day one that I could succeed and there was a good market, so I snatched the next occasion with my last financial reserves and moved to where we are now – Brussels Beer Garden.

Wuhan Social: What were the toughest times as a foreigner running a successful and long-lasting business in China?

David: The first strike my staff went on in the Summer of 2009 due to new employments’ regulations that took me by surprise. I was not aware of any wrongdoing as I always make sure that my staff is happy. That day, I ran the bar myself with the help of some customers but fortunately it was not a busy weekend. Later on, the mistake was corrected and everything was handled with the best conditions.

That was one of my most shocking moments, especially with a staff you thought would stand behind you no matter what would happen.

Another time; I forgot to renew my work permit for about three weeks, and once I got to the visa office, I experienced one hour speech about how irresponsible I was and how my employees could become jobless because of my mistake which could lead to the closing down of my business.

Also, when I was running the first Brussels, some Chinese guys came into my place with their own water and messed up the place with “sunflower seeds” and the local police could not help because nothing illegal had been done. One week later, on a very hot Sunday morning, I then found the air-conditioner pipes cut. This was the time I called in the help of a good friend as well as of the local police, and we all got it fixed.

Wuhan Social: How do you manage your business relations, working with different partners?

David: The two first Brussels were opened as a WFOE (Wholly Foreign Owned Enterprise) where my partner was an investor (The Blue-Sky Café owner), he was not involved in any managerial decisions. But as a foreign business in China, every single step of your business is inspected thoroughly and you should seriously follow all relevant laws and regulations in China. As of now, I am in a joint-venture with a Chinese partner, the audits and inspections do not take more than one week compared to the time my business was registered as a WFOE, when my books could go for three weeks of inspection.

Having an experienced foreign partner from the very beginning helped guide my business in Wuhan thanks to his longer and broader experience in China. On the other hand, my current Chinese business partner, who was then my waiter from twelve years ago, makes it easier to manage the business and makes things go smoothly with a loyal team behind me.

Wuhan Social: Is it worth it to open a bar? How is the life of a bar owner? Is it difficult to retire?

David: The life of a bar owner is very hard but fortunately, I have a very hard-working and comprehensive wife from the Philippines, who is supportive to my business even though we do not spend much time together due to our different work schedules. I can tell it is difficult for both of us but we manage to come back to each other sometimes and live our relationships as normally as possible.

Newly married David and his Wife.

Wuhan Social: Are you an alcoholic?

David: I thank God, I do not suffer from any health problems, but I am not the same as before, for instance, I stopped drinking hard liquor like Whisky which makes me question myself quite often “Am I an alcoholic?” and I still think I am not, even though medically wise I am.

Wuhan Social: When do you plan to retire? How many million do you need in the bank?

David: I think about retiring in the near future although I do not know exactly when, because it will be a joint-decision with my wife who is a hard worker and I have to accompany her into her own successful journey.

My retirement plan is to open a Bed and Breakfast facing the sea somewhere in the Philippines where my wife is from, even though I do not have millions at the bank…

Wuhan Social: Tell us more about your redecoration project for Brussels.

David: I cannot say much but great changes are coming, so to all my customers stay tuned and get ready because something big and different is coming soon.

Wuhan Social: About your charity work, what is it? Who are you helping? How successful it is? What are your motives?

David: As a former nurse, running a business in Wuhan, I told myself “What can I do?” that would be constructive for the city. Helping people has always been something I like. I took part in the 1991 rescue operation after the Chernobyl disaster in Kiev as well as the demolition of the “Berlin Wall”.

David breaking the Berlin Wall with a hammer in 1989.
A photo of David taken in Ukraine as volunteer worker for Children of Chernobyl disaster.

As I was working with AIDS patients when I was in Belgium as well as in China, I met a very humble Professor during my development work in China and since 2008, we have been working on a charity project.

The charity consists of helping orphans in Hubei Province, those who lost one of their parents from AIDS. We are helping them by collecting money from different sources and activities, that could help them to reimburse their school fees and help them until they finish their studies. Since, we have helped 170 orphans, and sometimes we organize “meet and greet” activities to spend time with them and the fact of seeing the gratefulness of their acts just encourage me to do more.

Aids charity donations collected in 2015.

Wuhan Social: Some words for those who are willing to open a business in Wuhan but still not convinced?

David: Many people can have wonderful ideas sometimes but they choose the totally wrong location where there is no potential customer to help you push your new business because for surviving you need cash to pay your bills as well as your staff. Also, calculate very well your costs and keep your accounts clean to be able run your business properly.

Preparation, preparation, preparation on every aspect but if you have a real dream, go ahead!

Edited by: Luc Pauwels
Pictures provided by: David Wilmots

 

 

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Aissatou Dieng SARR
Young girl, from Senegal West Africa. Currently studying a Master of Business Administration in Central China Normal University. I love reading, discovering,meeting new people and always ready to help. Favorite quote: Always challenge yourself