Catching up with Jay Khan, the founder behind COA and The Savory Project

From consultant to bar owner, COA co-founder Jay Khan has over 17 years of experience in the F&B industry.

The vibrant and bustling nightlife of bars and clubs that the area of Soho, Hong Kong, has to offer is usually busy or simply packed most days with a mix of tourists, locals and expats. In the neighborhood, you’ll find COA, a Mexican-inspired cocktail bar that has brought a unique concept to the city by specializing in agave spirits. COA offers up the unique flavors of Mexico, from tequila to mezcal to Charanda, and it won Asia’s No. 1 bar in 2021 and 2022. Beyond Asia, it ranked No. 7 among the world’s 50 best bars in 2021 and continues to be a favorite among Hong Kongers. 

From consultant to bar owner, COA co-founder Jay Khan has over 17 years of experience in the F&B industry. Born and raised in Hong Kong but coming from a Pakistani background, he learned to speak Cantonese by hanging out with local kids in the neighborhood growing up. It was later, through his travels in Mexico, that he found his love and respect for agave spirits. TMS has previously interviewed Khan about his journey introducing Hong Kong to agave spirits, but we decided to catch up with him again to chat more about his projects and new ventures – a second COA location and The Savory Project

It’s all about the agave

COA Hong Kong
Source: Jay Khan/COA

Khan began working in a restaurant as a waiter and later as a bartender because he needed a job. But, he gradually developed a love for the F&B industry, especially the creativity involved in making drinks. "The most enjoyable part for me was the people aspect – meeting people, getting to know people from all around the world,” says Khan. 

On a trip to Mexico back in 2015, he found a passion for agave spirits. Although the first trip was casual, he was enticed to go back and see the process of how these spirits are made. “It was amazing, super labor-intensive. The people involved, they were very passionate. In the end, I mean, it was like a labor of love,” Khan says enthusiastically. He then made a few more trips back and forth to Mexico and told himself if he ever had the opportunity to open his own bar, he would. “I want to bring a piece of that experience to Hong Kong,” Khan thought at the time.

For those unsure what an agave spirit is, Khan is happy to explain. “When we talk about agave spirits, it's just like wine,” he says. “When we talk about wine, we talk about the soil, the climate, the varietal, the people. Agave spirits, they're the same. It's just in spirit form.”

COA Hong Kong
Source: Jay Khan/COA

There has often been a conception about agave spirits like tequila and mezcal that they’re solely a party drink, that “it's not something you would sip and savor,” Khan says. “So we wanted to change that perspective. That's why we opened COA.” He launched the concept back in 2017 with his co-founder, and they found themselves struggling over the first year and a half because of that misconception. But after some time of inviting people in and word of mouth getting around, they finally saw a profit. From there, it was onwards and upwards.

“We saw that there is potential and it’s just going to take time for people to understand what we’re trying to do. It was a very organic process,” Khan says.

Bartending as a Muslim

COA Hong Kong
Source: Jay Khan/COA

Despite being born in Hong Kong and speaking the local language, Khan’s ethnic roots go back to Pakistan, and he was raised as a Muslim. But in Islam, alcohol is forbidden. Khan shared with us the journey he’s been on as a Muslim bartender and mixologist.

Although Khan’s family is very religious, from his teenage years, he didn’t take religion as seriously and chose to focus on his career instead, even going 15 years without praying. But as he got older and COVID hit, Khan found himself looking inward, and his interest in Islam peaked.

“It (COVID) paused our lives, so we were reflecting on something like why we’re here, what we’re doing, you know? Is this it? Are we born just to work and have fun?” Khan remembers. “So a lot of that made me sort of ponder and think, ‘Why are we here?,’ and then I started looking back at faith.” 

After many years in the F&B industry and living in Hong Kong, where the drinking culture is big, Khan found it difficult to say no to people when it came to having a drink. While he isn’t much of a drinker now for different reasons, such as how it depletes his motivation to be active (he’s an avid runner), this doesn’t impact his passion for agave spirits. 

“A lot of my peers in the industry know I don't drink so they don't actually even offer me [alcohol]  when I go out anymore. They would offer me water or soda water, which is nice. I think this industry is all about giving hospitality not about just giving alcohol. You need to understand your guests, right? So, the same thing, I feel like we have so many guys that come to us that now became our friends and actually don’t drink.” 

Getting to know you

COA Hong Kong
Source: Jay Khan/COA

For Khan and many others, a bar is about more than just drinking. It’s also about the interior, the atmosphere and most importantly, the people. Khan wants COA to be the kind of bar where friends can come and hang out, have alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks, and simply have a good time. 

So, what makes a good bar? According to Khan, it’s all about the sound. “People moving around, the bartenders shaking cocktails, people talking here and there.” COA has clearly got the vibe down, and it’s largely because of the people, the guests and the staff. They make sure “guests were happy leaving the bar … taking care of them, and the service is a big part of what we do,” Khan explains. 

On the other hand, Khan recognizes that keeping a talented team under his belt is essential to running COA. One of the key factors for Khan was to put himself in the shoes of his staff, which his experience previously as a waiter and bartender gave him the empathy to do. One way he does this is by offering his staff opportunities to learn more about who they are so they know whether they’re staying in the right place or not. “I don’t want them to be behind me as a shadow, right? I want them to come in front of me. So now they run the place most of the time,” he says. 

Beyond COA

The Savory Project Hong Kong
Source: Jay Khan/The Savory Project

Since the success of COA, Khan has begun a solo adventure opening another COA location in Shanghai, as well as launching The Savory Project in the heart of Soho to offer an equitable space for everyone. 

Every project has its own challenges, and when COA opened in Shanghai last March, Khan was faced with COVID restrictions and half of the spirits being of different brands. But the biggest challenge was communication. Khan was lucky to have another team of staff out in Shanghai who speak English, and although they had to delay full operations for a while due to COVID restrictions, he was able to keep that talented staff on board. Khan made sure to take proactive steps so as not to lose the Shanghai team. “We paid them, and we trained them online. So that was the start of the Shanghai camp,” he says.

COA Shanghai
Source: Jay Khan/Shanghai WOW!

The Savory Project is a new bar concept in Khan’s portfolio that centers on creative and innovative cocktails that emphasize savory and umami notes. Thankfully, setting up The Savory Project was easier than opening a brand new place, as there was already a foundation and positive reputation associated with it. From day one, guests came into The Savory Project because people knew the bar was associated with COA and were familiar with Khan’s talents and deep respect for mixology. 

With the goal of maintaining that same atmosphere, like COA, Khan decided to stay consistent regarding the team. He says that the opening of The Savory Project wasn’t necessarily for himself or the business but for the staff working with them. The staff for The Savory Project was recruited directly from COA. Khan says the thought process was, “How can we make sure the staff working with us can grow as a team? What can we provide them?”

The Savory Project Hong Kong
Source: Jay Khan/The Savory Project

A healthy work-life balance is also important to him. “I also encourage my team to make sure they pick up a hobby, do something that's completely not related to what they're doing for work. We give them two days off a week. So on those two days, do something that you love, do something that you enjoy. I try not to message them … making sure they're completely free, and they do something that they enjoy doing.”

This falls in line with Khan’s ethos about finding inspiration in your passions. “I think one thing I always tell myself is to follow your passion; success will follow,” says Khan. I didn’t really care about ‘Oh, what’s missing in the market? If I do this, it’s going to be profitable.’ I came from a completely different perspective. For me, it was all about passion.”