Cult eatery Black Tap Craft Burgers & Beer is a gourmet burger spot with restaurants around the world. It is run and owned by Chris Barish and his wife Julie Mulligan. In an interview at the Black Tap restaurant located at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, we sat down with the power couple to find out what it took to start an internationally successful restaurant in New York, the ups and downs of working with one’s spouse, as well as their thoughts on Malaysia’s beloved Ramly burger.
How did you even get started in the F&B business?
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Chris Barish (CB): I started throwing parties with two people who are also in this building (Marina Bay Sands) — the guys from the Tao group. I started throwing parties at 17, 18, and then I went to film school, left, had a couple of jobs after film school in the industry. Then invested in a bar, and then opened my first one with a partner in 2000. Then we went to Vegas and opened a nightclub and the Bellagio Hotel called Light, which was one of the first bottle service clubs. And then we went back there a few years later and did a couple of restaurants with Gordon Ramsay. There were some restaurants and nightclubs in between then we started Black Tap.
I never thought Black Tap would be all this. We just wanted something cool in New York. We had no idea that we’d open in all these great places around the world, which is interesting because sometimes organic growth is the best. There was a need to expand it, and it happened very organically.
Julie Mulligan (JM): I think for me too, my role at Black Tap is very organically developed. I started by doing design and project management, and one thing leads to another and you’re doing everything pre-opening, and then you’re doing everything beyond. So, it’s been fun to learn to wear a lot of different hats, especially over the last few years.
Do you think first opening up in New York gave you that competitive edge that you needed?
JM: Yeah, New York is competitive, and when you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. We’re both originally from New York, and we live in New York now. And I think what’s in Black Tap’s DNA is a lot of New York; that downtown, kind of SoHo creative scene has been a big inspiration for us visually with the aesthetics and artwork that we do in the brand. We always try to make sure that we stay true to those New York roots but also really make sure that we localise and incorporate everything that we need to really make it a vibrant place for its community. Like here in Singapore, we worked with a local mural artist and we’ll do the same thing in KL.
You were talking about having three-hour lines outside. Did that put some pressure on you, or was it a good thing that people were coming?
CB: At first, to be fair, we had 15 seats, so when it went viral it was great to see but we also thought we could open something bigger right away so we did that in Midtown. And then the lines continued, so we came up with a more global strategy.
Can you share how you feel about this journey (of starting out in NY and now opening around the globe)?
JM: It’s been really fun, and it definitely also keeps you on your toes, especially the last few years. It’s brought a lot of challenges and things you have to adapt to very quickly, but it’s something I never would’ve expected to be doing.
Do you have any exciting plans for the future?
JM: For expansion? Yeah we’ll be opening at Sunway Resort early next year.
CB: Hopefully we’ll be open some time in the next few months.
JM: And we’re expanding in the US. Some of the plans that we had before the pandemic are finally coming to life. We’re opening in Nashville, Dallas and Miami all in the next year. We’re really trying to stick with the iconic locations around the world.
CB: We’re opening one in Switzerland, in Basel, and maybe one more in this part of the world but we’re not allowed to say yet.
What is it like working with each other? How do you balance work vs family?
CB: I think in this industry it’s very hard, especially with all the time zones we’re in. Restaurant business is hard in general and then you take it to another state, and then another country, and then multiple countries. So being able to travel together and experience it together, enjoy and build it together is lucky. Julie is an architect and is very detail-oriented. I like to make quick decisions and look at the big picture, but Julie’s like ‘wait a minute, did you think of X, Y, and Z?’
JM: It’s a balance.
CB: There’s a balance too. Sometimes it’s hard to find when you’re working 12-plus hours a day. (To Julie) How’s it working with me?
JM: It’s nice. I would say we’re quite different, so we complement each other well. And I think everything he said is true. The restaurant business really does take on a huge part of your life so to be able to do it together is nice, otherwise it would be very difficult, I think, to manage at all.
What do you look out for when you’re sizing up other burger joints or tucking into a good burger?
JM: For me, Black Tap is a lot about the experience and the energy, and the music that we play as well as our team. So I’m always looking for places where you can feel that buzz.
So if you could only choose 1 item from the menu, what would be your pick?
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JM: My current favourite is the wagyu steakhouse burger; I get mine without the bacon. It’s our wagyu patty and has the A1 steak sauce, crispy onions, pepper jack cheese. It actually won the 2021 New York Wine & Food Fest award. It’s taken the top seller position here. I can’t get enough.
CB: My go-to is the All-American. And my favourite new shake is in the R&D phase right now. We started working on it on a radio show yesterday and I think it’s going to be one of our best shakes. It’s going to be a shake local to Singapore. Also the Brussels sprouts which I told them to serve tonight!
Are you keeping bacon out of the Malaysian menu?
JM: Everything will be halal in Malaysia.
CB: We adapt to every market. Everywhere we go, there are ways to adapt without losing the authenticity of the brand.
JM: There will be beef bacon.
Is there a Crazy Shake that you feel represents yourselves?
CB: Cotton Candy. It’s fun, and I like to have fun, and I’m pretty! It’s the Cotton Candy for me.
JM: I would go with the Oreo Cookie Cream Supreme. Black and white are kinda my colours, classic but always a favourite.
Did you try a Ramly burger while you were in Malaysia?
JM: I did! One of the best burgers I’ve had. It was great. I don’t know which one we went to. It was near Sunway, but I know they were very thoughtful on which one they picked but I liked the Ramly burger. I had the one with everything on it — egg, three different sauces. It was a mess but it was great!
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