Taking Advice

EDIT (I spaced on two important people!)

In my days — and weeks — of waiting and what felt like inaction, I’ve been pretty stressed out. I’ve been obsessing, as my previous post explained, because it’s all I’ve been able to do. I received quite a bit of unsolicited advice as a result of that post. I’ll admit, most of my life I’ve been quite the know-it-all. Even in circumstances where I know less than I should. But in this situation I have seriously stepped outside myself. I’ve evaluated my flaws, one of which is not being comfortable asking for assistance, which leads to that know-it-all-ism. And I’ve overcome it. I have been soliciting advice from everyone I meet and the vast number of people I know who are experienced in this business. I have been humbly admitting all the things I know nothing about and seeking those who know everything.

This process began in earnest last March when a friend told me about a place that was secretly for sale. I wound up asking Molly if she’d sell me one of her two bars, since, although I was tempted by the secret space, my dream has always been to own a dive bar. Molly wasn’t ready to sell but she did express interest in helping me with whatever other space I wound up with. The machinations that took place before I eventually left for the desert were a little nuts; I may eventually post about them because they influenced where I am today. Molly is a neighborhood fixture and her bars are among my (few) favorites. I hope she’ll continue to be an advisor and supporter.

In the fall, after returning from the desert, I met with a friend of my sister’s who owns a large bar in San Francisco’s Marina district. He started with a small neighborhood joint, leveled up to a big bar/restaurant and then decided a nightclubby type bar was more manageable. His place is pretty fancy and definitely not a place I’d hang out. But he had some valuable advice. He suggested a specific “signature cocktail,” which I initially cringed at. But after some thought, I realized that even Double Down has a “signature cocktail” aka their house shot, “Ass Juice.” (Actually, Double Down even has an “infused vodka,” though it’s infused with bacon and not very highbrow!) So there will be a “signature cocktail” at my bar, the one he suggested, in fact, though I may not actually use the words “signature cocktail” to describe it!

My friend Scott sometimes has me join him at Perdition as a guest bartender. His boss, Jessica, sat down with me to share her years-won wisdom with me, including recommendations of accountants, insurance brokers, payroll companies and more. Probably the most valuable piece of advice she offered was to hang on tight and ride out all the bullshit, though I don’t believe she used those exact words.

Frannie is a fellow burner who has graciously offered the burner Happy Hour open bars at her old place on Rivington. She still owns half of the Manhattan Welcome to the Johnson’s but spends most of her time at her new place, the Bushwhack branch of WttJs. I’ve spent hours talking to her about the bar business; she has been very generous with her time. The one piece of advice she gave me that I’ll be incorporating into my place is the concept of creating intimate, separate spaces for people, even in a small bar. Her place on Rivington was pretty tiny — and slightly subterranean — but it had four different “conversation areas”: the bar (barstools), two-top high tables (also with barstools), a handful of low tables with two or four chairs and a back area with couches/banquettes and a low table. I’d guess that, although the feng shui is decidedly different in my space, both bars are about the same amount of square feet. So I will have almost the exact same seating options: the barstools at the bar, one or two high-tops, a couch with a low table and as many square tables with two chairs that will fit. Frannie gave me many other great tips that I’ve already internalized. She was actually the first person I sat down with about this, even before things were quite as close to becoming a reality.

Donald is the manager of Double Down and I took him out for lunch the other day to pick his brain. I asked him about a million questions and he provided me with answers, as well as phone numbers for pretty much every person, service or company necessary to keep a bar business up and running. He told me that 10 years ago a friend had done the same for him and he was happy to be able to “pay it forward.” I am now armed with the info to handle just about every imaginable crisis.

On Tuesday I ventured out into Brooklyn to meet Rosie Schaap, a barmaid Gaz Regan recommended I speak with. She writes a cocktail column for the New York Times, has published a book, “Drinking with Men,” and she works the noon to 9pm shift at South. The bar was great, I loved the jukebox, the regulars were warm and friendly and Rosie was a font of information. She even came up with an elegant solution to my desire to learn more about all the boozy things I don’t know without enrolling in the a-bit-too-basic bartending schools: attend classes at Astor Wine & Spirits. Perfect! I’ve already mentioned that I’m registered for Gaz’s Cocktails in the Country course, so I’m looking forward to tapping into his vast wisdom.

Last night the Burning Man Happy Hour was held at Sugarburg, a fairly new neighborhood bar and restaurant in Williamsburg. It also happens to be owned by a friend and fellow burner and his two brothers. I spent quite a while chatting with them about their purchase process, their buildout and what it’s been like since their opening day. The offer was made to talk again any time I need more advice and I’m sure I’ll be taking them up on that! I’ll add that the bar is pretty amazing. Everyone loved the wide assortment of craft beers, the delicious snacks and the convenient location. I, personally, had a deep appreciation for the decor and many architectural details. I know that nothing wound up on their walls without a lot of consideration. It was nice to know that they continue to make improvements and add to the eclectic collection of art.

In my recent travels, researching bars and bartenders, drinks and drink prices, competition and whatnot, I’ve spoken at length with every person on either side of the bar. I’ve asked bartenders what they do and don’t like, patrons what they want and don’t want, and everything else I can think of. I haven’t shut up about opening this bar and everyone I meet is excited to visit it.

The woman who has been helping me as my commercial real estate agent is also who I’ll be hiring to hold my hand as I learn the process of running a bar business. She owned a bar/club in my neighborhood for a decade and served on the local community board for seven years. She has a wealth of information and experience and she will literally be on my payroll. The rest of the staff at her real estate agency is uber-experienced as well, with a grand total of over 100 years in bars and restaurants between them all, most especially the man running the whole operation, who I met back in November at the Rosie O’Donnell event. He is, in my parents’ vernacular, a wheel. I feel confident that I am in capable hands.

I’m hiring a licensed architect to help me draw up the plans for the renovations and she is recommending a licensed engineer to install the new AC unit and ducting. A licensed general contractor will oversee the licensed plumber and electrician, and they will all be filing the proper permits. My liquor license lawyer is the liquor license lawyer. He is a legend. There is an army of people ready to help me realize my vision and an even larger army ready to patronize it.

The last few weeks have been pretty stressful and I anticipate that the next year or two will be equally insane. My friend at Sugarburg told me the first year is extremely tough. I’ve been impatiently waiting, itching to get my hands dirty, and today something clicked into place. The process is gonna speed up now and before I know it, I’ll be behind that bar, ready to say, “What’ll it be?” It won’t be a moment too soon!

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One response to “Taking Advice

  1. To quote The Beatles: “You get by with a little help from your friends…”

    If I may quote Tolkien and old English manners….” I am, at your service”

    Onward and upward Abby.

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