[Hey, this is Adam The Amateur Gourmet. I’m on vacation in Barcelona, Spain and while I’m gone I’ve asked some awesome people to fill in for me. Today is New York Business Owner Day! Our first post comes from my friend Dan Maccarone, a guy I met at an eater.com party, who soon started a blog with me about Food Songs called foodsongs.net (don’t type it in, it’s dead!) and invited me to compete against him in his comedy troupe’s Iron Chef cocktail making competition. He clobbered me, which is a good thing because I’d never made a cocktail in my life and now he owns a bar. Here’s the story of that bar. Take it away, Dan!]
I think I’ve wanted to own a bar my entire life. Growing up I loved visiting taverns in southern Massachusetts and always loved comparing the differences in clam chowders. In college, I loved sampling the difference in pies at various pubs in London and since moving to New York in 1998, I’ve always loved seeing unique dishes and cocktails on everything from dive bars to martini bars. There’s nothing more exciting than walking into a new place and seeing what unique perspective on the cocktail or on bar food it presents.
Thanks to the people in that photo above (and one other friend), about fourteen weeks ago, it was my turn to create that experience for someone else. After weeks of searching for the right spot, my partners and I had found the perfect space to open our own place and, with a very limited budget, we had six weeks to get it open. This is what it looked like the first time we walked in:
It was like a reality TV challenge, but really, it was just reality. For better or worse, there were six of us attempting to create this place – six distinct personalities trying to come together to create one destination. That is a dangerous game to play. To add to the fun, we were split down the middle between people who had opened bars before and people who hadn’t. Those who had opened places before had the knowledge and connections to get this done quickly, those of us who hadn’t came more from the creative side to get the personality across through aesthetics, menu and drinks. In order for this to work, we decided early on that we each needed to take on specific roles and trust each other to play those roles correctly.
While my role was definitely on the branding and food side, I looked forward to the opportunity to learn about this business.
The first thing I learned as we opened our bar is that it is more of an adventure into the crazy world of New York City politics than any sort of artistic endeavor. I had been looking forward to the fun of creating a variety of delicious, elevated bar food and fun, unique cocktails. And that was to come, but not before dealing with the legal challenges you need to face in order to apply and get approved for a liquor license, a lease, and approval from the board of health. Here are three things I learned in the six week race to the open our place:
Community Board 3 is loathe to add any more bars to the East Village.
In the process of getting our approval, I watched other restaurants with just as much drive and excitement about their creations get rejected. Sometimes it was because their venues were too close to others. Sometimes people from the community were there to oppose any new venues on their streets. One community member was at the board meeting just to complain about another recently opened bar they felt was already causing trouble. If one thing was clear, we were going to have to stick to everything we promised the community board, because the only time anyone was going to put our name in front of them was to complain.
Once approved, it still takes weeks to get your liquor license
Before our renovations, our space – a former gay nightclub called The Boy’s Room – had stayed empty for 15 months, since a closing New Year’s Eve party on December 31, 2007. The old owners closed the bar after the party and apparently never came back. So as we gutted the place, removing the old liquor and still-tapped kegs that had been languishing for over a year, we also played the waiting game. As the place came together, we planned for an opening date of June 17. We started booking parties and some buzz started to build. Meanwhile, we had no idea when we would actually get that coveted license. As the day of our supposed opening drew closer and we hadn’t gotten the license, I began to worry. My veteran partners insisted all would be fine, but there are things you can’t do before you get your license. For example, you can’t order a drop of liquor. Finally, on June 15, we got the call – our lawyer gave us the confirmation on the afternoon of the 15th and we got the license just in time to place our first order by the 17th. The bottles hit the shelves mere hours before we opened:
Nothing ever costs what you think it does
As I mentioned before, we opened our place on a super limited budget. When things started out, it seemed that all was going well. We negotiated our lease for something that seemed totally reasonable. The place had a full kitchen and two walk-ins when we got it, so we didn’t have to buy those, saving us a ton of money. The bar had functional plumbing and was set up well for service. All seemed well, but as we started doing work we found more and more things that needed to fixed. Pipes needed to be replaced, the kitchen wasn’t as functional as we expected it – new dishwasher had to be bought, new ice machine needed to be bought and everything is always more expensive than you planned it to be. You find yourself reaching deeper into your pockets because you believe in your dream – but that feeling that you better succeed quickly becomes a constant thought.
Those challenges aside, there are a lot of fun parts too and they’re the pieces that really pay off over time.
My life outside of the bar is in the design world. I run a company that designs web sites for media and entertainment companies and our whole attitude is that we understand our audience and create successful experiences for them through visual aesthetics and providing services that solve problems. To me, this was no different other than it was a real world experience.
Understand your audience
When we set out to create the aesthetics, we wanted to do something low key and fun. The East Village is full of discerning people who have lots of bars to choose from and where we are, on 13th Street and Avenue A, there are a ton of places springing up. We needed to look unique but still fit into the personality of the neighborhood. We needed to attract both people who live nearby and people who come here because they love the ‘hood. And, of course, we also have to be functional for a large group of people. Luckily, three of us live in the East Village, hang out in a lot of bars here, and have spent a lot of time thinking about works and what doesn’t in the places around us. And in the end, our low-key idea really did differentiate us from our neighbors.
Create unique and fun experience
I’m big into taking something you’ve seen before and adding a twist to it. And we made sure to do that with our menu. With a low-key atmosphere, we wanted to add a bit of fun and kitsch to the place, which we did with the food and drink menu. First was adding Jello shots to the menu – but instead of just adding vodka to Jello like we did in college, we based all our shots on actual cocktails such as the Jello-rita, the Jello Fuzzy Navel and the Jello Rum and Cherry Coke. Here’s the rainbow flag we did of them for gay pride:
Similarly, with the food we took sliders, but infused them with bacon. Took bacon and eggs and turned it into breakfast sushi:
Here’s how to make it:
* Set your oven to 450.
* Take however many strips of bacon you’d like and place them on a cookie sheet and place them in the oven for a few minutes (until the bacon is about 1/2 cooked).
* Flip each piece of bacon and drizzle each one with a little maple syrup
* Return bacon to oven for another two minutes
* Scramble 1 egg for every three slices of bacon (personally, I add a pinch of salt, pepper and cayenne to mine)
* While scrambled eggs are cooking, place a slice of sharp cheddar cheese onto each slice of bacon and put back in the oven for about a minute or until the cheese is melted
* After letting the bacon cool for a minute, so you don’t burn your hands, place a dollop of scrambled eggs onto the bacon
* Fold the bacon over the eggs until you have what essentially looks like a sushi roll
If you’re lucky, the maple syrup and cheese will act as a binding agent and help maintain the shape of the sushi roll (not to mention the sweetness the maple syrup gives the dish). It’s fun in a bar or anywhere else. I mean, really, it’s bacon.
The biggest surprise people have when they come into our place, in addition to the Jello shots, i think, are our prices. At happy hour, every drink on our menu is half price. There aren’t many place in New York City where you can get a $3 Guinness. At our bar you can until 8pm everyday of the week. Chances are if we’re trying something new out at our place, you’re going to get a chance to try it gratis. I often am making new shots up for the menu and the best testers are the customers. I was trying to make a whole liquid brunch menu a few weeks ago, as we hadn’t started serving our food yet. So, as I experimented on a Saturday afternoon, bunch of customers got to try my many experiments of trying to create a shot that tasted like a pancake and thanks to their feedback, I ended up creating a blueberry pancake shot that I highly recommend.
Also – having homemade bacon vodka helps.
We’ve now been open just over a month and I am very excited to see how things have progressed. When we opened, there were still so many things to come together. We probably tweak something everyday. We’ve been through a couple bartenders and barbacks as we’ve worked to ensure the personality we all want comes across on every shift. We’ve changed up our beer list a couple of times and are now pretty confident in it. In the end, though, like in creating anything, the devil is in the details and as time goes by, i believe we’re going to learn more and more. It’s an adventure everyday, but it couldn’t have happened without the six minds that sat down and trusted each other. For that reason, I have to thank all my partners: Mel DeLancey, Heather Finney, Iggy Hughes, Mason Reese, and Chris Sileo.
Now, let’s start thinking about bar number two. In the meantime, please come by and say hi. We’d love to meet you: Destination. 211 Avenue A at the corner of 13th Street. You can visit us online at destinationbarnyc.com.