Brooklyn Dessert Speakeasy Spirited Turns to Crowdfunding to Pay the Bills

Lime Rhubarb Rose Gin Fizz Pie at Spirited photo via Spirited

When the news broke a few months back that Prospect Heights would soon be a home to a “dessert speakeasy,” lots of people were really excited. Cake! Alcohol! Sugar! Sugar! Sugar! What could be better? Uh, well, for me anyway, a lot of things. I wasn’t particularly disposed toward being all that excited about any bar that billed itself as a speakeasy (it’s not 2008 anymore), nor did I really understand how the concept would actually work. Like, who would go? Would it only be an after-dinner or late-night spot? Was this going to be conceptually appealing to anyone looking for after-work or pre-dinner drinks? Was I just predisposed to being against this kind of thing because I don’t have all that much of a sweet tooth? So many questions, right? All of which is why I visited and reviewed the dessert speakeasy, Spirited, once it opened. Don’t judge a book by its cover, you know? Or in this case, don’t judge a bar by its questionable PR campaign.

And, as it turned out, when I visited Spirited, I found many things to like: The drinks were beautifully made and balanced, not least because Bhagaban Sahoo, the bartender and head of the beverage department, is one of the best bartenders I’ve ever encountered; the space itself is in a gorgeous, century-plus-old building with Art Deco touches, as well as being conveniently located; and the desserts all looked spectacular, well worthy of the accolades they quickly received. But as much as there were things about it that I liked, there were also clearly some issues: It didn’t seem to be integrated that well in its chosen neighborhood, and Bhagi confided in me that most nights were pretty slow; the few savory treats on offer were mediocre at best; it utilized its enormous, former-full-size-restaurant space poorly. In short, it still made no sense to me that Spirited would be able to stay open for very long, no matter how delicious the desserts and how well-crafted the cocktails.

And yet, I was still surprised to find out yesterday that Kimberly Wetherell, the owner of Spirited, has now started a GoFundMe page in order to weather the tough financial times in which she has found herself. Wetherell writes, “The past year has been a roller coaster in all of the best possible ways. I have built my company, Spirited , from the ground up, with very little more than a dream and a couple of recipes tucked into my pocket… Getting this far has been no small feat, especially as a one-woman show and even though each month we see an uptick in income, I find my company and myself at a critical financial juncture… The long and short of it is, starting up a high-concept restaurant in New York City is extremely difficult… Despite planning for the occasional flare-up or three, we’ve exceeded our limit and there are still several significant outstanding bills to be paid… And so I sit here at my desk in the basement storage room humbly asking for your help.”

Wetherell is looking to raise $10,000 to help get through the next couple of months, after which, she says, she will be better able to secure “long-term growth” because she’s “already working on selling a portion of the company to investment partners and that’s definitely something to get excited about” even though it won’t “help us make payroll next week.” It is about as genuine a plea for help as I’ve seen, and it’s impossible not to empathize with Wetherell, who—despite GoFundMe not having a mandatory rewards system—promises donors that she will do everything from “offering our kitchen to a chef in need” to helping with the “move up the five flight walk up” for donors. And many people have answered the call—including some in the food community—and have helped Wetherell raise over $2,700 in 12 days. If you’d like to donate, you can click here; or you can, of course, pay a visit to Spirited, right on the corner of Vanderbilt and Bergen. No matter the case, you can certainly take the time to think about what a risky financial endeavor it is to own your own business and feel grateful that you work in, uh, the totally stable field of online journalism or what have you.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Kimberly Wetherell did something really bold last year: she started a business in a highly competitive industry, with limited experience and minimal capital. She brought a distinctive vision, endless enthusiasm and a loyal dog named Spencer. She scraped floors, baked cakes, figured out social media… and single-handedly made Spirited happen. That in itself is an extraordinary accomplishment.

    Sure, she hit some bumps and almost ran out of cash – as has just about every visionary first-time entrepreneur I know. That’s how startup folks learn.

    Through it all, she manages to run a terrific place. I hosted an event at Spirited this past Saturday for a bunch of food and event professionals. They loved the feel of the place. They loved Kimberly’s spiked espresso with king cake and bourbon buckeye pie. Her vision resonated; all those first-timers will return with friends.

    NYC is full of bars that feel the same. Spirited is a distinctive, quirky and wonderful place – reflecting the vision and energy of its first-timer proprietor. That alone would make it worthy of support and patience. The food and drink make it worthy of giant crowds.

  2. As Matt has said, it’s a tough world in restaurants in NYC. Many have deep-pocketed investors and multiple partners so to strike out on her own…well much applause to a lady doing something most people would be too scared to do and prefer to just be critical of those who brave the risk.
    Saturday night was jamming with locals and people having a great time! Little sweet, booze engine that could!
    I don’t have a sweet tooth either, but I have a heck of a booze-tooth on which Spirited delivers. Now there are many bars that don’t serve any food and focus on just cocktails…why not add desserts? Now the real issue is if I have to see a menu with deviled eggs, mac&cheese (we get it, high-end Mac, truffles, fatty-meats, fancy cheeses…honestly, Kraft isn’t that bad!), a typical burger, a KALE salad, and maple-covered, bacon-smothered brussels, I may lose it….
    With the financial climate, many small businesses struggle…let’s be supportive of our little guys…or just go to one of the well-funded spots to stuff a kale salad and umami sliders in our face instead…

  3. Spirited is a great place and a big supporter of local brands. The author unfortunately fails to mention that what Spirited is going thru is not uncommon. (Based on their other post they are not a business writer so it is understandable) Its so common there is even a name for it in the investor community.

    The “Valley of Death” is a common term in the startup world, referring to the difficulty of covering the negative cash flow in the early stages of a startup. Here’s an article about it if you want more details.
    http://www.forbes.com/sites/martinzwilling/2013/02/18/10-ways-for-startups-to-survive-the-valley-of-death/

    I any startup you don’t get everything right from day one. So far Spirited has gotten great reviews – they have great cocktails and deserts. I know they are working on adding Brunch and other options but all these things take time and money. With the communities help we can help then thru the Valley of Death. Please support this great female owned local establishment.

  4. I read this article with an open mind wanting to read the writer Kristens view on Spirited and crowd sourcing. I have to say Kristen your arrow was aimed low at the knee ready to mame.
    Do you have any idea how difficult it is to open, operate and fund a ground floor small business in the NY metropolitan area?
    I do. I’ve owned, operatated and personally funded my hair salon “Space” located on the corner of 6th ave and Spring Street. My business was open from April 97-Aug 14.
    I’d say with confidence based on my experience that anyone that takes a chance on a dollar and a dream in this town has the right and deserves to succeed!
    It’s there vision their blood, sweat and tears.
    Kristen do you think it feels good to sit in your office and look at the reality of fiscal life and
    face your options? Do you?

    It doesn’t feel good.
    It takes real courage to put yourself out there and ask for help.
    Bank loans are tight and generosity of the
    public in the form of clients only covers so much.
    Let’s turn this negative review of Spiritedbk around.
    Your first year in business is the damnedest.
    Kimberly wants to see the fruition of her dream and vision come alive.
    So should you.
    Let’s help her succeed…
    She has taken an amazing space on Vanderbilt and created a little brand of magic.
    Let’s find her goal.
    Within the first year with the collaboration of the right staff and public support I bet Kimberly will grow her menu to cater to the people’s needs.
    How can you not, this is a service industry.
    So Kristen, I forgive your sour view of Spririted BK. It just shows to me how much inexperience you actually have in small businesses.
    Maybe you should focus your writings and reviews on well funded empires such as Shake Shack…

    • Wow – talk about drinking the Kool Aid. Kristin not only points out HOW to support Spirited she encourages readers to go in and spend money there. Apparently, this place and its patrons (or I suspect her friends) are not open to any sort of criticism and only praise and accolades are allowed. When you ask people to donate money to your business because you are failing, you need to be able to handle some criticism. And just so you know, doing anything in NYC is difficult. People struggle every day to advance their careers. Going into such ventures, risk is a given. So is there eally anything special about Ms. Wetherell’s plight? Are a portion of her profits earmarked to go back into the community? Is she hosting community events? Does she offer free baking classes for disadvantage children in the area? While I enjoy the drinks at Spirited – although I have not seen Bhagi since my first time in – perhaps adapting her concept to meet the neighborhood, the space, and her budget would be more wise than begging people for financial aid. I’ll continue to go, but I’m not about to donate to her payroll fund when she also advertised – that same week – on Craiglist for staff. Why hire when you can’t make payroll? Seems like bad decisions have been made all around. When I make bad decisions, I pay for it. Kudos to her for having the balls to ask for help. That said, I will continue to stop in for drinks when I am walking home from work as I find the bar to be comfortable and stylish. The previous restaurant there – Beast – did a brunch that was very popular. Maybe Ms Wetherell should consider offering brunch – she may not need a Go Fund Me then.

  5. I recently took part in a pop-up event at Spirited bringing back for a day the much loved food (and burgers) of Schnack. I was only organizing the food for the event, collaborating with Kimberly and Matt for the space, the ticket sales, the drinks, and the deserts. It was a wonderful experience working with her and her team. The author seems greatly at odds with the crowd-funding approach and with how she has been promoting the establishment; I question that.

    As a chef who has won an award for mixing beer & ice cream (Best Tasting Food Dare from Time OUT NY) — it’s always hard to break into a new category or to put a fresh spin on something like deserts with booze. I am also a marketer and for me, and while Kimberly isn’t a client I can’t find any serious fault with her branding. Although the author feels “speakeasy” is dated both historically and as a neologism I understood the concept easily.

    As for the crowdfunding effort — it is a difficult path to glory but Kimberly is both transparent and forthright in her appeal. There is always the alternative which is to feint any hint of anything else than rosy profitability. I wish Kimberly well and I would certainly encourage everyone here to grant her their custom and should you have the resources to consider the crowdfunding effort as well.

    • Hello Harry,

      I appreciate you reading and commenting on this article, and admire your support for Kimberly and the entire Spirited team. It is true that in my article I question the use of the word “speakeasy” at this point in time and in this specific area; and it’s true that there were some other elements of Spirited that I question conceptually, but I also found many things to enjoy about my experience there and find it clear that Kimberly is the type of businesswoman who is hard-working, generous, and seemingly universally liked by her peers. I respect this very much. And, in fact, I respect that she has turned to crowdfunding, and am unclear at what point in my article you think I dismiss turning to an alternative platform? I actually point readers in its direction, as well as recommend that they visit Spirited for themselves. Simply because I acknowledge what are—to my mind—some problems with the business model does not mean that I have any desire for it to fail, or that I am questioning Kimberly’s decision to use GoFundMe. In fact, I specifically wrote that I found it impossible not to empathize with her.

      It’s fine if you disagree with my critique of certain elements of Spirited, but those opinions have nothing to do with either crowdfunding or some idea that all new businesses should be immediately profitable. On the contrary, I appreciate her transparency in this, acknowledge that it’s inestimably hard to open up a new business, and wish her the best.

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