Apr 14, 2015
Bar Owners Roundtable, Part #2: Talking With the People Behind The City’s Best Beer Bars
Bar Rescue is a trainwreck, but it’s a trainwreck that is strangely and addictingly thirstquenching, one that stirs and shakes grandiosely to serve us an entertaining mix of intrigue, incompetancy, intensity, and inspiration, and always in under 60 minutes; I always return for another.
The show, now in its fourth season on Spike TV, has a simple premise: A proclaimed-by-narrator-constantly “bar and nightlife expert” named Jon Taffer attempts to resuscitate severely mismanaged bars on the brink of extinction by presenting the bar as a battleground. He berates inept owners for their missteps with bulging eyeballs and a glistening integument of perspiration, but also works tirelessly to help fix them. Whether his five-day interventions are successful, whether the show’s definition of success is legitimate, or whether the show is even legitimate, are all unimportant to me. I faithfully watch because every episode is guaranteed to offer the same growly scolding from Taffer, who brilliantly portrays both the villain and the savior. He is a magnetic presence, and I am attracted to the bulging, the glistening. Every episode is a no-fail first-class ride shuttling us around Failuresville—and with the accompaniment of expertly mixed, perfectly poured cocktails!
After saying that, I should probably confess: “Bar Owners Roundtable” will not showcase any bars fit as suitable candidates for TafferAid. This series, instead, will focus on showcasing New York City’s thriving craft-beer bars by interviewing their owners in different sets of four, but always with the same four questions.
Paul Kermizian, Barcade
Dan McLaughlin, The Pony Bar, Kiabacca
Patrick Donagher, Alewife NYC, The Jeffrey, Fools Gold
Ed Berestecki, Mugs Alehouse
I. ON STARTING OUT
Paul Kermizian: I opened the original Barcade in 2004 with four partners. At the time, we were all working in different creative fields—film, design, advertising—and we wanted to open a bar as a way to get a steady income so we could be more choosy about our creative work. Four of us had been college roommates and our only bar experience were the elaborate house parties we threw a few times a month during our junior and senior years. We chose to open on the second stop of the L train in Williamsburg because it was close to where most of us lived and there weren’t many decent nightlife choices in the neighborhood. Quite the contrast now only a decade later…
I had been collecting arcade games and at the time had four cabinets in my apartment: Mappy, Zaxxon, Tetris, and Ms. Pac-Man. The games were very popular at parties I would host and so we decided to fill the bar with as many games as we could find. We put all 35 or so arcade cabinets in my apartment while we were under construction. Basically there was just enough room that you could walk from the TV to the bedroom, into the kitchen and slip into the bathroom.
We did most of the construction ourselves—just about everything except the fabrication of the steel and glass facade and the electric and plumbing installations. We had no idea what we were doing and made so many mistakes. Thankfully there wasn’t a lot of competition around and certainly not anyone with a full arcade and so customers were very forgiving. We now have five locations and yes, its gotten easier and we’ve learned along the way.
Dan McLaughlin: In 1994 I went to work at a new brewpub in Syracuse called Empire Brewing. I was part of the opening team and had been bartending for a couple of years at this point. I quickly learned two important things that would help to guide me for the next twenty years: 1) most people knew very little about these new beers called “microbrews” at the time, and 2) the more I could learn about the entire brewing process, the more I was able to sell folks on these new beers. I felt the interest was there on the part of the customer but the average bartender or server was not taking it upon themselves to educate either themselves or the public. The more I learned about brewing and beers from other breweries the more fun the job became, and the more enjoyable the interaction with the customers became. It felt like I was part of a club of folks drinking better beer.
In 2006, my partner Pat Hughes and I opened Lansdowne Road, a great Irish-influenced sports bar in Hell’s Kitchen on 10th Avenue. I tried to promote some craft options with little success, but finally did get some traction with Magic Hat #9, Brooklyn Lager, and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. In 2009, Pat and I had an opportunity to take a second space on 10th Avenue and try our hand in the craft beer business which had been a passion of mine since my days at Empire.
At the time there were very few craft beer bars in Manhattan. The newly reopened Blind Tiger on the West Side and d.b.a. in the East Village were the most recognized, with the Waterfront Ale House another option further uptown and a new bar called Rattle N Hum near Midtown. I felt Hell’s Kitchen could support a standalone craft-beer bar if the pricing was fair and our food was a bit more far reaching than what was available in most bars—including Lansdowne Road.
The Pony Bar in Hell’s opened in April of 2009 and took off like a rocket. Pat and I had spent a lot of time developing The Pony as a potential brand, although at the time I didn’t have plans to replicate The Pony. The foundation was in place when the opportunity presented itself with a great location on the Upper East Side. The Pony Bar UES opened on May of 2012 and again business was brisk. In the three years between 2009 and 2012 I had felt as if 100 new “craft beer bars” opened. Seeing the proliferation of these pubs gave me the confidence to open the second location uptown.
Patrick Donagher: As a kid in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, Ireland, I was raised in the bar business. My parents ran a great bar named Paddy Donaghers Pub and my earliest memories in life are stacking its shelves with bottles, taking empty kegs out of the keg room, cleaning dishes, and collecting glasses–and that was around age six. I knew even then I was going to work in the business my whole life.
I moved to NYC about 11 years ago because I wanted to live the “American Dream.” … After a few years in Brooklyn, I was asked by my brother Joe to build and open a bar in Manhattan which would be called Rattle N Hum. I obviously thought this would be a great place to sell craft beer and also, I’d have a bar in Midtown. I operated Rattle for about three years and really got to apply my trade in a high volume spot, and it was also the bar I met my now-business partner, Andy Freedman. It was all a good learning experience.
After I left Rattle, my friend Daniel Lanigan, who owned Alewife in Long Island City, asked me to come and help them; I eventually took it over. In doing so I inherited a huge debt so the financial crisis was extremely stressful and scary as fuck. LIC was a tough and young neighborhood to operate a bar in but I believed the potential was there and the perseverance is slowly paying off. Three years later, it’s still rocking and I hope to launch a seven-barrel brewery from it this year.
Even during the tough days at Alewife I had wanted to open more bars, so Andy and I started a company called Beerly Legal Group. This would become the mother company of Alewife, The Jeffrey, Fools Gold, and Get Real Presents. I would essentially build, operate, and run the bars and Andy would design the food and wine programs, plus do the legal since he is a lawyer by day. This led to opening The Jeffrey in an old pet store on the East Side of Manhattan first. I built the bar with my friends and my wife, knocking down walls and ripping up concrete. A collapsed wooden beam fell on me and I was trapped for four hours; it nearly killed me.
The second we opened The Jeffrey, Andy and I met with Rob Morton of Idle Hands and we figured with Rob’s whiskey knowledge, my beer knowledge, and Andy’s PR and food knowledge, it would be a no-brainer to collaborate. That became Fools Gold. … It’s another bar we built by ourselves and we’re really proud of. Now the next question is: Where will our next bar be?
Ed Berestecki: I guess a passion for something bigger and better drove me. After marrying my beautiful wife Halina, an opportunity arose in 1992 to aquire a bar on North 10th and Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. And so The Blue Rose became Brooklyn Nights. Not too many people know about this part of our history but Brooklyn Nights was our initial attempt at operating a beer bar; we soon agreed that we needed to change our angle a year-plus into it though, so before another Brooklyn Night could grow into a regretful morning, Mugs Alehouse was contrived. We thought what better name could scream “Beer!” than Mugs Alehouse. Having Brooklyn Brewery down the block from us was definitely a bonus. Steve Hindy and Tom Potter helped me realize a lot back then with their approach toward Brooklyn Brewery as well as with the tastings we held in our back room. I will forever be thankful. This one’s for you, Steve and Tom!
Another person that deserves an assertion who often gets pushed into the back of the craft-beer scene is Sam Barbiari from Waterfront Alehouse. Not only being the phenomenal chef he is, he was a mentor and someone I wanted to emulate. We decided to really step up trying to get the “just right” personable tender behind the bar, and we ended up lucking out by hiring Eben Freeman, a complete beer aficionado. He helped us carve Mugs into the beer history of New York City and Williamsburg. Something that I never mentioned and when I got the opportunity when the late, great Ray Deider of d.b.a. and I sat down on Beer Sessions Radio and the truth flowed, about him calling me for a job at Mugs. I turned him down and always wondered what would have happened if I would have hired him. He is missed…
I vividly remember coming home from my full-time job at the time and running to try my first pints of Anchor Liberty, Foghorn, and Steam; I was excited about having them up. I remember walking in and having one of the old Coors Light drinkers asking me, “What the fuck crap are you drinking?” Without delay I answered, “It’s real beer and that’s what I’m drinking.” I loved saying that and still it’s a highlight in my memories.
II. CHOOSING YOUR BEER MENU
PK: We only serve American craft beer and only beer on draft and about all of our taps rotate full time. We have some longtime brewing friends who we are loyal to and so there are a handful of breweries you’ll probably always see on tap. After that we try to keep a balance of maybe 75 percent regional and local breweries and maybe 75 percent pint pours, with a balance of styles so that you can always find a pilsner, IPA, wheat, stout, and cider on tap at all times. Having the arcade aspect brings in a lot of customers who maybe aren’t interested in our craft beer selection, at least the first time they visit, so for us its important to have a balance of approachable styles to go along with more unusual, strong, and challenging beers. We’ve served a lot of people their first craft beer over the years. It’s important to me that we are able to make that a good experience for them.
DM: When the original Pony was being developed, I wanted to focus on my personal passion, American-made beer. Again, “craft” wasn’t necessarily a term being thrown around like it is in 2015. I also wanted to keep the concept manageable; this meant no bottles and no imports. I have nothing against either of these things, I simply didn’t want to try to be everything to everyone. This also allows the Pony Bars to rotate kegs in a really quick manner. Few beers are on longer than a few days.
In Hell’s Kitchen I’m the buyer, meaning I get to put my thumbprint on the beer list everyday. Even though the Ponys are in two extremely distinct neighborhoods, that does not influence the list. (Henry Joseph—solid citizen, stand-up guy—is the buyer for the Upper East Side’s Pony.) We’ve always had a cider on tap in Hell’s, and about a year ago we added a second cider, leaving me with eighteen lines for beer. There is always a brand name IPA, a pilsner, a lager, and a wheat beer—either an American-made hefeweizen or a Belgian-style wit. That leaves a lot of room for experimentation like seasonals and more eclectic styles like goses, sours, and Berliner weisses. There’s no shortage of liquid available in NYC and more of the offerings have become even more local. It used to be enough to pour Brooklyn Brewery or Sixpoint and those beers would fulfill the “local” option. Now, there is Other Half, Barrier, Grimm, Threes, Finback, Flagship, and many more. The options seem endless.
PD: I think of the style and the person I’m serving. There’s a beer for everyone so I try and bring in the best of each style. Usually I taste all my beers before tapping them or I’ll put in a call to a beer-savvy friend to see if they’ve drank a beer I’m thinking of before ordering. There are a lot of important breweries out there and people need to drink their beer. It’s my duty to be the bridge between them.
EB: Beer menu selections were a lot easier back then compared to today. I remember when Stone showed up with IPA, Arrogant Bastard, and Baltic Porter samples. We sampled all three of them and they immediately were up on draft. Being literally a “mom and pop shop” of craft beer, my wife and I always sampled everything before it went up. But in this chaotic age of overwhelming amounts of beer being brewed, it has been pretty much impossible to keep up with every new brewery. Plus after so many years, I’m shocked I haven’t been put on the liver transplant list. With 32 draft lines, we do things a little differently with the fact that we keep a standard set of beers up all the time. Most of them are veterans in the beer field: Brooklyn of course, Sierra Nevada, Smuttynose, Stone, and Anchor are just to name a few. I sometimes sit there and remember when we were part of these breweries’ plans in getting their name out into the NYC beer market. I am so proud of that, but especially of them. I don’t want the new kids on the block these days to forget about them. Many people labeled Mugs a pioneer. Initially I thought that was odd but now I have a sense of gratitude for the label. I actually appreciate it. Nonetheless these breweries are also pioneers, and we are happy to keep pouring them.
III. PRICING YOUR BEER
PK: Pricing is always a tricky thing. We have a range of pricing and we determine it based on keg cost. Once a beer goes on our menu, we try to price it fairly. I think if a beer is overpriced, it won’t sell and we just wouldn’t order it again. That seems to rarely happen, though. We’ve had to price certain beers at $10 or $11 in the past few years but that kind of price is reflected in the rarity of the keg and also in the ABV. I think most customers who are familiar with these beers understand that that’s what goes into the pricing. Generally, most of our pricing is in the $6-8 range, depending on the location. Obviously other costs factor in when comparing our expenses and so base pricing will be different at our two Manhattan locations versus our Philadelphia location.
DM: When Hell’s Kitchen Pony first opened in 2009, all of our beers were $5 either for an eight-ounce or 14-ounce pour. That was a great deal for Manhattan. We determined the size of the glass the beer was served in by the size of the keg, the price of the keg, and the ABV of the beer. Nearly four years later, we upped the pricing to $6 using the same criteria; and last month we raised our price again, to $7. When we raised our draft prices in March it was disappointing to have to be raised so soon but part of that increase the second time was related to the simple fact that I shouldn’t have waited so long to raise them the first time.
On the plus side, the latest increase has allowed me to serve more beers in our 14-ounce glasses instead of the eight-ounce glasses I would have served them in, had the price remained $6. Most of the reasoning behind the recent price increase is related to the constant increase of keg prices, honestly. In 2009 it was rare to see a keg over $200; now, kegs priced $250-$300 are becoming more common. I don’t always make the standard 25 percent beverage cost that is common but I’ve never hesitated to pull the trigger and buy an expensive keg if I thought my customers would drink and enjoy it.
PD: I have a formula for my bars that I use no matter how rare a keg is. I use the ABV or style to determine the glass style, then calculate how many ounces are in the barrel, divide the glass size into that and add my margin percent. Then that’s my price. My bars are obviously all in different parts of the city (taxis love me!) so there’s always the issue of rent being higher or lower in different parts. So while my pricing at Alewife may be different than my pricing at Fools Gold, it’s not by much. I try to keep a solid margin. Between $7-$10 is the range, usually. … But there is no price too high for a great beer. It’s still cheaper than wine!
EB: Pricing is an everlasting chasm of head-scratching and confusion. Being in Williamsburg back in the day, where no hipster ever was, we had to step it up. I believe that there are “beer senseis” that still remember those 20-ounce pints of Anchor Foghorn being sold for $3. We still have a good lease and always used that as a variable in our pricing. We have to pour beer and keep it fresh. I rather not wait for a keg to kick until it gets skunk, all for what? An extra dollar per glass? Keeping 32 beers fresh is a task and more than enough for us.
I always wanted Mugs to be a place that served a good pint for a good price. We do not upcharge for 20-ounce pints and we serve 10-ounce pours of the same. These days, breweries are making it tough to keep those prices stay alive. It hasn’t happened at Mugs yet to date, but the day of an $8 20-ounce pint is coming soon—so drink up fast before that day gets here! I had to put a plug in somewhere, folks. Understandably though we have small craft breweries that are making great local beer in small quantities and I will pay for that. A couple of newcomers that have been added as standard lines at Mugs: Barrier, SingleCut, Other Half, and Transmitter.
IV. OPERATING A BEER BAR IN NYC
PK: The hardest thing about operating today, not just as a beer bar, but as any bar, is the fact that everyone who walks in the door has the ability to rate and review their experience on the Internet, take photos and post them, tweet their experience in real time, or whatever. There is a much different expectation of customer service and questions and comments from customers come at you from all directions. You have to be able to deal with each one with the same attentiveness.
Also, there’s always pressure to keep up with beer styles and breweries and to have the hottest or newest beer on tap. Personally, I wish we’d have fewer brands to choose from in NYC but I think customers like all of the options available.
DM: The bar business is very fluid, it’s constantly changing. Even more so is the beer business, especially in the last 3-5 years. There’s certainly been a rise of beer bars in Hell’s Kitchen the last couple of years. I think the area was underserved and some of the newer spots have definitely been the beneficiary of our overflow. That said, there are 70-story highrises popping up on various corners a stone’s throw or two from Hell’s, bringing new customers to the area. The Upper East Side has seen an influx of craft-centric spots as well, but nothing on First Avenue—yet, anyway. At the very least it gives me a couple of new spots to have a beer in while I’m on my break.
One of the things I think about when buying beer is “Would I drink that?” That simple yes or no answer is applied many times a day when I’m working in one of my stores. I try to find a common ground between what I like, what I think my customers would like, and what is new that they’re not familiar with but would probably like. I apply that to not just the beer but the food menu and music playlists, as well. I’ve also been very fortunate with having some great people working for me, especially at the two Pony Bars. I’m hopeful that one of my employees will go on to open their own store. I’d really like to see that happen.
PD: Operating bars in this city is one hell of a rollercoster ride. I love designing and building bars, but operating and running them is where the real challenge is; getting the people in the front doors and hoping everyday they enjoy themselves is the real mission. Will they return? Will they tell their friends? This is where the real stress comes from and what keeps me up at night. But it also gives you the inspiration to kick yourself in the ass and get up early to work on ideas and events, and to make sure each bar is run right every single day, from the office to the sidewalk.
In the same line of thought, about 10 years ago very few were selling craft beer and very few people were seeking it out. But now everyone is seeking it out and every bar has craft beer! Honestly I think it’s great and I love the competition. It weeds out the good bar owners–the ones who order good beer, the ones who care about cleaning their lines and so on–from the bad ones, who will eventually fail. The more good bars that open, it can help this city become a better beer town along the lines of San Diego, Portland, and San Francisco. I look forward to the days when tourists come to NYC on a beer trip rather than sightseeing. We are very close to this because of our booming brewery and bar scene, the good work New York City Beer Week is doing—which I’m happy to say I’m part of—and all the beer bloggers, social media, and everyone else in this crazy industry that are working tooth and nail to make NYC a damn good beer town. Next step: The best damn beer town.
EB: Even though I moved to Long Island for my four beautiful daughters, I will always be a native New Yorker. In other words, I will always love this city. There is no other place in the world that could compare and I am proud to be a miniscule part of its establishment and the fruition of the craft-beer scene. With all said, I feel despair for anyone opening up these days. Not that it was an easy task when we opened up, but it seems that it was easier back then. There weren’t as many regulations, and for places that serve food, dealing with the NYC Health Department is a necessary evil. For a bar that has physically been standing for over one hundred years, Mugs has something about it that no new bar can replicate. People have drank here for so long and hopefully for many years to come. In the case that there are ghosts lingering around Mugs, let’s hope they are sitting along the bar and sampling some of the good stuff that is being poured today.
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