Courtesy of the Social Hour
Mar 30, 2021
Tossing one back with Clover Club founder Julie Reiner
The pioneering publican looks back on a woozy year, a boozy career and discusses her new line of canned cocktails called the Social Hour
If you’ve had a cocktail in New York over the course of the past 15 years, chances are it was either in a Julie Reiner establishment … or somehow inspired or influenced by Reiner. A co-founder of the former Flatiron Lounge (RIP) and Pegu Club (ugh) in Manhattan, as well as Brooklyn’s Clover Club and Leyenda, Reiner is a pioneering publican.
As with everyone in the bar industry, Reiner has had a tough year. In this Q&A she discusses blazing trails in the early oughts and pivoting throughout the pandemic to keep her businesses (and her sanity) afloat: She anticipated the canned cocktail trend by about a year when she teamed with Clover Club head bartender Tom Macy to launch the Social Hour. The line of canned cocktails—the Gin & Tonic and Whiskey Mule and Pacific Spritz—first came out in July of 2020, but the idea had been simmering long before the coronavirus outbreak took hold. More recently, the team announced statewide distribution.
Here, Reiner describes how growing up in Hawaii groomed her for hospitality, talks about cocktail culture jumping the shark and shares her current go-to at-home cocktail recipe below. This interview has been edited for space and flow.
You’re behind some of the most iconic cocktail lounges in the city. Which one of those would you say is your baby? Do you have a favorite child?
Well, Clover is definitely my favorite child, I would say Flatiron was the baby. When I opened Clover, I was at a point where I knew all the things that I probably should have known when I opened Flatiron, but I was super young in my career. I was 30 when I opened it, so I was still figuring everything out.
Do you see yourself as a pioneer?
I suppose I do. A lot of it was right time, right place, right idea. I got a job managing a lounge [called C3] in the West Village and it was just a really small, cool space where I could do my own thing. I was given creative freedom. And I was really just entertaining myself and the people that came into this little bar, not really realizing that I was pioneering a movement at that time. And so Dale DeGroff walked in with Tony Abou-Ganim because they had heard about the drinks I was doing and I was like, “Who are you?”
Yeah. And so, the word got out to people at the New York Times and in New York Magazine, and then all of a sudden, it just exploded that this is where you can go to get great cocktails. Dale DeGroff loves the story: I ended up getting fired for doing too good of a job. The chef and the restaurant manager got really upset because you had to walk through the restaurant to get to the bar, so the restaurant became a walkway to get to the bar in the back. They would have an empty dining room or a half-full dining room. And I was jamming in the back and I was making lots of money—and they were not happy with it.
Well, they should have improved their menu, I guess.
Exactly. Don’t hate the player, right? I thought I was doing what the owner wanted me to do: fill the place. But apparently not.
You grew up in Hawaii. Do you have a sense of how that shaped you?
Growing up in Hawaii absolutely pushed me into the world of hospitality, mainly because our house is this revolving door of family and friends that would come over to visit. And so there were constantly people there. My mom actually drove a limousine van as her car because we were constantly touring people around the island. We could get 10 people in this van and just run around. So I was helping my mom pass hors d’oeuvres and throw parties and blend mango margaritas and stuff and pass them out from a very young age. And I really loved it.
You said when you opened Clover Club, you had learned from your Flatiron mistakes. What were those mistakes?
Oh gosh. So many mistakes. I learned a lot about partnerships and choosing the right partners. At Flatiron, our partners were a family—three siblings—which is always challenging because of that family dynamic. Susan, who’s my wife—who also opened all of the bars, Flatiron, Pegu, Clover, Leyenda with me—she has a master’s in finance. So she was the one really handling most of the financials for the bars.
Clover Club served me the first cocktail out I had after months and months of being locked down. We were walking by and you guys were doing to-go “walktails,” which was brilliant. Talk about, beyond the obvious, how the pandemic has affected you guys.
Man. Well, this has been the most challenging year of my career for sure. My partner Christine Williams will always think, “What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen?” just because she wants to be prepared. And this was not something that any of us had even contemplated, so we were very much blindsided by it. And I think in the very beginning of the pandemic, I was just at home, not really knowing what to do. There were days that were just very depressing.
Zoom calls with just our partners, just to talk about, “How can we bring in revenue?” My partner, Ivy Mix over at Leyenda, joined the independent restaurant coalition and was a big part of lobbying for restaurants and bars, with the PPP and getting financial assistance. So, that was very helpful. And we started offering walktails. And then we were able to open at 25 percent [capacity], and then they closed it down again. The whole thing has been a roller coaster.
So you’ve been able to sort of adapt and stay on top of things and pivot as needed.
During the holidays we did gift boxes where people could make cocktails at home, and the gift box had my book, and ingredients to make drinks and a bottle of booze. We just tried everything we possibly could to keep our doors open. And, we’ve got to a place now where we’re at 50 percent indoor service.
How does the Social Hour fit into this?
Tom Macy, who was at the time head bartender at Clover, and I started working on this a couple of years ago. We had this idea to do bottled cocktails. It kind of stemmed actually off of the Paloma that Tom created for Leyenda. And, we realized that by carbonating the entire thing, it was better than the Paloma that we could actually make over the bar, because it was just bright and the whole thing was carbonated, and that was exciting. It was harder than we anticipated it to be, because when you pasteurize things that tastes totally different. So, we decided to do a line of high balls to start out with, and it took us a couple of years to really get where we wanted to be with our first three flavors. And we were set to launch in April of 2020.
Yeah. Which unfortunately, didn’t happen mainly because many of our investors were people in the bar industry and the restaurant industry who then suddenly did not have the extra financial ability to invest.
Canned cocktails are having a moment, the way the fancy cocktail had a moment when you were starting out.
A lot of people have this misconception that this was an answer to the pandemic, but it really wasn’t. We were already doing this and then the pandemic happened, and we were like, “Well, I’m really glad that we’re already a couple of years into our process here.”
Can you talk a little bit about being a female entrepreneur in this space. You must have a lot of stories about cocktail bros, and mansplainers. Or has that ever really not been an issue for you?
That is definitely the number one question I get. And yes, it’s a male dominated industry, but for me, I have always worked with really fierce women. The majority of my partners have been strong, amazing women. So my experience has been what I have made it.
What are you drinking now? Maybe not this very minute, or maybe you are drinking this minute?
No, I’m not. I definitely drink a lot of classics at home. Negronis. My favorite at-home martini is a Ford’s gin martini. It’s a perfect martini, if you will. So, it’s two ounces of Ford’s Gin, a half an ounce of Bianco vermouth, and then a half an ounce of dry vermouth. I usually use Dolin, and then two dashes of orange bitters, stirred. I like to garnish it with a lemon twist and a tomolive, which is a pickled tomato.
Oh, that sounds amazing. Can you talk about the difference between the Brooklyn and Manhattan cocktail scenes?
I was talking about this yesterday, trying to give our new staff members a little idea about our background, and when we first opened Clover Club. We modeled it a little bit after our places in the city with a small food menu. Flatiron had no food at all, it was just bar nuts, and Pegu had an eight item snack menu. So we started with that and we realized very quickly in Brooklyn that people wanted to sit down, first of all, and they wanted to eat, they wanted a more extensive food menu. People in Brooklyn wanted a more civilized experience. So we launched brunch pretty early as well.
Do you ever worry about over consumption or your own drinking habits?
I’ve never been an over-consumer when it comes to booze. I was working five nights a week, so if I’m having cocktails at work and then on my nights off, then I’m drinking seven nights a week and that’s a problem. When I’m testing cocktails or sampling spirits, I spit, always. And I know there are quite a few people in our industry that have not been able to do that and who have had issues with alcohol over the years. That was actually really hard early in the pandemic: It was so stressful and I didn’t have anything to do with myself because normally I work a lot and I’m sitting at home doing nothing but worry, and certainly the food and beverage was something that I turned to quite a bit.
Was there ever a point where the cocktail culture that you helped usher in became sort of a caricature of itself or jump the shark a little bit?
There was definitely a timeframe when Pegu opened that the suspendered, mustachioed bartender thing got so silly. This culture of this boys’ club of cranky bartenders looking down on people who ordered a dirty martini with vodka became acceptable. There were some early-on cocktail bars that opened in the early 2005-10 that didn’t hire any women and were, “Well there weren’t female bartenders pre-prohibition.” And that was definitely I think a sour point for me and I think for the whole industry, but there then became quite a bit of a backlash on it.
And then bars got fun again?
And there’s a lot of women in them. My partner, Ivy, created Speed Rack, which is an all-female bartending competition that’s also a breast cancer charity. She and Lynnette Marrero have really created a space that is a place that women could meet and network and get mentorship and all of that, which I think has really helped a great deal with the boys’ club that the cocktail/spirits industry can be. There’s a lot more diversity that we’re seeing and that’s a really exciting thing for the world of hospitality.
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