The Happy Camper

For years I’ve wanted to start a bar. My readers (all three of you) know that I even spent a good 8 months working at one just to get my feet wet. (Side note, the look on people’s faces when I told them my day job is owning a software company while washing their pint glasses was funny.)

So I started looking around for a bar space and funds. I didn’t feel comfortable spending 100% of the amount it would take to both build a bar and staff it, and weather the first year of trying to build a clientele. I also wasn’t sure the market I’m in could bear what I really wanted to do, but I was able to come up with a concept I thought could work. Basically, I was going to do well-crafted classic cocktails at a relatively affordable price by having a limited back bar selection and defaulting to good, cost-effective liquors like Old Overholt, Olmecca Altos, etc. Pretty much what I make at home most of the time. I was going to use batching to make service super efficient and fast, serving pre-bottled Manhattans, kegged carbonated drinks, etc.

I found an awesome spot. It was in a building from 1903. An old Masonic Temple. They had an unfinished basement space with cathedral ceilings and these beautiful high windows above the door. It was stripped down to bare cement floors, brick walls, exposed HVAC. Perfect.

Except it was owned by the city. The city wanted to sell the building so they didn’t want to do long-term leases. What they wanted to do was get a budget from the convention center (also owned by the city and across the road) to renovate it and get a few decent businesses in that would help promote downtown. What better than a wonderful cocktail bar, right? I couldn’t commit much in the way of renovations with only one year guaranteed of a lease, but if I could get their budget and fix it up, it might be worth it.

So I I started figuring out who to talk to to get them to give me that budget. They were just going to waste it on a nondescript, white drop-panel ceiling and some standard office carpeting anyway. They’d probably drywall over all that beautiful brick. Ugh. Instead I’d just take the budget, put in a beautiful reclaimed wood floor and paint all the HVAC black. I’d run some copper pipes along the ceiling, drop them down and put Edison bulbs in the end. (Yes I know Edison bulbs are played out, but literally nobody around here has them.)

Then the city found out what it’d cost to remove the asbestos they hadn’t mentioned to me. Let’s just say it’s about what I would have paid in rent over the first 6 years. They decided to just let whoever buys the building deal with it and I was a free agent again.

A few friends told me about people doing mobile bars they’d seen online. While not cheap, it was less onerous than starting one in a fixed location. There’s no real estate to worry about. There are no liquor licenses to acquire. The process is streamlined in every way but one: building a bar in an Airstream ain’t easy. There are lots of people who will turn your retail space into a bar, very few who will do so for a trailer and even fewer an Airstream.

But we found a place near Toledo called P&S Trailer Services that does Airstream refurbishing. They sell some to commercial operations, like food trucks. There are very few places in the country capable of that, so it seemed like a stroke of good fortune. We talked to the owner online and then drove a couple hours out to meet him and it seemed like he was a good guy. He told us he could do pretty much whatever we wanted with the Airstream in terms of buildout.

Turns out, not so much. Maybe he could do it. But he had a multiple month backlog of orders. So when we wanted a little bit of work done, despite repeated insistence that he could do whatever we wanted, he stopped responding. When I finally got a hold of him on the phone, same story. “Just tell me what you want and I’ll make it happen.” Again we wanted some minimal work done and again, no response. Finally he told my partner something about selling it to someone who just wanted it as-is.

I think in the end, he had more orders than he could fulfill, and instead of just explaining that to us became a little disingenuous. It’s unfortunate, and what should have been a pleasant transaction became a huge pain in the ass.  We ended up taking it stripped down and in less-than-perfect condition (in fact over time we came to see just how less-than-perfect it was) and decided to find another RV/Camper service department to do the work for us. After all of the trouble with Steve we were just happy to get the bad boy home.

2015-07-07 20.21.39

Home it is though, so we’re now in the process of turning it into a bar. We found a guy in Cleveland who does food trucks who did what we need in terms of plumbing and electrical. That was another headache, because while the guy actually did great work, he wasn’t a great businessman/communicator. But he did do good work at a reasonable price. I’ve spent spare time over the last two weeks diving into the world of restaurant auctions and picked up some baller bar equipment.

Being in an Airstream, we’re under a few limitations. For one, running water isn’t easy to pull off. Loading this bad boy with enough water to wash dishes all night is basically impossible. You also couldn’t put that kind of weight on an axle. Even if we could, propane-powered water tanks won’t give us the volume of hot water needed. So basically cocktails have to be either built or pre-batched because I can’t count on being able to wash shakers.

That’s not a big deal. I’m quite good at both batching (i.e.kegging, bottling, and punches) and building drinks. Some of my favorite drinks are built. Old fashioned, mojito, Dark and Stormy (or a mule if you must), caiprinha, Paloma, etc. Any stirred drink can easily be translated into a bottle. Shaken drinks can be kegged on nitrous and blasted out under pressure. An egg white drink will come out ridiculously foamy.

Which takes me to the killer feature that will set me above the rest of what you’d find in the wedding bartending game: a big tap system. I’m planning on building a homebrew system with 6 taps and using Corny kegs. I can do awesome carbonate cocktails like a Tom Collins or mojito on draft.

I will make my own ginger beer. I did a blind taste test and everyone agreed it was far better than Fever Tree and Fentimans, my two previous favorites. I’ll probably buy Jack Rudy Tonic and force carbonate that by the keg, since acquiring my own quinine seems to be a huge pain in the ass and the Jack Rudy stuff is pretty great anyway. When you buy it wholesale and carbonate it in keg volume it’s easy to make and about the same price as grocery store tonic but considerably better-tasting.

If they want cola, I can do the same thing with Monin cola syrup, which is far, far better than Coke. Same with root beer. I also make a few mean homemade sodas, like grapefruit, strawberry, and cucumber mint that could be used for cocktails or just for those who aren’t drinking.

I’m also going to get all the local breweries to fill kegs of beer so customers can have a couple craft brews on tap. Since I can control carbonation levels, I can simply fill up my kegs with any beer that’s available by the growler and fix the CO2 levels if needed, so if a customer has a favorite beer I should be able to have it on draft.

So I’m excited. We’re aiming for a mid-October launch party to get our service down. We’ve already got interest from a couple places for events, and I’m excited that after nailing down a few from bridal expos and the like, we can expand. I feel like in two years I’ll be booked solid.

But mostly what I’m excited for is making the cocktails. I love making batched drinks. It’s the perfect mix of art and science for me.  I learned a lot at Tales of the Cocktail, and figured out some great stuff on my own about it, and I’m excited to put it all together and keep pushing the limits of what cocktails can do. You’ll see a lot from me about this in the coming year. Stay tuned.

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