The VinePair Podcast: Can Craft Cocktail Bars Become Franchises?
On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss some of the recent expansions for iconic cocktail bars like Dante, Death & Co., and The Dead Rabbit. The three debate whether or not they can keep quality high even in newer, larger settings, and question what the end game is for this kind of expansion. Tune in for more.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.”
J: I forgot my name for a second there. So sorry guys.
Z: Joanna had a rough weekend.
A: She’s like, “Who am I?” A really existential question, actually. You have to ask yourself that every once in a while, who am I?
J: Where am I?
A: Yeah, what’s the deal? Such a blur.
Z: Is it because of what you drank, Joanna?
A: Yeah. What have you been drinking, Joanna?
J: Oh, my gosh, no. So I started talking about this in our last episode but I did try that Bearface Canadian whisky over the weekend. That was really good. I’d like to explore the category a little bit more. There were some recommendations for more craft. As I understand it, this is a bigger brand, but it’s a single-grain Canadian whisky aged for seven years in ex-bourbon barrels, then aged in French oak red wine casks and air-dried virgin Hungarian oak. Sorry, I’m just reading a little description.
J: Yeah, so it was a little sweet but it has smooth on the label. We talk about Canadian whisky being smooth.
A: Yeah. They know what they’re doing, they know who they’re appealing to.
J: But other than that, the engagement party that I went to, that Adam shared with everyone.
J: It was romantic Italian backyard-themed and it had a little bar cart that was serving Negronis and Aperol Spritzes, which was very nice and they had some sparkling wine. So yeah, pretty low-key drinking weekend for me. But yeah, got to explore more Canadian whisky. I’m onto you people.
Z: I need more insight, Joanna.
Z: That would be always welcome. Yeah, so I think for me, the two things that I had recently that were particularly interesting, we opened a nice bottle of 2016 Syrah from W.T. Vintners Winery here from the Destiny Ridge Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills, so here in the state. And you guys well know I’m a big proponent of Washington wine. W.T. Vintners is one of the producers here that I think does a really nice job in particular with Syrah and other red varieties. Nice and fruit-forward, but peppery and savory and good measure as well. Just a tasty bottle. We had some red meat, which seemed like the right thing to do. And then the other thing that I’ve been drinking a fair bit of lately has been — Adam, actually we talked about this I think while you were gone — but I have been still really in a Daiquiri mood. It’s been still kind of nice and sunny here during the day, even though obviously as the days are getting shorter, you definitely get a little more cooling off at night. But I have found that my favorite time, perhaps, of the day to have a Daiquiri is 3 p.m. It’s a great mid-afternoon drink on a Saturday. And yeah, I’ve just been making those pretty much every Saturday, one, maybe two depending on the day, how the kids are behaving. And yeah, that’s been kind of my drinking regimen. How about you, Adam?
A: Okay, so for me. I haven’t drank a whole lot; I’ve been trying to be a little bit conscious since coming back from Italy. On vacation you let loose a little bit more. So I had a cocktail that we’re going to talk about as the basis for this conversation, which I guess was a Negroni, a really bad one.
Z: Oh, no.
A: Which will be interesting to chat about in a second. And then besides that, I had just a little bit of wine while watching some football. And besides that, nothing else. Nothing that really blew me away or that I was like, “Oh, this is the most amazing thing or I have to share this.” It happens once in a while. It kind of is what it is.
Z: Yeah, your podcast might suffer for it but what can you do?
J: It’s hard work.
A: It is.
Z: Yeah, I hope you folks understand we’re doing this for you.
A: Yeah, it’s hard work. But this terrible Negroni, let me share about this because I want to have a conversation. So we’ve had conversations around this topic for a while and it felt like after this experience and chatting with you both about it, it would be fun to chat about it on air. That is sort of the franchise-ment or expansion of popular cocktail bars and what that means for the cocktail bar, and is that good or bad? And what that means to the consumer, is that good or bad? I know we chat about this a little bit when it comes to the top 50 and how do bars capitalize on being named a top 50 bar, seeing bars capitalize on it, etc. So one of those bars that has seemed to grow by leaps and bounds ever since it began getting recognition is Dante. Dante started, sort of, in Greenwich Village, it was on MacDougal Street, got a lot of notoriety, it’s a very tiny bar.
J: Took over a historical bar.
A: Yeah, and had this robust Negroni program, started a Martini program, did all these collaborations and just started getting accolades from us, from lots of publications. Accolade after accolade after accolade, Spritzes, all this stuff. Then wound up on 50 best lists, then ultimately was named best bar in the world, then opened Dante West Village, which was always confusing to me because is Greenwich Village the West Village too? Not really sure, and I know it’s not, but the West Village is west of Greenwich Village, whatever. So they opened Dante West Village, bigger space. Then they started doing pop-ups in the Hamptons, Miami, etc. And then, they opened where I went this past weekend, Dante Seaport, and let me explain why I was there. So first, back up, back up, back up. So there was this event that I went to at the Maritime Building, this art show for this non-profit that Naomi is involved with. And afterwards, a bunch of people wanted to go get drinks and we tried to go to the Tin Building, which is this new Jean-Georges concept that opened in the old fish market. But it was after 5 p.m. and due to their inability to staff, they were closed, which is crazy on a Saturday. So they were only open for what they’re calling preview hours from 1 to 5. So we’re like, “Oh, where do we go?” And someone pulled up Google Maps and was like, “Oh, my God, there’s a Dante at the Seaport right here.” It was like, “Okay.” So we go in and it’s their branding but the place easily can hold 5 or 600 people.
A: It’s huge, it’s like Dante does Vegas. And they’re not the only ones down there doing this; there’s a Momofuku Ssam Bar, there’s an Andrew Carmellini restaurant, there’s a lot of other big-name chefs and restaurant tours who are now doing, there’s a Di Fara now at the Seaport.
A: Yeah, right? They’re doing things down there probably because real estate has lured them there. But Dante is for sure there because, as lots of people have heard, in the past few years it has been named the best bar in the world. Look, Death & Company has done this too. The Dead Rabbit has done this, etc. So we go in. Listener, when I tell you this was not a Dante experience, this was not a Dante experience, and I would feel very bad for anyone who thought that this was what Dante is. First of all, they had multiple theme bars that all happened to be closed, probably staffing, but they had a Martini bar, they had a Negroni bar, they had a main bar. It all feels very kitschy, almost like, again, Dante does Vegas. Little ice cream truck set up where they’re doing affogatos and stuff, also was oddly closed on a Saturday. So then we go to the main bar. Bartenders are very confused, they’re sort of sloppily making drinks. And so I was just like, “I’ll order a Negroni.” And I ordered a Negroni and when you have the Negroni at Dante, when I first had it, they took it very seriously, or they did.
Z: You could say that’s the drink that made Dante really.
A: Yeah. Again, Naren Young was the beverage creative director then, they were taking it very seriously. I know there’s other people behind the bar now who still do at the original location. But anyways at this one, it was batch dumped out of a bottle into a glass and then just, I just saw the bartender take that plastic shovel or whatever, just into the ice, like an ice machine of a hotel, and just dump ice into the glass. So the ice we say that you should never use with a cocktail, especially a nice cocktail, just that sort of chip ice or whatever we call it. And then an orange slice, not even the peel, a full slice orange just dunked into glass. “Here, $18.” And it made me think, does this ultimately hurt this brand? Because the people that were there seem to be having a nice time, you’re on the water, etc., but is this going to be ultimately bad for the brand? Because they could have opened something else. They could have said this is called “Seaport Views by Dante” even or something, but literally, this is Dante at the Seaport. So you’re expecting the Dante experience and you’re not getting it. I’ve heard this from other people who’ve gone to places that have sort of opened a second or a third or a fourth location, that this is the same kind of thing that seems to happen. And I know that this is how you ultimately make more money, you need to be able to expand, but can a fancy cocktail bar really expand like this? It feels like you can’t because to do the kind of volume that this place needs to do, you almost have to have the experience I had, which is a batch Negroni dumped into a glass with affordable ice that can be made quickly, not a meticulously made Negroni over a large clear draft ice cube. So I’m curious what you both think about this because my kind of feeling is this ultimately could hurt the brand, but I could see a lot of the people that argue and say no, the brand is going to be exposed to so many more people who can’t get into those other locations and who feel like they went to Dante and they don’t care anyways.
J: Yeah. I think that there’s a difference between Dante opening a second location where there’s just as much attention to detail and care for the cocktail program, like in the West Village, and then expanding to different locations like Dante Seaport, which has its own website actually. It’s not mentioned on the regular Dante website.
A: Oh, I didn’t know that.
J: Maybe there’s a reason for it, but I do think that it comes down to, like you’re saying, Adam, do they care? Maybe at this point, they feel like they’ve built a really strong brand with global recognition and it is just about enough people saying they had the Dante experience by going to a place that accommodates 300 people or whatever, 400 people and maybe they don’t really care about their drinks. But I do think that’s the line because I think with other places you see, there’s PDT and then there’s PDT in Hong Kong. Other bars have been able to expand or open other locations without losing the integrity and the original vibe of what they were doing in the flagship location.
A: Yes, I guess some people claim that the Death & Co. L.A. is as good if not better than the original.
J: Right, because they both made the list this year, right?
A: Yeah, but it just seems like it’s such a risk because if you don’t execute it absolutely perfectly, people can have experiences like this and then you can have someone associated with a cocktail publication start talking about how it wasn’t that great.
J: Yeah, I think the risk is to the people who take cocktails seriously but then in losing them, you gain all these other people.
Z: Yeah. Well, so here’s, I think, a good frame of reference potentially. So this has been going on with chefs and with restaurants for decades, right? And Adam, you mentioned Vegas, I think Vegas is one example but I think about — this is maybe a little bit more of an extreme example than the one you’ve described with the Dante Seaport — would someone be taken seriously if they talked about how they went to a Wolfgang Puck in the airport and the food was not as good as the Wolfgang Puck restaurant they went to in Los Angeles? No, you kind of expect from the setting that whatever connection those two things have is probably just some of the money going to the same place. And maybe, at one point, Wolfgang Puck was involved in something, I don’t even really know. Menu design, whatever that means. And so franchising and the idea of taking this commodity that is the Dante brand and applying it to places that do not in any way, shape, or form perhaps live up to the experience of the original bar or even the West Village Bar is, I think, almost an easier thing to swallow than places that might open a second location that is attempting to imitate the first but doesn’t do it well. And that I think is actually maybe a riskier move for a bar. If you open Dante, I don’t know, Austin or something and it’s intended to be the New York location, the original or the West Village one or whatever, and for whatever reason doesn’t land, you don’t get enough quality bar staff because you don’t have roots in that place and it’s hard to hire or people don’t take kindly to it because they want to support bar concepts that were born in Austin and are not transplanted. I think we can all kind of look at something like the Seaport and say maybe you’re Negroni sucked and that’s a bummer. And certainly paying $18 for a bad Negroni or at least an uninspiring one, is no fun. But also if you walk into a space that accommodates 500 people, you’re going to presumably have a different set of expectations for the kind of experience you’re going to have than if you walk into a 30-seat small cocktail bar. And I honestly commend the Dante people in some way for just being like, “Hell yeah, sure, let’s do this.” This is a way for us to make some serious bank, not trying to do Dante again in a different place, your margin on a small cocktail bar is just inevitably going to be small because you just can’t do volume, you can do volume at the Seaport as it turns out.
J: Yeah. I think there’s also a good point that you made there, Zach, about the actual place that these types of bars or restaurants are opening. I do think the Seaport is kind of one of those places where there’s often a lot of tourists. It’s not quite the airport or a stadium or something like that.
Z: It’s awfully close, though.
J: Yeah, it is kind of close so I think this seems to be a good opportunity where maybe the quality doesn’t have to be up to the original and they’re still going to make a ton of money.
A: Yeah, I feel like where this is doable is when the bar that’s franchising, or not franchising, but expanding is already a large-format bar.
A: Dead Rabbit is not a small space, so to open multiple Dead Rabbits, which is the plan, I think, makes sense because people kind of know what they’re getting at Dead Rabbit. And for some people that’s just a really great experience and a properly poured Guinness. And for others it’s really incredible cocktails. I think where it’s hard is when you take a brand that potentially made its full name in that intimate setting and then you expand it. What I think was so challenging about this example in particular is they’re still trying to do what they became known for at the other bars.
A: To have the specific Martini bar, that wasn’t open so they said they could make whatever you wanted at the main bar, is saying, “We’re known for these Martini sessions and we are going to have a bar devoted to that and we’re doing it in the same glassware and we’re charging the same prices.” And that I think is really difficult to do when it’s not done well, whereas if Dante had said we are going to open a large-format bar and it’s going to be a different concept, I don’t know, at different times of the year, whatever, maybe in the summer it’s all spritzes or whatever, it’s our spritz concept bar, maybe this would’ve worked better. But it’s very challenging, I think, to pull something off like this that is trying to take $18 to $20 cocktails and do them at volume in such a large space. And it’s such a different experience. And that I think is hard because then you have consumers who either have a great experience or, like we said, cocktail people like us who then say, “Oh, man, this is really not great. What’s happening to this brand?” Even though I’m sure that if I went to MacDougal Street tomorrow it would be a great experience.
Z: Well, and I think it’s the blessing and curse of a reputation like Dante’s, right? On the one hand you have the cache to launch a 500-seat cocktail emporium at the Seaport. Undoubtedly, however that deal came together, the name Dante was an important part of it.
A: Oh, 100 percent.
Z: For whatever you said, Adam, I’m sure that the developer or whoever the landlord was not going to sign off on some sort of name for a bar that doesn’t include Dante because they’re not dumb. They understand that some segment of the population is going to be like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard of that bar, sure, I’ll go get an $18 Negroni there.” Whereas a no-name just kind of created for the Seaport bar might have a harder time getting that same level of buy-in from guests. Conversely, you are kind of maybe also trapped into feeling like you have to offer something that is an approximation of the experience that you might get at some of the smaller locations and that might be something that, over time, it seems like in some sense, it’s already being phased out because they can’t literally staff the concept. And perhaps, over time, you’re going to find, if you go back to that location — assuming it’s still open in a year — that maybe they really have streamlined things. Maybe it’s very upfront that you’re getting a batch Negroni and sh*t, maybe you order it, it’s a three-drink kit and it comes with it, and you put it together yourself table side, I don’t know, there’s a lot of ways that you can make this sort of space and limitations of a big bar work for you, as well as work against you. But I do think that the other interesting question is the kind of reputation that Dante and a few other bars have, does seem well matched for this kind of expansion. And I mentioned airports before and I’m actually kind of surprised. Would it shock any of you to go into an airport in, I don’t know if they have locations at, I know there’s the speakeasy we’ve talked about at JFK which is part of what the Amex Centurion Lounge or something, it has some connection to local bar, I don’t even remember now.
J: Yeah, PDT, right?
Z: Would it shock you to find, in 10 years, a Dante location in six airports around?
A: I actually think that makes more sense.
Z: It does but I think that’s my point, the way you get that to work is you get these bigger other concepts to land because what I think they’re trying to do is take the Dante brand, I guess for lack of a better way of putting it, and if you’re exposing it to people at the Seaport, you’re already putting it in front of a whole set of potential customers who would never bother to make a reservation to go to a cocktail bar. They’re not going to deal with that because they just don’t care enough. They might enjoy a drink, but if the name is recognizable because it’s splashed everywhere in New York City or at least in the kinds of places that people who, the millions of people who travel every year are familiar with, then if they’re in the airport bar in whatever, pick a place, I’m not going to even play this game anymore, in three years and they’re like, “Oh, yeah, Dante, I’ve heard of that. Oh, cool, let’s get a drink there.” This whole thing, with another episode sometime, of what is happening with airline or airport concessions is really fascinating to me because it’s changed tremendously over the last half decade or so. Especially, if you’re not the kind of person who has access to a lounge and you want a decent drink, this seems like a natural place for this kind of expansion. And I bet there’s a lot of this probably going on behind the scenes that I’m not aware of but that to me, seems like in the same way that you see it happening with, as we talked about, sporting events, you see it happening with other places where lots of people gather and those people might want something more compelling than spirit and mixer. If you have your name out there, you have your brand out there, you’ve shown that you can make the concept work, maybe not quality-wise but just volume-wise, you’re going to get looks from these same kinds of entities.
A: Right. Yeah, I think it does make sense in an airport setting and I guess it does make sense as well to test it out here. I guess the argument becomes, if you’re trying to take both your brand and one of the drinks that made your brand famous and grow off of that. So you want to be synonymous with, let’s be honest, the Negroni. There’s a huge neon sign in the bar that says “Your mama told you to order a Negroni,” or something like that. So then you also have to do the Negroni as best as you possibly can. And I feel like that’s where sometimes it’s more just about now the name than the overall experience. I still want someone to feel like they got an incredible Negroni and now we know that Tim McKirdy, host of “Cocktail College,”will argue that there is no such thing as an incredible Negroni, it’s just Negronis. But you want people to feel like they had the best version they possibly could and I think that becomes harder when bars get bigger because it’s an issue of the volume and the push, it’s a lot harder to deal with a huge block of draft ice than just the regular ice that’s available behind the bar, that’s chip ice. So I think that’s what makes it more challenging and is it fair for me to judge this bar the same as the other Dantes? And I’m curious what listeners think. This bar is called Dante at the Seaport. Is it fair for me to hold it to the same standard as Dante and Dante West Village, or is it not? I don’t hold the version of some of these places at the airport to 100 percent the same standard, do you know what I mean? If I’ve eaten at a Palm or whatever when I have a delay, not holding it to the same standard as a high-end steakhouse in the city or whatever. But then Danny Meyer would argue with you that the Shake Shack at the airport better be as good as every single other one of his Shake Shacks or he’s not going to do it, so that’s where I think we have the problem.
J: Well that’s where I think, I don’t know, and this could be wrong, but maybe I just think that Dante people think the Seaport location is good and is achieving what they want it to, and they maybe don’t care. It seems successful. I think maybe it’d be a different story if it was never full, but it seems like it’s a very popular place.
A: Oh, it’s packed.
J: Yeah, exactly. So it’s doing exactly what they want it to and yeah, maybe you go to the original location for that experience but as the brand continues to expand, it is just about the name.
Z: Yeah. Well, and I think you mentioned Shake Shack, which is something that I’ve been thinking about for this whole conversation.
J: Me too, yeah.
Z: Every operator, or not every, but many operators, that’s their dream. That took Danny Meyer from a very successful restaurateur to an incredibly wealthy person. And I don’t doubt that that sort of thing is on the mind of any number of people, because yeah, that would probably be nice.
J: But I think there’s a difference between doing that with Shake Shack and trying to achieve the same thing with Union Square Cafe or Gramercy Tavern. I think it lent itself to this in a way that maybe Dante doesn’t because it had such a high standard and quality.
Z: Well, and doing it with burgers is different than with cocktails. It’s just a different business in some way. But the point is that it may be that for Dante, and that company, using the Dante brand ends up being a problem. Just because it hasn’t been yet, does not mean it couldn’t be down the road. But at the same time, there’s also no guarantee that just because what they were doing at Shake Shack was fundamentally different than what the food that served at Union Square Cafe or Gramercy Tavern or whatever, in a way that conceptually, at least the cocktails at Dante, at the Seaport, or Dante at JFK or Dante at, I don’t know, Walt Disney World — these are hypotheticals, to be clear — don’t necessarily have to be as radically different from the beverages served at Dante in the West Village or whatever as the Shake Shack would be from, like I said, those more established restaurants. The way that Danny Meyer or Union Square Hospitality Group did it is not the way that everyone has to think about doing it. And in fact, franchising the Dante name might actually be the best bet because it’s a very recognizable name.
A: Yeah. So I’m curious what people think. Am I being too hard?
J: Yes, tell us.
A: Tell us! And what do you think of these expansions? Hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org . Zach and Joanna, I’ll see you on Friday.
J: See you Friday.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.
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