Behind the Bar How They Got It Right

How San Francisco’s ABV Bar Got It Right

San Francisco’s ABV opened just about one year from the day it won Best New Cocktail Bar at Tales of the Cocktail in 2015. The bar is a clean, bright, casual space with elevated bar food. And while nothing about it screams “destination bar,” just about every bartender who comes to town makes it their destination.

ABV is owned by partners Ryan Fitzgerald (a former Beretta bar manager and Del Maguey mezcal brand ambassador), Erik Reichborn-Kjennerud (the owner of Dalva/Hideout) and Todd Smith (the founding Bourbon & Branch bartender and a former Pacific Edge distributor rep). I spoke with Fitzgerald about the smart and maybe not-so-smart decisions they made in the process of building and running the bar.

Do all bartenders take shifts as servers, and if so, why did you implement that policy?

Yes, it’s an idea that we’d been thinking about for years. It just makes so much sense—who knows the cocktails better than the bartenders? Plus it has great advantages: First, instead of a server suggesting a different drink for each person in that party of eight, you have a bartender who knows that eight different drinks takes 10 times as long as four orders of two different drinks. They have the power to make the bartender’s job (and, in turn, theirs) much easier.

Second, it eliminates the us-versus-them mentality. Usually bartenders pool tips behind the bar but servers keep their individual tips, so cocktails ordered by the servers are (or seem) less important to the bartenders, because they fetch less money than those sold over the bar. We simply expanded the pooling behind the bar to include the bartenders and barbacks who are on the floor, so we are a pooled house, and it works perfectly.

Lastly (and something we didn’t expect at all): Now we have more people on staff who can cover other people’s shifts. That makes twice as many people on staff who are qualified to cover you. And luckily for us, our place is very casual—we don’t course food; there’s no silverware, no need to reset guests for the next course.

Any guiding philosophies, or base agreements, that your team came up with before opening that help keep the bar on a steady course?

Totally. We agreed to always carry the best spirits available—not the trendiest (except for mezcal), not the spirits that are on sale right now, not the spirits that will get our pictures in industry magazines, not the spirits that will get us a trip to France and not the spirits that will get our brand ambassador friends in to spend money. We carry spirits we love, spirits we want to drink.

What was the biggest worry you had before opening ABV?

Money. It was our goal to finance the build-out without any outside investment. We have pretty high standards when it comes to equipment and design, and we only had a finite amount of money. We did a bunch of work ourselves, hired friends to help us, and we saved money wherever we could.

What are the top things you think you did right?

We paid a ton of attention to ergonomics. I personally measured multiple aspects of 15 different bars in an effort to really pin down just what the right measurements are. How high should the bar be? How high should the stools be in relation to the bar? How can we have a considerable mise en place yet still maintain plenty of bar space for the guest and not break our bartenders’ backs because the speed rack has them standing too far from the workspace?

Our staff is continuously thankful for the bar we built. They stand up straight while making drinks and can hear the guests even when the music is loud (because we soundproofed the ceiling and the bar is narrow enough), and we made sure they wouldn’t have to walk too far to reach the things they regularly need.

Anything you swore you’d never do/have that you changed your mind on?

TVs definitely weren’t part of the plan ... but with the Warriors and Giants winning championships and with us being sports fans, it was only a matter of time. We’re proud to have it when we need and really happy with our sneaky little trolley that helps us hide it when nothing important is happening. Over the 18 months we’ve been open, the TV has been out less than 30 times. And the TV comes in super handy for staff trainings and supplier presentations.

Anything you expected to succeed that failed or vice versa?

Originally we had three cocktails per spirit, but that was a nightmare of mise en place that was starting to lead to the NYC-style sea of cheater bottles.

We were definitely not sure the no-silverware menu would work [all food at ABV is meant to be eaten with one’s hands], but it has worked well. We especially like how it almost forces people to relax—they suddenly realize or remember that they’re in a bar, a casual place.

What is one big mistake you made in building the bar?

Maybe all contractors are awful—that seems to be the common gripe—but ours was infuriatingly bad. He messed up so many things—ordered the wrong window, hired clowns instead of guys we recommended to install our soundproofing and wasn’t anywhere to be found the day the guys arrived to install our roll-down door, which of course led to them installing it wrong.

What happens when you open a successful bar?

Lots of meetings, a great year of traveling and pop-ups for PR ... and dreams of being back in an empty space trying to envision its final appearance.

So what’s next for ABV?

We’re building another bar in the space that we’ll use for consumer classes, R&D, guest bartenders and other special events.