Angus Winchester, the operating partner of The Embassy in New York City, on opening a bar and the value of waiting for the right opportunity:
I ran a bar in New York 23 years ago now, a bar called Embassy down in Tribeca. I had moved from London to New York. I was looking for a job; no one in New York knew me. I got a call from an English guy who knew the places I’d worked at in the U.K. He was in the CD-ROM business that owned the building and was opening a bar on the ground floor and wanted me to be involved. The bar didn’t do that well, but I had a lot of fun and established a good relationship with him. The CD-ROM business obviously tanked horribly, he moved into the property, and we kept friends over the course of 20 years.
In 2006, he contacted me to look at a property he was looking at. We went to Brooklyn, which in those days, and with my Manhattan sensibilities, was a little bit like, “Where the hell are we going?” We went out to Crown Heights, which I’d never heard of before. He showed me this ruined building; it was an old brewery. What he was most interested in from our point of view was that it was one of the first breweries to do lager in America. The process of lagering beer involves storing it at cold temperatures for long periods of time. In the basement, or the vaults underneath, were the old lagering vaults. It was a cool space.
In 2007, the property [market] crashed. He held onto it—he knew the venue and the area were both going to take off. Fast forward a few years, and the property market picks up. He sells half of it to a property developer and then contacts me. He says, “We’re going to build 40 apartments above, but look at the basement down below with regards to doing an entertainment space, a restaurant, something like that.”
I’d always been asked when would I open a bar. I always said it had to be when all of the necessary ingredients were there. So this was a great partner—not just someone I trusted but also the landlord and the developer, which is normally such an important part from a business point of view of running a bar. Great location: Crown Heights is taking off, and the boys from Attaboy are opening a place around the corner. Even in the year I’ve been living here—seeing new buildings, the redevelopment of residential and a lot of the older shops being converted into cafés and things like that. There’s also my reputation—my knowledge of drinks is pretty good, shall we say. And finally, the last couple of years I’ve been working with Barmetrix—it’s about management in bars, it’s about the leadership, the systems, really the underpinnings of what you need to open a bar.
All of the various elements had aligned themselves perfectly. So we entered into an agreement to set up a bar. The idea was that we have a soft spot for [the former] Embassy. But more importantly, I wanted to open a bar that showcased drink-based hospitality.
I had traveled around the world. I’ve drunk pisco with tiger’s milk in Peru, I’ve drunk Gin & Tonics in Spain, and I’ve drunk soju over in Korea. I just wanted a space that brought all of those wonderful cultural, social aspects, the authentic ways they drink them in certain places and the wonderful spirits I’ve been able to try. Most people have never had that experience.
It will be a two-part bar. The über alles is an embassy for drinks-based hospitality.
This isn’t a high-concept place. It will still just be a good bar. But potentially each week, we’ll showcase a different country. It could be Norway, looking at Norwegian aquavit and beers of Norway.
Then there’s a fictional ambassador. This ambassador has been posted around the world and loves drinks. Wherever he has visited, he wants to investigate local drinking culture. He’s older, a connoisseur, a maven of many things—art, culture, social history—but especially drinks. He will represent The Embassy but have his own private residence. If you get to meet him, then he may invite you to come and join him in The Residence and have a slightly more upscale experience. It potentially will be a little bit more guided; this is a residence as opposed to a commercial bar.
It may be slightly more restricted in terms of product, whereas The Embassy will be more busy, lively, have a jukebox, for example, so people get to choose music and make it part of their own community from that point of view, The Residence will be reservations-only but only for one-third, so you can still walk in, seated only, probably playing vinyl, potentially albums only. My drinks library will probably be in there as well. Los of objet d’art, or objet d’bar—the shakers and the weirdness, the Martini scales, the weird Tantalus things and drink-serving devices.
It will be the sort of bar that if you know what you’re doing, if you’re a serious drinker, you could have a lot of fun in there. Good well-trained bartenders—no ego, no arrogance. The idea is to serve classic cocktails. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. I want to have good, accessible, friendly staff serving good, classic, solid drinks.
I’ll look at the business aspect in terms of GMROI—gross margin return on inventory—as opposed to gross margin return on sales. So rather than say I’ll serve Johnnie Walker Blue Label and make an 80 percent profit margin on it at $50 a shot but you only sell three shots a week, I’m going to reduce the price and reduce my margin but look to sell more of it. So I’m hoping to encourage people to drink better than they normally would. Hopefully selling more of it will mean more money at the bank at the end of the day, which is a bar owner’s requirement, really, to turn stock back into cash as quickly as possible. We tell people we want them to drink better, but then we penalize them by overpricing stuff.
We had planned to open in late spring. There has been a slight delay in terms of construction, so it’s now pushed to theoretically a July opening, which is not a good time to open a bar in New York. We might push it to September.
If you’re going to open your own bar, what you need to realize is: Do you have business skills to be able to open a business? Forget that it’s a bar. It’s about business planning, understanding how you’ll make the place profitable, how you’ll recruit and treat the people who work under you. A love of drinks is not necessarily an important requirement or sometimes even desirable, because you can get blinded by the type of cocktail list and the back bar as opposed to: Have you calculated workers’ comp insurance and the other business aspects?
Loving drinks is one thing, but understand that you’re running a business that serves drinks. It’s not about the drinks; it’s about the experience. Bars nowadays seem to think it’s all about the drinks, and mixologists have run amok, to a certain extent. It’s about great service and having an engaged workforce who gets what you’re trying to do.
I would also say: Don’t rush into it. Make sure you are confident in the business as well as the creativity. At the end of the day, assemble a good team. That’s more important than the quality of your cocktail menu or the softness of the leather on your banquettes, which probably will get ripped up within a week anyway.
I could have opened a bar 15 years ago. I’ve been offered money to open bars in different places around the world continually. But it was always no. I realized there were still bits of the skill set I needed that were missing—a great partner, proper financing, decent business plan, an understanding of what business you’re in, as well as a good location. Don’t rush into it. I think patience is an incredible virtue and it pays off in the end.