Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

Starting Over: How to Rebuild When Your Bar Goes Bust

Image: Wes Duvall

By all predictions, Americano should have been a runaway success. Co-owner Blair Reynolds had already made a name for himself with Hale Pele, one of Portland, Ore.’s most popular bars and on the short list of the country’s best Tiki spots. Americano was an ambitious project: a café during the day with house-roasted coffee and expensive espresso machines that transitioned into happy hour, then finally into a full-service bar, with creative low-ABV cocktails featuring vermouth and amari.

The food menu also changed throughout the day, as well as through Americano’s existence, never quite settling on a single identity. No matter how much money its owners threw at it, the place couldn’t get people through the door.

The Impact of Closing

Before Americano even closed, Reynolds distanced himself after some questionable financial decisions he made drove a wedge between him and his co-owners. The looming debt, loss of friendship and quickly failing project wracked him with anxiety and depression. Macie, a friend of the family who knew Reynolds’ wife for more than a decade, stepped in to help a bit.

“They asked if I could watch their dog,” she says. ”Blair was pretty much having a full-on breakdown. he mentally couldn’t handle everything in life that was happening. He was extremely fragile, and it was a scary situation for his wife.”

For a moment, it looked as though Americano would recover after it won Bar of the Year from local news site Oregon Live. Shortly after, only eight months removed from its opening, Americano shuttered.

A local newspaper dubbed it “The Biggest Flop in the History of Portland Bars” in an article outlining the reason for its failures. A lack of investment was not one of them; the owners had funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars into the bar. Reynolds, hoping for some reconciliation, signed for the majority of the debt. He eventually sold his majority stake in Hale Pele to his co-owner, Tiki star Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove, to help pay off the loans. He hasn’t stepped foot in there since.

“My identity was so tied to Hale Pele that separating from it was shattering,” says Blair. “It was like losing a piece of myself. I fell into a deep depression and lost an essential part of myself and my family’s income. And the financial institutions—they do not care.”

There’s a common misconception that a majority of bars and restaurants fail in their first year, though some economists have challenged those numbers, claiming that less than 20 percent flop within the first 365 days. In Portland, a city known for its revolving door of food and drink options, 2016 saw more than a 100 openings and more than 70 closings. Americano appeared on both lists.

Taking Steps Forward

Reynolds spent the weeks and months after the close in a state of depression. Eventually, he realized he couldn’t continue like that, not with a wife, three children and creditors breathing down his neck.

So he started down the long road of emotional recovery. “I explored different ways to heal,” he says. “I started therapy and explored mindfulness. I had to figure out how to forgive myself and let go of anger and my past. I couldn’t let my mistakes define me. I even went to a Tony Robbins event, which was great!”

He also changed up his diet and cut out alcohol. “When you’re in debt, there’s a lot you cannot control,” says Reynolds. “But what I can control is what’s going in my mouth. I can control myself.”

Besides therapy and mindfulness, he cites his family as the most important aspect of his recovery. “My incredible wife—she’s the rock,” he says.

Macie acknowledges the strides he has made. “There’s not that intense stress of dealing with the business and working with his partners,” she says. He’s trying to be more reflective of the situation. He’s trying to not be so hard on himself.”

Trying Something New

Financially, Reynolds is switching gears, putting more focus on his line of bar syrups and mixers, BG Reynolds, which he and his wife run on their own.

“We treated it like a startup for a little while,” he says. “There are no investors, so we get to make all the decisions, right or wrong. We had to fire everyone—no more trade shows or events, just us selling the product.”

That model appears to be working. The syrups grew approximately 30 percent in 2017 and are now in more than 20 States and in some Disney parks.

Reynolds isn’t finished with the bar industry, either. While he still has some stake in Hale Pele, he’s not involved creatively in the bar anymore. But he continues to work as a consultant, helping those trying to open a new bar or restaurant find their identity. Americano may have flopped, but Hale Pele still stands as an icon, and Reynolds has plenty of advice on how to make, or break, a restaurant now.

“Americano and Hale Pele are not the end of my creativity, and the syrups open up a lot of opportunity,” he says. When asked if he would open something new in Portland, he can’t help but laugh. “Absolutely not,” he says. The city still bears too many reminders for him, and real estate prices have risen astronomically, even in the five years since he opened Hale Pele.

But for now, it’s about focusing on his wife and kids, even when that means watching “Trolls” “250,000 times.” He’s not out of debt yet, and the wounds of the Americano debacle still sting, but he’s grateful for what he has now.

“I try to go from ‘I have no money’ to ‘wait a second, there’s food in my belly and my family’s, and we have a roof over our heads.’ We may not be able to keep everything, but we’re doing all right. A year ago, I was miserable and wanted to end it all. Now, it’s starting to get a lot brighter.”