Art isn’t always a viable business, as it’s hard to estimate how many paintings you can sell, whereas booze, on the other hand, is pretty easy to quantify, notes Jeronimo co-owner Andrew Hyde. “In the past, people would come for the art opening and had little reason to come back,” he adds about the hidden bar space that opened in a historical building in the Casco Viejo area of Panama City in December of 2014.
Hyde says the bar built its customer base by filming people making “shush” noises outside and letting others stumble upon the establishment in the back of the gallery. Initially locals had a tough time digesting the concept of a speakeasy in a country that hasn’t been through Prohibition. However, thanks to a large expat customer base, the concept was soon understood and embraced, he says.
What’s Old Is New
The building is a conglomeration of four buildings dating to the 1700s and 1800s, on top of a hill with a baroque 1914 façade. While Hyde notes that many bars in Panama can be loud, Jeronimo is a place for conversation. The lounge tables spill into the gallery, so guests can imbibe alongside the art. The space holds a maximum of 150 guests, and when it gets too crowded, Hyde and his team control throngs by charging at the door.
There is no secret knock or password, but the bar’s presence is entirely hidden from the street. Getting a liquor license was challenging, he added, and Jeronimo, like other local bars, has to close at the city-designated time of 3AM.
Training staff in a city not known for mixology was the biggest challenge for Hyde. Bartenders, who wear suspenders and vests, had to be taught everything from the history of cocktails to how to shake a drink with a touch of showmanship.
“A developing country, by definition, is developing, so you really have to train staff.” Part of the training also focused on using local and freshly sourced ingredients, which isn’t always the case in Panama. Hyde and his team had some experience having run a pop-up, Berlin-style nightclub called Espacio Panama for six months in 2013.
He says the key to opening a speakeasy-like bar outside of top cocktail destinations is “having a secret space with a transition from front to back.” He adds that the environment also needs to be totally unique from a design perspective, so launching a tony bar in a strip mall might not be ideal, he notes, but then again it might be just the perfect hidden location.
The music needs to match the space, he says. Building the business doesn’t need to be so challenging either. He then says that once you court a core group of consumers, the customer base “grows organically.”