Happy Accidents isn’t merely a new bar. It represents an entirely new business model for bars, a new realm of possibilities for the industry. “Kate Gerwin’s bar in New Mexico is pushing the limits on how we execute every part of bar operations,” says Alex Jump of Death & Co Denver. “In doing so, she’s created opportunities to provide better working and living environments for her employees. And the cocktails are good, to boot.”
In addition to being a bar, Happy Accidents is also a distillery with a craft-distiller license. It distills its own products and sources and blends products between distilleries and regions, producing each spirit specifically for the cocktail for which it is designed.
“We have a unique ability for bartenders to be able to control every aspect of the spirits that go into the cocktails,” says Gerwin, the bar’s co-owner (with Blaze Montana). “For example, if a bartender wants to add a whiskey cocktail to the menu, they can control how much rye, how much corn, how much wheat, and how much barley goes into each blend. They can control the proof.”
Even more revolutionary is Happy Accidents’ employee compensation. “We are 100% bartender-owned,” says Gerwin. “Our concept was based on creating an equitable workspace for all the staff. [We offer] above-living wages for staff, health insurance, profit-sharing, and eventual partnership—the way it should be and can be.”
During the pandemic, Gerwin looked around at the challenges the industry was facing and asked, “How do we create a business model that’s going to be different and equitable?” she says. “How do we make this a little more equitable and long-term and sustainable for people?”
The answer involved reevaluating the typical bar-world business model: looking at what’s generally considered essential (rent, liability insurance, etc.) and what’s not (health insurance, a living wage plus room for growth, and more) and asking: What if we change the model? What if we decide to build those into our operating budget as essential? “These were things that were non-negotiable for us to operate, and we made them part of our program,” says Gerwin. “We just made them priorities.”
The other elements of the bar’s business model lead to minimized costs elsewhere, enabling the numbers to work. Happy Accidents not only distills, it also has an importer’s license and imports spirits such as agave and rum in bulk. The benefits of importing in mass don’t stop at reduced costs.
“We’re very sustainable; we don’t have a lot of bottle waste,” says Gerwin. “I think in the year we’ve been open, we’ve thrown away maybe a couple of cases of bottles.” It also means the bar has managed to avoid the supply-chain issues that have plagued most bars in recent times. And it’s a boon for the cocktail program: Of the close to 90 cocktails currently on the menu, 40 or so of those are on draft.
One that Gerwin is particularly proud of is the bar’s Gin & Tonic. “We tell people it’ll change your view of Gin & Tonics for the rest of your life,” she says. When you order one at a typical bar, she explains, it’s made with room-temperature gin poured over ice, which melts and dilutes the drink. Then it’s topped with tonic off a soda gun that uses room-temperature syrup that has been sitting in a bag in a box for months, creating an inferior drink.
At Happy Accidents, the bar makes its own tonic syrup. The drink is offered on draft so it’s coming straight from the keg; no part of the mix sees light, heat, or oxygen until it’s in your glass. It’s kept at just above 32 degrees Fahrenheit, so when the mix hits the ice, it doesn’t dilute, and it’s super-effervescent.
“I don’t necessarily think we have to reinvent the wheel with all of these new techniques and new cocktails; everything these days is a riff on a classic, anyway,” says Gerwin. “I think you just have to focus on the drinks you’re making, understand the science behind all of them, understand the science behind how cocktails work, how carbonation works, how pH works, how sugar levels work, and then just make the best cocktails that you can.”
As you might expect, Gerwin has been approached by many others in the industry, local and far-flung, asking about how she has implemented her revolutionary business model. She’s happy to share her insights; after all, as they say, a rising tide lifts all boats. Her goal wasn’t merely to open one bar, but to create new norms within the industry and to make people stop and think, Well, we’ve always done it this one way, but it doesn’t have to be that way; it can be better.
“I don’t think we are doing anything that anyone else doesn’t want to do,” says Gerwin. “I think someone had to start doing it for us all to go, ‘Wait a minute, we can do this too!’”