Cocktail Bodega with Matt Levine
The days of bartender slinging gin and tonics or vodka sodas in a club, as the primary revenue stream, has for a long time been fading. Bottle service changed that by employing the customer to be a bartender with waitrons and support staff there to help. The consumer was in control and able to make their own drinks faster than you can say "that will be $1,000". The revenue stream from table service exploded a stagnant club scene that was drowning in increased costs. The $500 bottle made everyone the clubs rich and the customer feel important. Bottle service spread all over the world in the mid 90's and today it's a way of life... but has it's time come?
The trend towards specialty cocktails is now becoming a torrent as people are looking for a change and venues are finding ways to maximize profits from this revenue stream. One of the inherent problems with bottle service is that it usually means one type of liquor with a limited number of mixes. The consumer pours in inconsistent amounts of, say Vodka, and a random amount of, say cranberry juice, and therefore the people spending the most money have the worst drinks in the place.
A patron at the bar can order exotic concoctions and allay the bartenders raised eyebrow with a tip. This glitch in the system is being addressed and will possibly replace some bottle service while bringing new revenues to the clubs and smiles to satisfied customer.
Cocktail Bodega, Matt Levine's latest adventure, combines the art of making great cocktails with healthy fresh squeezed juices. It won't be long before this concept filters into the clubs. Check out what Levine had to say about this trend.
Nightclub Confidential (NCC): Unlike the other establishments in the area, Cocktail Bodega is lit up like a dinner. What is the concept?
Matt Levine: Cocktail Bodega serves up freshly blended and juiced fruits and vegetables with the option to add liquor, as well as healthy boosts (Bee Pollen, Energy Memory, Lemongrass, Multivitamin, Wheatgrass, etc.) The menu takes a creative and innovative approach on traditional street food created by Chef Roble’. The New York based Lower East Side blog, Bowery Boogie, described it as "a Jamba Juice meets Margaritaville." To sum everything up visually, we created this little cartoon that you can watch on YouTube. A couple of my favorite juices are: The Gin Hulk (Hendrick's Gin, Apple Juice, Cucumber Juice, Lemon Juice, Spinach Juice) and The Tequila Immune Booster (Sauza Hornitos Tequila, Carrot Juice, Orange Juice, Ginger, Vitamin C). And a couple of my favorite smoothies are: The Bodega Cleanse (Grey Goose La Poire, Agave Nectar, Anjou Pear, Fresh Aloe, Kale, Kiwi, Flaxseed) and Jameson Brown Sugar Banana Smoothie (Jameson, Banana, Brown Sugar, Lemon Juice, Orange Juice, Vitamin C)
NCC: Tell me about your industry background and the other places you operate?
Levine: I currently own another restaurant in the Lower East Side, Sons of Essex, and am in the process of building out a restaurant in the Meatpacking District. Before opening up Sons of Essex, and most recently Cocktail Bodega, I owned another lounge, The Eldridge. During our run over on Eldridge Street, various other opportunities came about - operating a couple spots in the Hamptons, and handling food and beverage at The Hotel Rivington. But my true love and interest in the hospitality business dates back to when I barbacked during my summers in High School, bartending and throwing parties (and special events) throughout the city during my late high school years and college years. I just lost a bet last week (damn you Peyton Manning) with one of my barbacks at Sons of Essex, so you can catch me covering his shift (barbacking) there next Friday!
NCC: Tell us about Sons of Essex?
Levine: We opened up in November 2011, the Sons of Essex menu is a reflection of the diverse melting pot of cultures that have helped developed the Lower East Side. The old school vibe has been described as 'Bowery Boys' atmosphere meets 'Gangs of New York'- paying homage to the history of the Lower East Side. We fuse traditional American comfort food with the spices of Lower East Side immigrants past and use local ingredients and Essex Street Market fruits and vegetables. Our website is pretty interactive, with a ton of video's, including our "How to Make A…" section - showcasing videos on how to make some of our cocktails and appetizers, you can check it out at: http://sonsofessexles.com/
NCC: Cocktail Bodega Underground is in a basement. How will the up and down interact?
Levine: In the opening weeks of Cocktail Bodega and CBU (Cocktail Bodega Underground), we wanted to showcase both rooms and run one entrance, giving guests the opportunity to check out both spaces and interact on both floors. Over the next couple weeks, we will transition into using the side entrance at CBU while maintaining the front entrance for Cocktail Bodega. The goal is to build inside-out, neighborhood first, giving the locals, the neighborhood (businesses, residents, etc.) an opportunity to experience both Cocktail Bodega and the music-focused format of CBU before we actually kick it off.
NCC: Is bottle service sort of cliché and the cocktail hip? Can cocktails provide the same profit even though they are labor intensive?
Levine: I wouldn't say either is cliché or hip, you just have to understand your audience and cater to your neighborhood. Volume of cocktails over a longer life-span can match the profit on bottle service margins. The turnover (and investments made into the decor, entertainment, sound, staffing, etc.) of bottle-service focused venues vs. the longevity of cocktail-driven bars, in comparison, it's all relative.
NCC: Does cocktail service require unique solutions to storage of ingredients, different types of ice, and refrigeration?
Levine: While we have a detailed cocktail list over at Sons of Essex, building the cocktail list at Cocktail Bodega and its complexity was a learning experience for me. Quite frankly, I learn every day in this business. With the high rents of NYC, an extra seat, or an extra inch at the bar are all additional revenue streams to help the bottom line. When deciding between the build out of revenue streams vs. storage, revenue streams will always triumph. Fortunately, we had our concept for Cocktail Bodega thought out with detailed plans, so we were able to include the proper refrigeration (for all our fresh fruits and vegetables), storage (all of our ingredients) and equipment needed for the various different ice machines, juicers and blenders but if you asked Chef Roble' this question, he would probably say he needs more storage!
NCC: Is this a venture that can easily translate into franchises?
Levine: Growth is always the goal. Can I picture Cocktail Bodega in other cities, as well as airports and stadiums? Yes. But I've learned in this business you have to live in the moment. You are only as good as your last cocktail mixed and your last dish served.
NCC: Tell me more about Brandsway Creative and all the different things it does.
Levine: When I owned The Eldridge various brands came to me to represent them because of the events we hosted and the press we garnered (http://theeldridge.com/). Not knowing anything about PR, but with an entrepreneurial understanding of branding and marketing, my dear friend Kelly Brady ,who was Vice President of Lizzie Grubman PR at the time and I decided to create a branding, marketing, PR and special events company - Brandsway Creative. Our company produces events and has a diverse roster of clients; representing people, places, and products across the country. Our full client list can be found on our website at http://brandswaycreative.com/.
On the hospitality side, my business partner, Michael Shah and I, own and operate Cocktail Bodega, Sons of Essex and building out (the yet to be named) Meatpacking project at 55 Gansevoort. Because of our growth over the past year, and inquiries about our operations, we recently created indieFORK, a full service hospitality, management and operations group. We have built a really strong team (at indieFORK), due to a large part by our Director of Operations, James Choung. I am really excited about expanding our downtown style of operations with a little Lower East Side cache, as well as this expanded partnership overall. I look up to Michael's expertise and knowledge on the real estate side of things. We don't have a full website yet for indieFORK, but you can check out our tumblr here: http://indiefork.tumblr.com/
NCC: I waved to you the other day from my car. You were having what seemed to be a leisurely day riding your cool bike. You have many spots going full force. How do you clone yourself and find time to ...relax?
Levine: It was great to see you pumping your rock and roll thru the radio (smiles), there really is never time off in this business. My leisurely day of riding is just a means of my Lower East Side transportation. I was actually coming from Fulton Street Market, with a quick pit stop at Hester Street Fair – I always try to support local vendors, say hello to fellow neighborhood business owners (it's my entrepreneurial spirit), then made a brunch stop at Sons of Essex (umm, lobster benedict w/ truffle tater tots), and checked up on Cocktail Bodega - you know we have a bloody mary smoothie over there? it’s pretty damn good. Wait, with my new projects on the west side, can I ride my bike in the Meatpacking, will that be scoffed at or do I need car service? (kidding). But in all seriousness, it's not about cloning myself, it's about delegating - about building a team, and putting ambitious, creative, and hardworking people together to strive for a common goal, its inspirational and my team keeps me peddling .
NCC: Tell me more about your team. How do you hire?
Levine: I am willing to take chances, give people opportunities to succeed, I'd rather hire someone with ambition, creativity, hunger-and a passion for the business, then someone with a lengthy hospitality resume. The lengthy hospitality resumes sometimes can bring 'lengthy hospitality bad habits' as well. I tell my team "let's write the book, not read the book," "think outside the circle, not the box" - there's no how to book, no formula for this business, so any new idea is a great new idea. But all in all, nothing can be accomplished without the staff we have at each venue, and the team we are building at the indieFORK group level.
NCC: You are very down to earth in an industry of egos. How do you do that and is it just part of your business model?
Levine: Well, first off…I appreciate that, thank you…but Cocktail Bodega sells cocktails and quick eats, Sons of Essex sells an atmosphere, a creative menu, and delivers a downtown vibe-paying homage to the history of the Lower East Side-no reason for this business to be about myself or any ego, it’s about the brands we create, the atmosphere we curate, the food we serve, and the message we want to deliver. For me, building a restaurant isn't about the operator, it's about the operational foundation and customer focused values of the team-not the owner, not me. All I do is create the concept and lay out the operations; it's up to our team to teach, and our staff to execute. Being a leader is to lead by example, all I can do is work hard, and hopefully the hard work is contagious.