If you own a business or aspire to strike out on your own and become an entrepreneur, H. Joseph Ehrmann’s experience is a textbook example of what it takes to succeed. The 42-year-old’s story has the feel of a Frank Capra film and deals with facing truths, overcoming adversity and acting with conviction. Ehrmann’s tale is a decades-long pursuit of excellence and ultimately achieving greatness on a neighborhood corner. It makes for great reading.
His early career — prior to a life-changing pulmonary embolism — was marked by an unbroken string of gigs in both sides of the house. H. began working in high school as a cook at the Jersey Shore. From there he went on to cook in a number of restaurants on the East Coast before working his way out to the floor as a busboy, waiter, doorman and barback. His first bartending shift was at Walt Disney World’s Pleasure Island on New Year’s Eve 1989.
He credits Disney for teaching him a great deal about bartending. “When you step behind the bar, you’re on stage and have to play the role. You need to let go of outside distractions and focus your attention on satisfying the wants and needs of your guests. If you let external concerns affect a customer’s experience, you’ve lost money for yourself, your co-workers and your employer. Not only did you lose out on that transaction, but also the opportunity cost of them not returning, plus the exponential effect of them telling their friends about the less-than-stellar experience. The ripple effect is financially staggering.”
In 1992, Ehrmann relocated to Washington, D.C. to manage a restaurant named Roxanne’s, and then the following year, he moved to Vail, Colo., and bartended regularly for the next four years at The Jackalope and The Covered Bridge Café in Beaver Creek, Colo.
After earning his MBA in International Management from Thunderbird School of Global Management, he left for Europe, where he helped run a public relations firm in Madrid. He followed that with a stint in Silicon Valley as an international marketing consultant. The “dot-com bust” sent him back behind the bar and to resume his home renovations business. It was then that, like so many of the other over-educated and under-employed, he faced a tough choice.
“I decided to open a bar and abandon pursuing a traditional MBA career. So in January 2003, I quit all of my jobs and worked overtime writing a business plan, finding a location and founding a company. I eventually purchased Jack’s Elixir Bar on the corner of 16th and Guerrero in the Mission District [in San Francisco]. It has the distinction of being the 2nd oldest saloon location in San Francisco, but the facility was in desperate need of renovation. I got the keys to the bar on October 1st, immediately shut it down and restored the place in 52 days with the help of an army of friends. We re-opened for business on November 21st.”
The first few years were consumed with just staying afloat. “I thought survival meant we had to play to the existing clientele and serve cheap beer and whiskey. My staff consisted of all local bartenders who brought with them their own followings. I lost money like crazy. I finally realized that bad bartenders attract bad customers, and in order to survive, I had to get rid of both. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the courage to roll-out the kind of fresh produce-driven drinks I wanted to serve.”
Then the pulmonary embolism struck and changed his life completely. Near-death experiences will do that. “That was it. I wrote my first cocktail menu in the hospital. When I was released, I fired most of my staff, threw out all artificial and pre-packaged ingredients, set up regular produce orders and raised all of my prices. Business turned around in six months. Before I knew it, Elixir began attracting extensive press coverage, which drove increasing numbers [of guests] through our front door. As business got better, I just kept trying to innovate. It’s shocking how much work and thought goes into running a small corner bar like this.”
MR. H.’s Neighborhood
Elixir is warm and convivial and exemplifies the very best in a neighborhood bar. During the day, the place is sun-lit, cheerful and boisterous; at night, the staff draws the velvet curtains, dims the lights and the place transforms into a cozy cocktail lounge. The bartenders are engaging and top-notch; the drinks impeccable and singularly delicious. The high definition televisions broadcast sports during the day but are turned off by 10 p.m. to preserve the mood. There’s a jukebox, dartboard and the requisite bar dice.
“Our spirits collection is far deeper than you’d expect in such a small joint. Our seasonal cocktail menu rotates six times a year based on harvest changes. To keep things fresh, we also regularly shake-up our beer selection. It’s important to us that we afford our neighbors something different to do nightly.”
Photographs of H. Joseph Ehrmann, as well as the interior and exterior shots of Elixir are attributed to Darren Edwards.
He’s serious about that. On Sunday nights, they pull out the Jenga sets, Scrabble and other classic games. Monday is industry night, which like a beacon attracts bartenders from all parts of town. Tuesdays are reserved for Elixir Quiz with comedian Sal Calani, while on Wednesdays, guests step behind the bar to raise funds for charity. Thursdays’ Cocktail Club features presentations by master distillers and brand ambassadors from around the world, who invite patrons to taste and discuss their products. As for Friday and Saturday nights, the place simply rocks. Ratcheting up the energy level is the eclectic mix of people that come and enjoy all of this. It is San Francisco, after all.
One other way he differentiates Elixir: it's green. Not in color, but in business practices and drink offering. In December 2005, his bar, Elixir was named as one of the first 50 businesses in the city to be acknowledged as a Green Business through the Department of the Environment’s certification program. Now he schools other businesses on how to be green.
Ehrmann ranks learning the value of hospitality high among his many accomplishments. “I think being self-centered is the biggest mistake a beverage operator can make. This is a service industry, which means we serve others. You’re only as successful as you are hospitable.”
So if you want a graduate level education crammed into a few enjoyable nights, there’s no better institution to attend than Elixir and no one better to learn from than H. Joseph Ehrmann. Applicants are always welcome.