Bar owner and operator Molly Wellmann is on a deadline, because she somehow has the time to write a column for Fred Minnick’s Bourbon+ magazine. It’s due tomorrow.
Molly Wellman is preparing to execute an event with Britney Ruby Miller, president of Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment, at the Cincinnati location of Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse. Wellmann and Ruby Miller will be hosting a Maker’s Mark event for women. It’s scheduled for tomorrow.
Oh, and Molly Wellmann bought out her three partners this year. She’s in the middle of condensing operations, evolving her brands, and renovating one of her bars, Japp’s Since 1879. That’s an ongoing, every day project.
And yet she doesn’t seem rushed or eager to get off the phone. I’m being treated as though I’m a guest at one of her bars; she’s making me feel like family. Molly Wellmann wouldn’t have it any other way.
For nearly a decade, Wellmann has operated the Wellmann’s Brands venues. Until recently, that meant working with three partners: an architect, an attorney and a real estate agent. It may be presumptuous of me to assume but overseeing the daily operations of 7 hospitality venues must have been overwhelming.
“I’m really excited because at one point in time I had a nightclub, a cocktail bar, I had a bourbon bar, a punch house, a restaurant, and a café, and a private event place, as well. And it was a lot,” says Wellmann. “Now, it’s really nice to condense and then I can expand on my level putting myself into it.”
Co-owning and running bars and restaurants successfully for close to 10 years has given Wellmann the opportunity to gain a wealth of knowledge. Spend any amount of time speaking to her and you’ll learn that she’s as passionate about learning as she is the hospitality business; Wellmann has soaked up operator lessons like a sponge.
She has learned several things as an owner and operator, like when it’s time to end partnerships and reevaluate responsibilities. Nine years as a multi-concept, multi-unit operator taught her when it was the right time to expand. Conversely, Wellmann also figured out how to determine when it’s time to close a venue and move on.
There’s no ill will from Wellmann toward her former partners. She simply realized that their passion for the Wellmann’s Brands bars and restaurants had waned.
“It was life change mostly, I think. I think my partners had gone through some life changes. One wanted to move to another city, another one started a family, and I think that was a big deal,” says Wellmann. “Their passion was gone for running these businesses. And my passion is still there. This is my livelihood and what I do, where my partners—one was an architect, one was a lawyer, one was a real estate agent—their lives had changed over the last nine years.”
Not only is passion a requirement to succeed in this business, so is evolution.
“[With] this business you always have to evolve, you always have to change. Not in big ways, not in crazy ways, but you definitely have to evolve in some ways. So, I think that’s kind of what happened with the change in the company,” says Wellmann.
Of course, buying out her partners meant either attempting to run 7 venues by herself or condensing. Wellmann chose the latter. That tasked her with deciding which venues to sell or shutter.
“I knew I didn’t want to do restaurants. I worked in so many of them and it wasn’t something I wanted to do anyway, so that was really easy to just sell those,” says Wellmann. “And then the one I did want was the bourbon bar—I really miss having my bourbon bar. But I gave that up because it was only 900 square feet, the entire bar, including the bathrooms, and it was owned by one of my former partners. It was in a building that he owns.”
Not that he’s a bad person, Wellmann assures me. But it’s not difficult to understand that taking full control of her brands made paying a former business partner rent an unappealing idea.
The bourbon bar to which Wellmann is referring was called Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar. She packed 600 American whiskeys into 900 square feet. Whiskey devotee and expert that she is, it’s understandable that she misses what was essentially her temple, her clubhouse and her school.
That’s not to say that she doesn’t love the two venues she’s kept for herself. After all, they made the cut.
“When it came down to it, Japp’s [Since 1879] has always been my baby. It’s always been something that’s near and dear to my heart. The history of the building, the area, Over-the-Rhine here in Cincinnati where’s it’s located, is a really important neighborhood,” says Wellmann. “And then Myrtle’s [Punch House]… I love the diversity of the people who come in there. I love the idea that it kind of matches the way that people formed Cincinnati as a village and a city back in the 1700s.”
It was crucial to the success of the Wellmann’s Brands’ restructuring that she pause, take an objective look at all the concepts, and make the best decisions for herself and her business. It’s important for operators to remember that their decisions affect employees and the communities in which they operate. Wellmann may have lost her bourbon bar but the decision to let it go allowed her to focus on two of her strongest bars.
“So, I have now Japp’s, which is a cocktail bar, and the focus on that is history. I love history and I love the history of this area and Cincinnati as well. And I’ve always loved the history of the cocktail and spirits, especially bourbon. And so, I focus a lot on Japp’s,” says Wellmann. “It’s a cocktail bar that has this unique experience with it. You don’t just get a cocktail, you get a story about the cocktail that goes with it. It might be a story of where the cocktail came from or it might be a craft cocktail that was maybe inspired by something in history in Cincinnati or around the area. So, you’re not just getting a drink, you’re going back in time a little bit.”
Japp’s Since 1879, of course, isn’t her only focus.
“At Myrtle’s Punch House, I really didn’t need to do much with that,” says Wellmann, also addressing any plans for a renovation. “It’s kind of a neighborhood bar but—we serve cocktails, we serve beer and wine and everything—but we also serve punch. And some of those punch recipes date back 500 years and it’s served in a modern way. It’s basically like a draft cocktail but it’s a punch. And so I serve these classic punches in a modern way, and the space is Mid-Century Modern as well. It’s very comfortable and there’s three different areas in the bar where I can do different things for the neighborhood. I put that bar there because it was an up-and-coming neighborhood and it needed a place for the community to come together and to share their ideas and their plans for building a community.
A passion for hospitality, community, whiskey, cocktails and history are deeply ingrained in Wellmann. But while she doesn’t plan to do much in terms of a refresh of Myrtle’s, she’s right in the think of a renovation of Japp’s.
“So, [for Myrtle’s] I didn’t have to do much… It wound up exactly the way I wanted it,” says Wellmann. “But with Japp’s, it’s revamping a lot of the space and really putting the focus on it being a neighborhood bar but yet with this experience of going back in time a little bit through a cocktail.”
Japp’s was originally designed in collaboration with Wellmann’s former architect partner. She has tapped a different designer to renovate the space and address a coupld issue Wellmann has identified and wants corrected. Function is crucial to a bar’s design but so is the aspect of theater.
She explained in detail to her designer how the backbar needs to balance mise en place and getting drinks out as quickly as possible with keeping the attention of guests who are watching drinks being made. Bartenders need to be able to find what they need quickly and also keep guests at the bar engaged.
Now that Wellmann is focused on renovating Japp’s, she’s also addressing and improving the flow of the venue. Wellmann is utilizing her designer as a new set of eyes due to how long she has been so close to the bar in its first iteration. She knows how she wants her bar to work and found someone qualified to come in and help fix the flow. Selecting a designer isn’t just a budgetary and timeline concern, it’s about a collaborative effort that brings an operator’s vision to life.
“I know how I want the customer to use my bar. When you’re a bartender or you own a bar, or you own any kind of business and have customers come in, you need look at it as the customer. You need to orchestrate how you want that customer to walk in the door,” says Wellmann.
Once they’re through the door they need to know where to go next. It’s imperative that guests feel comfortable and welcome immediately. If they feel confused or awkward their experience has started on the wrong foot from the first few steps into the bar.
“Look the space as a customer. You want your customer to use it,” she says. “You’re not going to have a business unless you have customers who come in and want to be comfortable, and want to sit and invite their friends, tell their friends about it, and want to come back. I think that’s the top thing.”
Wellmann wouldn’t be at this point of her career as an operator if she hadn’t made smart decisions over the course of several years. Chief amongst those decisions was expanding intelligently. She was patient, diligent, and deliberate about opening multiple concepts.
“Once you have a great concept going, I say keep it open…make sure you get through at least two years or at least one-and-a-half years, two years before you start thinking about another location. Make sure you have the right people in place because turnover when you first open is a huge thing. The people who you start off with usually aren’t going to be there a year from the time you open,” advises Wellmann. “So, make sure you have a solid, well-trained staff that feels like family and are very happy and are getting everything they want, and they see a potential for growth with you. Make sure you have that established, make sure that you have the wheels greased well enough that it’s a well-oiled machine first before you start jumping into opening another place.”
One day, after Japp’s has been renovated, when the evolution of her company has been realized fully, Wellmann will plan, build out and open a new concept. That new concept will come into this world benefiting from this year's growing pains. For now, she knows exactly where to focus her attentions. It’s hard work but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s a lot of work but it’s work that I wake up every day and I don’t feel like I’m working,” says Wellmann confidently. “It’s like you’re constantly busy—I haven’t taken a break since June. I love it. Every single day I wake up energized and ready to go. And it’s working, little by little.”