For too long, Champagne has been relegated to the occasional capital-S Special Event: a promotion, a birthday, New Year’s Eve. But Ariel Arce is on a mission to change that. She is a champion of Champagne, a crusader, a Champagne evangelist.
Today, she presides over a mini empire in downtown Manhattan, which began, in 2017, with Air’s Champagne Parlor, a Greenwich Village salon that breezily pairs bubbles with potato chips and caviar. Soon after, she opened Tokyo Record Bar, an izakaya located below Air’s, where diners choose the vinyl playlist each night. This past March, she added Niche Niche, where a rotating cast of guest sommeliers and wine shop owners host 25-seat “dinner parties” each night. Her latest project, Special Club, an old-school live music venue featuring blues, soul and jazz (and of course, wine), opened this June.
As a kid growing up in New York, she saw none of it coming. “My path was not a linear one,” Arce reflects. And yet looking back, all the breadcrumbs were there. “I think a huge part of my journey up until this point has to do with how I was raised. My mother and father were huge entertainers, always hosting dinner parties.” She says she “grew up in the kitchen, feeling comfortable taking care of people.”
It was a family philosophy. She remembers her dad, a food photographer, cooking meals for his clients at every shoot. “It really showed you could bring a bunch of strangers together to a location and every day they felt like they were in somebody’s home. They felt welcomed and taken care of and [they] ate well,” she recalls. “It made for a more relaxed and creative environment.”
While working for the molecular gastronomy legend Grant Achatz at Chicago’s The Office —her first job in the industry—Arce fell in love with Champagne. That set the stage for everything that came next: first a gig at Chicago’s Pops for Champagne, where she was immersed in all things bubbly, and then back to New York, joining the team at playful fried chicken-and-Champagne emporium Birds & Bubbles.
From there, she moved on to Riddling Widow, a Champagne bar from restaurateur/cocktail impresario Ravi DeRossi. The bar itself was short-lived, but for Arce, it was pivotal. It was, she says, “my incubator for everything I did up until now.” When DeRossi sold in 2016, she snagged the space to open Air’s.
But as Arce knows better than anyone, it’s not the Champagne that makes a Champagne bar; it’s the people who set the tone. “We thought about the type of environment and the type of culture we wanted to create there,” she says. “Instead of worrying about service and how neatly organized everything was and operations running smoothly, we talked more about creating an environment that was welcoming and inviting and not pretentious.”
When the team feels valued and supported, she says, the guest will too. Which means a bar needs the right team. “Find people who want to find a way to say ‘yes’ to things,” Arce urges would-be entrepreneurs. “It just makes such a difference. Those are the people you want to re-hire and give opportunities to. Instead of worrying so much about what you want to achieve, just staying positive and doing good work is the best thing you can do to grow your reputation as someone people want to work with.”
What has been your biggest success?
Opening Air’s. I thought that everything I was going to do in my career was going to lead up to opening a Champagne bar—that was my goal. Once it happened, you have to learn as an entrepreneur to be flexible, and see what you’ve done well and what you are willing to change.
My mother passed away the month Air’s and Tokyo Record Bar opened. It had an impact in how I ran the business. Entrepreneurs often like to be in control and don’t want to think about team-building. When I realized [how much my team empathized with what I was going through], I was able to step away during that time and the businesses flourished in my absence. It allowed me to relinquish some control, and understand that our team was much stronger than one person.
What was your biggest failure?
I think we waste a lot of time in life worrying about how other people are going to perceive us. We don’t focus on the core of the message. I think I was doing a lot of things at the beginning of my career with the wrong intention. I didn’t have a North Star to guide my decisions. I just did things—a lot of events that people didn’t care about or show up to. I think that not networking set me back. I wouldn’t call it a failure. But looking back, I wasted a lot of time and didn’t get the best results in earlier projects because of that.
How did you find your network?
I think being open and acknowledging you don’t know everything and relying on the help of strangers, and being curious, grows that network. I don’t know why we have been taught that we should always know everything. It might be a female thing. I think that isolates people in this industry. Theoretically, you should all be going after the common goal.
What was the biggest obstacle you’ve faced?
I think the biggest obstacles are our own. It’s really scary to take a risk. Just go for it. Worrying about what everyone else is going to say, or [worrying about] failing, really holds us back from being creative. It just creates a more homogeneous hospitality industry.
What do you wish would disappear from drinks culture?
Bad attitude! You don’t have to be so serious to sell alcohol. It should be fun. Sometimes I think we go too far in the wrong direction and put beverages on a pedestal the same way we put chefs on a pedestal.
What do you wish you knew five years ago?
That you don’t have to be in such a rush. I think when we’re younger it doesn’t seem like we’re ever going to achieve the things we want to achieve. I’ve had a lot of milestone moments come at me the last few years [that] I didn’t stop and enjoy, because I was always in a rush.
How do you define ambition?
Never being satisfied. Unfortunately, the thing is for me is that it’s never enough. There’s always more creative ideas that I want to try out. It’s a double-edged sword, ambition.