Usually, bartenders and bar owners talk about how to scale things up: how to bring in more guests, sell more drinks, open more venues. But during the pandemic, that conversation shifted, says Jessica Sanders, proprietor of a laid-back neighborhood bar and gastropub in Austin known for its focus on elevated classic cocktails.
“I learned how to scale down,” she says. Instead of focusing on more, it served her better to think about less, namely how to keep operations lean, with the goal of adapting quickly and sustaining a viable, successful business into 2021 and beyond.
“We have a much smaller team now, with just four or five of us,” Sanders explains. “We’ve had to dial in on … the things we do very well here, and pare everything else away.”
That has extended to the bar’s approach to its cocktail menu. Historically, the bar staff allotted two or three months to workshop a menu of up to 25 drinks, updated quarterly. For spring 2021, the menu of eight original cocktails was established in four weeks.
“We trimmed off all the fat,” Sanders explains. “But [the menu] hits all the notes of what a guest is looking for.” For example, instead of three Gin & Tonic riffs, the goal was to offer just one, making that “the best version of that drink we can offer them.”
This variation, the Forager’s Remedy, layers “warm” spice tones found in The Botanist gin with “cool” herbaceous notes contributed by a basil eau de vie and a lavish opal basil garnish. “The Gin & Tonic is one of those drinks you should smell before you drink it,” she says. “It should hit your nose the second it hits the table.”
In general, the bar’s creative process incorporates the mix-and-match Mr. Potato Head model, Sanders says. “We became adept at swapping in ingredients for drinks with the same build or foundation.” While the quick-change strategy was born of pandemic-era necessity—“You can have your whole business model change on a dime: open, close, reopen, only outdoor dining for the next six weeks”—it has offered some benefits too: “We didn’t have time to overthink it.”
Looking ahead, Sanders also is applying that paring-back perspective to how she operates her business.
“I realized how vulnerable I was as a business owner financially and how vulnerable our staff was,” she says. “We’ve made a lot of changes in how we compensate people and the benefits we offer.” Notably, she’s taken a different approach to tipping. Now, everyone on staff—both front- and back-of-house—makes at least $15 per hour as a base. Further, all dine-in and to-go orders now include an “Employee Wellness Charge,” a 20 percent service charge that goes toward those base wages, as well as employer-paid direct primary healthcare and subsidized mental health care. Guests still are encouraged to tip, but “as an employer, I just no longer use tipping as a crutch to ensure my staff makes a living wage,” Sanders says.
Yet, it was a challenging decision to make during the pandemic.
“With COVID, everyone was on an island, and you needed to make decisions based on what was best for you and what your team needed,” she explains. “We had to become very adept in making quick decisions that were right for us. … I’m really proud of the changes we made in that regard. But I had to learn to do it alone.”
After a year with restricted access to business associations, happy hours and other in-person forms of industry support, Sanders sees the hospitality community drawing closer together in other ways.
“I think we’ve become more empathetic and compassionate toward people in this biz over the last 18 months,” she explains. “It’s that old adage of, ‘You never know what someone else is going through.’ We all knew—we all were going through it too.” She sees that translating into greater sharing of information and resources, as well as support for others as values have shifted to shine a light on social issues such as pay equity, race equity and gender equity, and finding ways to support those causes.
Sanders has tried to give back within her local community as well.
“As someone who runs a neighborhood-centric space, it’s important to be more dialed into the community,” she says. Despite the challenging environment, she estimates that she and her business have donated more over the last 18 months than in the preceding nine years that the bar had been open. Everything else may have been about scaling down, she muses, but not this.
“It’s interesting, considering how paper-thin margins in the business were,” she says. But with the new perspective brought on by the past year, “This is coming from a place of abundance.”
To celebrate the spring season and support local bars and restaurants as they rebuild for the future, The Botanist is donating $5 to the Independent Restaurant Coalition for every Botanist & Tonic sold during April and May, up to a total donation of $25,000. The Botanist Islay Dry Gin believes in putting people and purpose in line with profit and comes from one of the only distilleries in the world to be B Corp certified.