If there’s one thing Josh Harris wants you to know, it’s that his new bar shouldn’t be confused for his old one. And that’s just fine with him.
Harris’s landmark cocktail destination in San Francisco’s Mission District had been a perennial on “best bars” lists since it opened in 2013, in large part for its ability to recast everything about itself on a semi-annual basis, finding inspiration everywhere from Pantone paint chips to vinyl 45s to street art. No wonder guests felt the urge to return, over and over again, to see what a kitschy Dr. Seuss theme might mean for the high-concept drinks, food and even accoutrements like coasters and the menu itself.
But when the pandemic necessitated another re-imagining, it was a stab at survival. Like most venues, the bar was prohibited from offering indoor service. The pivot: opening an entirely new concept on the sidewalk outside. That took the form of a takeaway stand serving up simple food—hot dogs, french fries—and elevated, well-executed highballs, ranging from “classic” (G&T) to “oddball” (manzanilla sherry and Cel-Ray celery soda)—ones that wouldn’t have been out of place on the original bar’s menu, now in to-go form,
The Botanist & Tonic, for example, served in a soda fountain–style cup with a compostable straw, is “delicious, tart, dry and bubbly,” and made with care, down to the lime wedge that echoes how the drink is built at the original cocktail bar. “There has always been a highball section” on the bar menu, Harris notes, so it was a natural choice to translate it for the new set-up.
Yet the strategy presented a particular challenge: Harris was concerned about confusing guests expecting the original bar’s signature elaborate experience. So the team leaned into distinguishing the takeaway business as a separate concept with its own identity, repainting the exterior of the building, punching out a hole in the door, bringing in a new artist so the menu had a different, cartoon-casual aesthetic.
“If we can’t be the thing that makes us who we are, we’ll be… something different,” he recalls thinking.
Amidst the uncertainty caused by the closures, the creative process for envisioning and building an entirely new experience was satisfying work, Harris says.
“Without it, I might have wilted away in the middle of the pandemic,” he notes. “It brought a tremendous amount of energy and light. … Having not done concept development in a while, it was extremely rewarding on a personal and professional basis.”
Looking ahead, Harris and Bon Vivants Hospitality (the consulting arm of his business) are focusing on philanthropic efforts, such as the Bon Vivants Scholarship, which each year funds and mentors a student, selected through a partnership with ScholarMatch, for the entirety of the student’s college career. This is the third student Bon Vivants will be supporting through the program; this year, funds are earmarked for an African American student who is the first in their family to go to college.
“Community, and philanthropic efforts in our community, have always been an important part of our company efforts,” Harris says. “It’s an important part of my personal values, and it’s been important for me to [infuse] those into the biz and use the business to work to those ends.”
After a tumultuous year, Harris finds it difficult to predict what else might be ahead. Will the new concept stay? Will it morph into something else altogether? None of this is clear yet. But the process of building two separate businesses with very different identities has provided some peace of mind about whatever comes next for the bar.
“We realized we could become anything we wanted, because we’ve built change into our DNA,” Harris says. “As we are contemplating reopening, there’s some comfort in knowing whatever we choose, that business still will reflect our core priorities. It will be whoever we are.”
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.