Julie Reiner Won’t Rest on Her Laurels

For the New York bar owner, success means always looking ahead. 

We’ve partnered with Bacardi Women in Leadership for a series dedicated to exploring the theme of “originality” with some of today’s most inspiring leaders. 

When Julie Reiner opened Flatiron Lounge in 2003, she fundamentally changed the cocktail landscape of New York City.

“There were little tiny pockets of people doing cool things,” she recalls, but back then, “it was a very small community.” Flatiron played a pivotal role in helping to popularize the craft cocktail movement for a broad audience: It was a bridge between worlds, cozy but welcoming, with an accessible drinks program that balanced classics with newer innovations—like the beloved Beijing Peach—featuring fresh ingredients. In a moment where “speakeasy” bar culture meant small, dark spaces and a bit of snooty attitude, it was a breath of fresh air. And it made an impact. By the time Flatiron closed in 2018, high-end cocktails were available in every corned of the country.

Lots of people have one hit. Reiner, though, has a list of them. She builds bars that become standard-bearers, and has cultivated talent, like Tom Macy at Clover Club and Ivy Mix at Leyenda, who represent the new generation of tastemakers.

Reiner started out as a cocktail waitress in her native Hawaii at 18, “but I always wanted to get behind the bar,” she recalls. When she moved to San Francisco in 1994, she discovered cocktails made with fresh juices, rather than sour mix from a gun. When she moved to New York a few years later, a then-unusual emphasis on using fresh ingredients put her on the map. As the bar manager at 3C in the Washington Square Hotel, she attracted attention by making culinary-inspired drinks with fruit-infused spirits, and putting together seasonal cocktail menus—at the time, both novel concepts.

“There were only a few people who cared about putting quality in a glass at that time,” Reiner says. “There weren’t any high-end cocktail bars open yet.”

The growing buzz eventually drew cocktail legend Dale DeGroff to the bar. Impressed, he introduced Reiner to the burgeoning mixology community—including future business partner Audrey Saunders.

Reiner teamed up with Saunders and a handful of other partners from Flatiron to open Pegu Club in 2005. Then came Brooklyn’s Clover Club (2008), one of the first craft cocktail bars to open in the borough, followed by tropical-themed Lani Kai (2010-2012) an early playground for the city’s now-thriving tiki revival and the Latin-inspired Leyenda (2015).

Reiner credits her success to looking ahead, even when current ventures are running well. While bartending may be an art, she understands that running a bar—or an empire of them—is a business. Another critical component: finding a team that shares her vision, yet brings differing business strengths. “It took some time, but I got a good group to work with,” says Reiner; these days, her core team includes partners Christine Williams and Susan Fedroff, along with Macy and Mix. “That was one of the toughest lessons—I didn’t necessarily partner with people who were right for me. The partnership we have now, everybody is involved in the day-to-day business and there’s a level of mutual respect and communication.”

Q&A  

What was your biggest success or a pivotal moment in your journey?

The opening of my first bar, Flatiron Lounge, was the most pivotal moment in the journey. The biggest lesson was that by partnering with people who know an aspect of the business that you don’t, you can pull it off.

What was your biggest failure?

Technically, Lani Kai would be a failure, in that we folded after two years.

How did that impact your approach?

I’m a lot more careful now as far as choosing location. I do more homework before diving into a space to open a new location. And I don’t allow people to bully me into doing things anymore. The bar was a split-level space; it was too big, too weird a location—I knew it wasn’t right for us, and I let myself be talked into it.

What was the biggest obstacle you’ve faced?

Buying a partner out. After we sold Lani Kai, we realized we didn’t want to work together. We needed a “business divorce,” basically. It was a contentious kind of breakup. We learned a lot of lessons that year about the contracts you sign, about lawyers, about how to negotiate.

What would you like to see happen in the drinks world in the next five years?

I’d like to see some real improvement in diversity behind the bar. Without trying, I’ve always had a lot of diversity, but I’d like to see more at other bars.

What do you wish would disappear from drinks culture?

I want to see fewer Boomerangs on Instagram. Friends will tag me in Boomerangs because they know how much I hate it. I do like social media in that it brings people together, but it also homogenizes. People see something in New York and then you see the same thing in San Francisco or Australia—people do a lot of the same stuff.

What do you wish you knew five years ago?

I wish I had bought a house in Sunset Park five years ago.

What was the best advice you’ve ever received?

Always go with your gut, and your first impression and instinct. Whether it’s space where you might open a place, or meeting a potential business partner.

How do you define ambition?

It’s having a very strong desire to achieve something. Having aspirations and goals, and planning and looking ahead at your future and always doing something every day to push toward whatever that is. To not be mediocre.

Find out more about the Spirit Forward Women in Leadership program here.

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