Cocktails

So Long to All That Bar Business

January 19, 2021

Story: Thad Vogler

art: Nick Hensley

Cocktails

So Long to All That Bar Business

January 19, 2021

Story: Thad Vogler

art: Nick Hensley

Forced to shutter his empire of trailblazing bars, Thad Vogler confronts the tenuous state of the spirits business, and considers a path forward.

On a Sunday in December, I navigated a rental car from my flat in the Mission across the Bay Bridge, toward Alameda and the distillery I know best, St. George, and the producer I love most, Lance Winters. As I reach Treasure Island, the halfway point that separates the old span of the bridge nearest San Francisco from the modern span ending at the Oakland toll plaza, the lines float up from the car’s speakers:

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

What a caution this couplet was in my adolescence. I would live! No bloodless desk job for me. My life would be filled by mountaintop moments, tears mixing with rain. A child of boomers, Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street, Free to Be You and Me, the music of the 1960s and a liberal arts education, I judged the goal of a human life to be the unmitigated expression of my truest self. Now I am confronting 50 and I find the last 10 years have got behind me in a dizzying blur. What the fuck happened?

The bar business happened.

Like many naive BA’s killing time until they gain fame as writers, painters or actors, I hid out in the service industry. I enjoyed the quick cash and the freedom to travel, used it as an opportunity to learn more about food, wine and booze. I tried to escape a couple of times in earnest: first in an unsuccessful reconnaissance of tech, then into NGOs in Central America. Inevitably, I would return to San Francisco and this confused industry where I had found a kind of voice. At 35, I began managing, consulting and opening spaces until I had gained the momentum to capitalize my own place. In 2010, at 40, I opened Bar Agricole, my love letter to agricultural spirits.

Though I had partners and investors, I maintained creative control, empowering me to freely commit some common blunders of the first-time restaurateur who takes himself too seriously, not unlike the first-time novelist who wants to transcend the very art form that employs her. For my part, I mistook myself as an evangelist, spreading the good news of single-origin spirits. I thought I could change how the bar business worked and the way people drank—more thoughtfully, more intentionally. In hopes of converting the masses, I sold spirits at a painfully thin margin that could not accommodate the debt of opening a business, which gave way to the classic mistake of growing too soon in an attempt to create an economy of scale. By the end—and there was an end—I had launched five businesses, including an ill-conceived attempt at a wholesale butchery company and a West Indian rum bar.

When COVID-19 hit, I weighed almost 300 pounds and had been recently diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. I hadn’t slept well in years. In over a decade I hadn’t taken a week off. I was texting with vendors and employees at my wife’s bedside the day my son was born. I had signed more than $1 million in personal guarantees. Some days my narcissism would win over, and I’d find myself, a 6-foot-8-inch man of Northern European descent, explaining to a Guatemalan general manager and a chef from Mexico how to make Belizean food. Everyone was mad at me: employees, landlords, partners, vendors, investors, architects, the general contractor, the insurance broker, the IRS. I had been going and going, thinking each time the next move would be the one that saved me.

On March 13, 2020, it stopped. Ostensibly, it was for a month, but I knew this part of the story was over. By the end of the summer my partners and I decided to close shop. All of them. With close to a hundred employees and over $100,000 in monthly rent, not to mention the myriad punishing expenses of operating in San Francisco, we saw no way forward. Furthermore, we realized that opening again would be to ask our staff to risk their health, which was even more painful because the embarrassing truth is that we didn’t have the resources to take care of them.

On March 13, 2020, it stopped. Ostensibly, it was for a month, but I knew this part of the story was over. By the end of the summer my partners and I decided to close shop. All of them.

Some data: Alcoholic beverage is a $266 billion market that has grown at least 5 percent annually over the past 10 years. Compared with wine (up 1.1 percent) and beer (down 1.1 percent), spirits are the fastest-growing market segment. I continue to scratch my head at numbers like these, watching George Clooney sell a subcontracted tequila label for a billion dollars. Where is the trickle-down?

At such times, my thoughts have turned to Sasha Petraske. I never knew him—or, more accurately, he never knew who I was—but he was an object of some projection for me, so I’ve spent years believing I have a sense of him. Our project at Bar Agricole was to make Milk & Honey drinks with single-origin spirits. As Sasha put it, “Innovation is not what this is about.” A lot of people imitated his drinks, including me, and I’m convinced the growth of the spirits category correlates with his work; the liquor industry has benefited from his influence exponentially.

Sadly, Sasha never got ahead. Forty-two and in debt, he died of a heart attack on a consulting gig in Hudson, New York. As Robert Simonson describes in A Proper Drink, Sasha had “embarked on a business model he would adhere to for more than a decade: finding bartender-partners to open new bars at a rapid rate, with some of the proceeds funneled back to keep the ever-money-losing M&H afloat.”

In 2019, Bar Agricole received the James Beard Award for best bar program. We’d been finalists the previous eight years and lost, so I’d had plenty of time to consider the remarks I’d make if we ever won, including expressing my gratitude to Sasha’s trailblazing and sacrifice. Strangely, when we did win, I blanked. I was relieved, but not joyful. I wandered around backstage thinking, “I still owe all the same people money.” I’d like to thank Sasha now for helping to save my life. His sacrifice made it easier for me to jettison pod when I had the opportunity. I’ve lost 50 pounds. I have a relationship with my wife and son. I walk the hills behind our apartment every day. We cook, eat dinner and go to bed early. I wish Sasha had been granted the opportunity to do the same.

I remember one afternoon in my early 20s, stepping out of the Sweden House Hotel in the Tenderloin where I lived in an SRO with a shared bathroom. Before heading downtown to bartend the lunch shift, I turned toward my first cup of coffee up O’Farrell Street, where I encountered a team of paramedics laboring to keep a man’s soul in his swollen body. This scene was bathed in merciless Bay Area light—Diebenkorn’s light, cold and energetic.

It’s this light that welcomed me to San Francisco almost 30 years ago and will keep me here until the end. And it’s this light that shines now through the open sunroof, onto my head, balder now than in my SRO days, as I guide my rental car toward the old naval base housing St. George. When I arrive at the edge of the island, the grid of hangars is post-apocalyptically quiet, and I take in the view of San Francisco across the water.

In a moment, the service door would explode open revealing a buoyant Lance Winters, unlit cigar clamped in his strong jaw, ready to welcome me inside. For the rest of the day I’ll be under his cheerful spell as he, part scientist and part alchemist, plays his august Austrian copper stills like enormous sluggish wind instruments. We’ll talk about the work ahead—my plan to source, label and sell single-origin spirits of clear provenance; his contribution of some unusual casks and our collusion on a seasonal gin. My memory of the day will coalesce into a comforting montage: tasting through barrels of whiskey, rum, apple brandy; seeing Lance disappear into the belly of a pot still only to emerge from its Victorian portal like a character from a Jules Verne novel; pausing on the roof of the distillery with ample glasses of red butcher corn whiskey; watching birds held aloft by the headwinds as the afternoon light fails, tired but excited to be back at it and working, this time, in just the way I’d dreamed of years ago.

I took the moment and stared at my changing city, illuminated beyond the metallic blue water, and I felt the possibility of joy returning, like sensation creeping into a numb limb.

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