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Saturday, July 02, 2011

Cocktail Bars

Working on DH has been the most challenging and most rewarding thing I've done in my life so far. A lot of the thrill of doing this is the idea that we're making an effort at bringing something new to people in town. This is a huge challenge for a city who knows what it likes and isn't particularly interested in changing its mind about it. But I have a lot of faith in Houston, and I think we can really contribute to raising the consciousness and enjoyment people have with casual dining.

J and I were talking about, in a market sense, the challenge to consumers about the product we're selling. With familiar commodities, if you can beat your competitors on speed and price you'll always win. With luxury items, you're in search of an educated niche market who is willing to sacrifice speed, cost and necessity--which makes the emotional product, education, and the overall experience extremely important.* We realized early on that we're selling a higher-quality niche product to consumers who may or may not be educated with a longer wait time for more money. Potentially rough waters ahead.

For example: We've put together a fantastic, original craft cocktail list with house-made syrups, bitters, tinctures, and high-quality spirits. We're extremely fortunate that we live in a time and place where this kind of thing is starting to be accepted again, but it's still an uphill battle. At the moment we have a number of decisions to make along these lines:

For a number of reasons, vodka of all kinds and simple highballs (any spirit and any sugary soda, vodka and anything, etc.) don't get much respect in the craft cocktail community. Because the craft nature of our bar is critically important, we have a decision to make. Do we "water down" the overall experience by offering these simple highballs and spirits to those who ask for them? Or do we, as a hospitality-focused business accept that some people won't "get" what we're doing immediately and find a way to serve (some of) the things they want while still maintaining our standards for quality?

These options represent two schools of thought, both with genuine merit. There are potentially great benefits to be found in holding your ground, alienating people who don't "get it" and embracing those who do or are open-minded enough to be taken for a ride. Making a statement, sticking to your guns, and not budging will definitely breed die-hard loyalists over time.

But given that education is so important in creating this market, I have a hard time seeing the sense of alienating anyone so quickly by barring vodka or high balls altogether. If I were a Jack and Coke kind of guy, and was offered a nice George Dickel 12 on the rocks and a cane sugar Coca-Cola in a bottle, that would get me thinking that this was a different kind of place. And the next time I came back, maybe I'd think I could try something new.

There certainly is a place for bars that "don't do vodka" and won't make a bourbon and coke, but that's another part of the beauty of the marketplace--each place fulfills their own role in what they offer. For us it seems best to take the approach of bringing people into the fold instead of forcing them to take what we want to give them.

*I don't know if this is a thing, but I often refer to the "emotional product" as a huge part of the brand experience. Chuy's, Starbucks, Nike, Apple--they all sell their emotional product very well.