Behind the Bar
One Year In: Porchlight’s Cofounder Shares What He Learned from the First 365 Days
Last March, Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group introduced its first standalone cocktail bar, Porchlight, located in Manhattan’s West Chelsea neighborhood. Billed as a New York bar with a Southern accent, Porchlight was a bold debut from a company best known for its restaurants. A year after opening its doors, Porchlight’s cofounder and managing partner Mark Maynard-Parisi reflects on what he’s learned on the first 365 days of the job — and what he’ll change in the year ahead.
What’s the biggest difference between running a restaurant versus a standalone bar?
There’s a bigger diversity of what people expect from a bar on any given night than there is at a restaurant. Most people going to a restaurant have probably made a reservation, and you know they’re going to be dining there for a couple hours or so. Every customer is kind of on the same cycle in terms of what they experience, whether they eat at 6 p.m., 7 p.m., or 8 p.m. At a bar, someone could be there for 15 minutes because they need to purge their day, or they could be there five hours celebrating something.
How did you train and prepare your staff to accommodate those differences?
Half our staff came from restaurants, and half came from bars. For people who came from restaurants, we’d keep telling them, “There are no rules; there are no rules.” We explained that if people just wanted to have drinks, and not have any appetizers or bar snacks, that was totally fine — which is the opposite of restaurant culture. We wanted them to be a lot more nimble. And for people who came from the bar community, we wanted to make sure they were infusing flexibility with hospitality, and not just jamming people into corners. We still wanted customers to have a nice, refined experience.
What did you think would be the hardest part of running a bar before opening your doors?
I was afraid that since we were from a restaurant group, everyone was going to want Porchlight to become a restaurant. I thought getting food out in time would be hard, but as we learned, our cocktails are so good that people mostly came for that. If they wanted to eat, people ended up putting bar snacks together as a meal, and that actually made things easier, operationally.
And what actually proved to be the most difficult part?
Taking risks and being willing to fall on our faces. We came from a restaurant group, and I think people tend to go back to their comfort zone, so early on, it was hard, this idea of trying a whole new thing, like putting a new item on the menu that people might hate.
What’s a risk you took that didn’t work out?
We decided to throw this awesome, New Orleans-themed New Year’s Eve party. I hadn’t done one in many years; Blue Smoke [a BBQ restaurant where Maynard-Parisi is also managing partner] was kind of anti-NYE. We brought in three stage performers for the party, and one of them ended up making our guests really uncomfortable. We could have just done a really boring, safe party and taken no risks, but by taking a risk, we got two performers who ended up blowing our expectations, and just one we didn’t like.
What’s the best advice you got from industry friends who have opened and run bars before?
Everyone told us, “Don’t turn this into a restaurant.” One bar owner told us not to have big plates, and that kind of forced us to say, “we’re not going to have big entrees.” Having everything served on small plates forced us to think about the customer experience differently. After we decided on the smaller plates, I talked to our interior designer to make the tables smaller, so the space felt more intimate as well.
Having done it yourself now, what advice would you give to someone else who is launching a standalone bar for the first time?
The short answer is: listen. I’ve learned so much from listening to our guests and line employees. You have to be willing to evolve without changing who you are.
How has your experience in the first year of Porchlight going to change the way you do things at Blue Smoke or other restaurants within Union Square Hospitality Group?
Business 101 says to do what you do really well and try not to do other stuff. But I definitely want to bring the whole idea of flexibility to Blue Smoke. I don’t want the restaurant to become Porchlight, but could we squeeze in those two extra people at a table so the group has a more enjoyable experience? That’s what we want to do more of.
What changes can customers expect in Porchlight’s second year?
We’re in the process of getting a spring cocktail menu change, but we’re also looking to change our food menu more. We do it with cocktails, so why not with food? So you’ll see more seasonal plates and food that rotates more frequently than we had in the first year.