Serving the Servers: How a Craft Cocktail Bar in a Southern College Town Found Its Footing

Two men sitting at a bar with cocktails.

Naturally, it all started in a restaurant.

Having just learned that the casual-fine dining restaurant where they tended bar, Farm 255, was weeks away from shuttering, Daniel Ray and Matt McFerron were consoling each other with tacos and conversation at Tlaloc in Athens, Ga.

“The world was about to open up kinda big,” Ray says. “Matt had been scouting locations [to open a neighborhood bar in]. I told him I was thinking of opening a joint – ‘Holy shit! So am I! Let’s do this!’ That afternoon, we came here.”

Two male bartenders stirring cocktails behind the bar. McFerron and Ray had been old pals and co-workers for years before going into business together.

Within a month, they had signed a lease and begun the process of building their bar, The Old Pal, a craft cocktail-focused spot in a hip neighborhood on the outskirts of one of the South’s most cultured college towns. Two years in, they’ve never failed to answer the question, “How’s business?” with a chipper, “This was our best weekend ever!” or “Busiest Tuesday I’ve ever seen last week!”

In a town with a 36.7% poverty rate (double the average for the state) and a location far removed from all the foot traffic the university sends downtown each weekend, McFerron and Ray have built a bustling neighborhood cocktail bar by both challenging and comforting their clientele at the same time.

A bright red cocktail garnished with a lemon peel. The signature cocktail, an Old Pal is rye whiskey, dry vermouth, and Campari.

“The Old Pal could not have existed in Athens ten years ago. I attribute that to the culture that Hugh Acheson started [with his James Beard Award-winning restaurant, 5&10],” McFerron says. “Daniel and I had talked about offering charcuterie or a cheese board as a way to skirt around not having a kitchen. I mentioned this to Jason [Zygmont, Acheson’s protégé and a regular at The Old Pal], and he said, ‘Why don’t I just bring in some charcuterie?’”

Zygmont’s charcuterie night evolved into a monthly pop-up series, bringing out ever-bigger crowds to try his adventurous food, too edgy for 5&10’s country club crowd, but perfect for one-offs aimed at an audience of fellow chefs, servers and food enthusiasts that had grown up around Athens’ burgeoning food scene. Recognizing a good opportunity when they saw it, Ray and McFerron began to marry charcuterie nights with the launch of new seasonal cocktail menus, creating a buzz not only around the food but an anchor for people to come out and try new drinks.

A man standing behind a bar. Above all, co-owner Matt McFerron's wanted The Old Pal to be a neighborhood bar, a status it's achieved in the two years since opening its doors.

Soon, the local chef community came to see The Old Pal as something of a test kitchen, an opportunity to play with new concepts and flavors. A chef from 5&10’s sister restaurant, The National, hosted a pop-up featuring nothing but sandwiches. Farm 255’s former head chef Matt Palmerlee, an old friend of Ray’s, jumped into the charcuterie game from time to time. Joel Penn, a hungry up-and-comer who recently took over the kitchen at Heirloom, a neighborhood cafe eager for wider recognition as a culinary destination, began making appearances. And slowly, organically, The Old Pal’s core customer base built itself around their relationships with the chef community and the platform they built for them.

“It helped across several spectra,” Ray says. “It got the right people in the door […] Yes, it brought 5&10 regulars in, but it also brought their staff. We don’t want to be a ‘service industry place,’ necessarily. But they’re gonna continue to spread the word.”

He continues, “We don’t cold call somebody and ask them to do a pop-up. It’s the regulars.”

A dark brown cocktail garnished with a grapefruit peel. One of The Old Pal's house cocktails, the 7th Ward is Old New Orleans Cajun Spice rum, Fernet Branca, rich syrup, grapefruit, and Angostura bitters.

Equally as important to The Old Pal’s success has been the fact that they’re not precious about their offerings — a list combining classic cocktails with more modern house libations — or their atmosphere. A TV above the bar shows UGA football games on Saturdays in the fall, and a well-rounded beer menu focuses on small craft breweries.

“I wanted it to be a neighborhood bar,” McFerron says. “This town is sorely lacking in those.”

“Are we gonna give you a lecture on why you shake rather than stir? I will if you ask me! But I think you’ve got to relax,” Ray adds. “We maintain a stranglehold on our identity as a neighborhood bar. That’s why you see local chefs, local beers, local sports.”

Man pouring a drink at The Old Pal. Daniel Ray only gives lectures about shaken vs. stirred drinks if he's asked; otherwise, he just wants to see guests enjoy themselves.

And they’ll throw in the occasional Saturday night dance party or DJ set from friends for good measure. McFerron says. “We try to choose things that can appeal to anyone. It runs the gamut from PBR-swilling to someone who wants a nice wine with their charcuterie board.”

Despite their knack for bringing in adventurous palates by the dozen to sample, say, headcheese or check out what the heck a shrub is, The Old Pal has maintained their growth and reputation by striving for the sweet spot between exploration and comfort.

“Several of our most loyal regulars will come in and tell us in the same breath how they are tired they are of cutting the same hairdo, cooking the same dish, and then order the same drink all the time,” Ray says. “And that’s f—kin’ fine! You have to decide how much ego — how much you’re gonna force people to drink what you want them to drink, versus letting them consume what they want to consume.”

A man is garnishing a drink. With a host of complex cocktails and classic favorites on their menu, the mission of The Old Pal is to make guests feel at ease while also offering the chance to explore.