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10 Tips for Building a Cocktail Empire

A man holding a cocktail.
Joshua Widner's cocktail empire was built on hard work, determination, diplomacy and vision. (Photo: Angela Houska)

At just 29 years old, Josh Widner, in Springfield, Missouri, has built himself a cocktail empire in the Ozarks.

In the last four years, Widner has opened four bars/restaurants around Springfield, and they’ve all been successful. His first bar, Scotch & Soda, opened in 2012 with the help of co-owner Andrew Heilman and is a velvet-draped love letter to classic cocktails, that Widner describes as “Hemingway-esque.” His next project that he opened with Tom Billions, Cherry Picker Package & Fare, is a bar/coffee shop/package store where customers can uncork a bottle of wine, enjoy a midday coffee or sip a cocktail out on the patio. The spot is tiny; it fits just 20 people, but its compact size hasn’t kept customers from flocking to this neighborhood watering hole.

In 2016, Widner opened Golden Girl, a white-walled tiki bar where vinyl records and shark-head glassware help customers forget that at this time of year, snow is on its way. Then, this November, Widner opened a second Scotch & Soda in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Widner has opened four bars in four years. It’s been a whirlwind of bitters, vermouth and hooch, but despite his rapid success and impressive business and cocktail acumen, Widner never planned on owning his own bar. Instead, he dreamed of working in music production.

Back in 2006, Widner enrolled in college to study music business. By the time he graduated, he had gigs set up in other countries, but the week of his graduation, the record studio that had hired him went under. Just like that, Widner’s dream job was ripped from underneath him, and he wound up back home in Springfield, Missouri, where he worked as a barback and slowly developed bartending skills.

By 2012, Widner was ready to use his business degree and open his own bar. Four years later, that decision has paid off big time, and the audiophile who once dreamed of producing music is now busy consulting other bars on how to run a successful cocktail program. We caught up with Widner to learn what advice he has to offer.

Joshua Widner’s 10 Tips for Building a Cocktail Empire:

1. Be true to yourself and your vision

Even when I launch businesses now, there’s that worry in the back of your head about if you’re doing it right. One way I test out ideas is to constantly bombard my friends and family with new project ideas.The ones that get people excited are the ones I know have hit a vein. I will spend hours at home or at coffee shops writing business plans. I love writing business plans! I learned that in school as part of my business degree — how to take an idea and foster it into a project you can pitch to investors. You have to be able to answer these questions: What do you want the company to look like? What do you want it to do? What do you want it to stand for?

2. Surround yourself with like-minded people who inspire you

I’m very outspoken with how much I love my crew. My friends and family are very supportive of me. That makes my job a lot easier when I have people cheering me on. They keep me going and keep me focused. But I’m also lucky to work with talented people who are artistic and who have helped with the branding and design for all of our bars. There’s a lot of stuff I’m bad at, and I know when I need help. When we opened Scotch & Soda, my mom started watching a few episodes of Bar Rescue, and she would stay up at night and then text me with tips. It’s been a big family effort.

3. Stay organized

I call my entrepreneurship a problem. You can’t stop. You feed off it, and it keeps you going. I’ve been lucky enough to be successful, and I’m extremely organized. I live, eat and sleep organization, and I have a stack of notebooks that I use to take notes in of ideas and run through my daily check lists. I wake up every morning with a check list. We opened four bars in four years, so there’s been a lot going on. These checklists are vital to our success.

4. Branding is crucial

I see a lot of people start a project with something in mind, but as it progresses, they pick away at important details. In the end, it’s not a cohesive vision; it’s a Frankenstein thing. You’ve got to stay true to your vision and your brand. So often, if things don’t go well right away, owners will change the plan. But I think I’d rather go down fighting and be true to myself than become another college bar just to get people through the door. Once you get established, the stress switches from keeping the lights on to growing while still maintaining the quality of your product and keeping the brand in tact. You can lose sight of that. So you have to remind yourself of what you set out to do and don’t stray from that.

5. Hire kind and personable employees

We’re always asking if it’s better to hire someone with experience and fix their bad habits or hire someone new and invest in training them. I decided early on that I would hire for personality. I know that going into interviews, and if I can connect with them on a personal level, I know we can get through training and mold them into the employee we need. Andrew, co-owner of Scotch & Soda had never bartended; before we opened, we had to teach him. But now we’re four years in, and everyone is a wiz kid. Bartenders are freaks; you need to be able to talk to complete strangers and be their therapist and companion, and all one Friday night. That’s why I look for someone who can excel at that. These are people who don’t have a lot of fears and who are go-getters. They want to learn, and that is key.

6. Know your market

This is so important. Not all cocktail trends will work in every market. Before we opened our first bar, we traveled to other bars in larger cities and brought ideas back. Springfield, Missouri, is a smaller market, so we had to adapt these ideas to what we thought our customers wanted. You might have a quality product that you think is awesome, but the public might not agree with you. In Springfield, we had to know at what pace to change the cocktail menu, and which spirits they favored. Knowing your customers’ wants and needs is business 101.

7. Don't try to please everyone; it’s impossible

I don’t read reviews and never will. It took a long time for me to even read articles about our bars. I don’t even have social media. Those articles can change you. Outside opinions can change you, and some people never want to be pleased. I don’t want to focus on those people. I would rather spend my time and energy on the positive. I’ve seen bars that get negative reviews and then get into tiffs with people and snap back. That blows my mind.

8. Sweat the small things; it’s a detail oriented business

I see a lot of bars skip things they don’t think are important, but in a bar everything is important. That comes down to the type of ice you use or your glassware. I always joke that if you don't have good ice or good lighting you don’t have a good bar. You have to be on your A-game 100 percent of the time and make sure every detail is perfect. That’s why this business is so exhausting.

9. Employees are the face and lifeblood of your business; they should be treated as such

Being in the industry before we opened our own place, we saw how employees are treated, and I realized how I liked to be managed. I believe in positive reinforcement. Our employees really are the face of the business, so I’m confident that whoever greets you is going to do so with a smile because they love their job, and they’re happy to be there. That’s why it’s so important to treat your employees with respect. I think a lot of managers show up only when there’s something wrong. I think it’s way more important to tell your employees how badass they are.

10. Experiment and don’t be afraid of failure; it’s how we grow and learn

I’ve put some funky stuff in a glass, and that’s how you learn what not to do. I have a long list of drinks that have not worked, but those mistakes on the first go-around are what helps me learn. I had to learn that curdling is a very gross situation, and some spirits don’t mix. All of us are still learning something new every shift, and we encourage our bartenders to experiment with new flavors and spirits. When we opened, we had more than 100 Scotches. There’s no way you can train everyone on 100 Scotches in a week. That’s why every shift, our staff should be trying a new whiskey or cocktail. I can’t even remember tasting notes on all our whiskeys.

Tales of the Cocktail 2017
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