In the present day service industry there are many avenues one can travel and maintain a career. The Bon Vivants out of San Francisco are a team of bartenders and ambassadors that have worked on hundreds of events over the last 8 years. One of their founders, Josh Harris, took the time to talk with us about how he managed to get into this end of the business and what it’s like to have a nation-wide group of ambassadors under your wing.
Bartender Atlas: In what year did you start bartending?
Josh Harris: I started bartending when I turned 21, so that would have been 2002.
BA: What style of bartending were you doing when you started?
JH: The first bartending job that I had was at a fine dining restaurant but I was the day bartender. While I wore a dress shirt and a tie and an apron to work, it was still a more casual environment. Still important in respect to service and what not. Not a cocktail menu by today’s standards but absolutely fresh juice and quality spirits. People would come in and order Cosmos, Lemon Drops or Mojitos and Margaritas, things like that.
BA: You are part of the team that came up with the award winning Trick Dog Bar in San Francisco, but today we want to talk about The Bon Vivants reach. When did you come up with the idea of a nation-wide group of bartenders?
JH: Okay, I am going to digress from your question slightly. We started The Bon Vivants in 2009. It’s important to some of the people that might be reading this to cover this. When we started The Bon Vivants it was largely an opportunity driven company. Meaning that I got a consulting opportunity, I knew Scott Baird and said to him “We can do this together” instead of me doing it alone. We could make a company and name it and get some business cards and then we’d be a company because we say we’re a company, you know? He was like “That’s awesome, let’s do it”. Then with a business card and a Facebook page we felt really official. So we did that first job in August, that job turned into another consulting job and we ended up doing three before the end of that year. We thought it was awesome and we were super wide-eyed about it. I look back at that now and we are just so much more efficient about things now. Of course, you know, you get better at what you do. I look back at those [early years] and they were so cumbersome, took so much effort, we put so much into it and we were so singularly focused on it.
So when those jobs were done we started thinking : “How do we become more pro-active about getting work?” And at that time we didn’t know how to define what we were. We were like “Well, we consulted on these places so I guess we can call ourselves cocktail consultants”. But we were hesitant to really latch onto that and you would never see that language in our branding or business card or Facebook page because we thought that might be limiting. We started thinking about brand stuff and being pro-active about this kind of work. You could find a brand and pitch them an idea and if that brand didn’t like it, you could pitch it to somebody else and that was still the kind of work that you could be going after. As opposed to, with consulting it was like, the only thing that you can do in many regards is build your reputation to the point that when someone that is looking for a consultant, your name is hopefully on that list, and high on that list. Then they call you and then you do the dance. But with brand stuff we could be a little bit more in control. So the first step we took was putting ourselves out there as the guys who could throw an event for you but do it for less money than a big agency and combine that with a little bit more personal creativity or creativity that was geared toward the trade. In many respects we are the target audience. So if we are designing an event that we would want to go to, then it stands to reason that our friends who are other bar managers in town, they would want to come too. So we did a few parties like that with a few brands. Sometimes little guys trying to launch a brand or have an anniversary party for their brand. Those went well.
Also, at that time, there was a relationship that sort of revived with Altamar Brands. They are the importer of Tequila Ocho. Prior to Bon Vivants, when I was at my first real cocktail job in 2007, I became a local brand ambassador for them and things fell apart with their brand ambassador program and whatnot so I stopped working with them. So this time when they reached out I pitched the idea of rather than me being a brand ambassador for Tequila Ocho, why not have the Bon Vivants act in that capacity?
So those were the important things that happened at that time. We ran an contest called Viva Sangrita for 5 years and through the growth of that event we started getting more interest from other brands. People asking if we could do something for them like what we did for Ocho. During this time working with Ocho, we started to bring on brand ambassadors that we were managing. Then as the contest grew, we’re managing the contest and we created a program of advocacy deliverables. Coming from the bar side and having a lot of colleagues that had been doing brand ambassador work we could see what things were working and what are the pain points for ambassadors so we tried to build something that made financial sense for the brands, that also made sense for the ambassadors that didn’t bury them in paperwork etc… So one thing to another and we developed a strong and awesome team of brand ambassadors that were all part of the Bon Vivants. More brands became interested and so those ambassadors started having opportunities pitched to them through us. A lot of those were part-time roles, but they would end up working on a lot of different stuff.
Now getting past all that, the company has a lot more focus. We can articulate what we are and what we do. Before we were like “If has to do with beverage we can do it”.
BA: You mentioned being able to do things with Brands that other people couldn’t. Have you got any sets of skills outside of bartending? Have you gone to school for something that has helped you in this role?
JH: No. I mean, I have an undergraduate degree in politics and a minor in legal studies. Nothing obvious but there are things from my formal education that I believe have been valuable to me in building a business. Writing, ways of communicating, deadlines, organization, those kinds of things. But I didn’t go to business school or anything like that.
BA: How many Bon Vivants are there and in what cities?
JH: Over ten for sure, but right now we’ve got a couple different roles. We have four or five people working out of our home office here in San Francisco that are full-time employees. We’ve now taken on two clients that we employ full-time brand ambassadors for. So rather than our part time model that we had before, which we still have, we have other brands that ask us to be the agency that employs a full-time brand ambassador. So we have SF, LA, San Diego, Denver, Miami, New York, Kansas City, Nashville, DC, we had Houston, we had Boston. Now we are at the point where client direction dictates where we have certain people. For example we just brought on Philadelphia and DC, which were markets where we didn’t have anybody. So we just took somebody out of Boston and out of Texas, but tomorrow there might be a call asking to do an activation in Texas and we would say “great, let’s find you somebody there.”
BA: How do you keep a team that big and spread out on the same page philosophically?
JH: Well, I have a really awesome member of our team named Borys Saciuk. Borys has the title of Director of Trade Advocacy. He has been a great friend of ours for a very long time. He also has a really strong resume on the bartending side. At the logical point when many people entertain the idea of doing so, he left the bar for a brand and did that for a handful of years and then went back to the bar so he was exactly what we were looking for. A person that culturally understands the dynamic between cocktail bartenders engaging in the business of building brands but doing so without the suit and tie vibe, while still understanding corporate accountability.
BA: So is he in charge of vetting people? Do people apply for jobs with the Bon Vivants?
JH: We’re the ones who are reaching out. When we bring on a new client that wants to focus on somewhere geographically, then we go out a look for a candidate. Up until this point we’ve been successful with peer recommendations. We will go to the successful bartenders and owners and managers in a city and ask them about who is young, hungry, organized etc… Usually that produces a list of names. Introductions happen, we explain the opportunity we do interviews. We’ve done well keeping the team growing based on recommendations from other people.
BA: How many events do the Bon Vivants organize in a year?
JH: Um…a bunch? Ha ha ha. Well, we do events in different ways. This year for example we are doing a lot of back of house and organizational stuff. Right now we are working with Heaven Hill and their national Bartender of The Year competition. So we have a team member attending every single one of those events liaising with the competitors to make sure they have everything they need, liaising with the venue, helping with run of show etc…
BA: Is it the same team member at each event?
JH: What we’re doing is either Borys or Morgan Schick are at each one. They split it up amongst them who does what city. Also in each market we have a person who is on the ground there working with them. In the case where there is a Bon Vivant that’s the person. But in the case where we don’t, like in Vegas, we reached out to Nectaly from Herbs and Rye and he gave us a guy from his team.
So we are doing things like that, plus the stuff we do at Tales. Last year we did five Pig & Punch events, there are always events going on.
BA: When was the first Pig & Punch?
JH: The first Pig & Punch was in July of 2010. At Tales of The Cocktail. That’s actually an important part of the story. We started in 2009 with those consulting gigs, we had done a few parties and Tales is the world stage for us so if we were going to go to that and do something representative of who we are and try to throw our names out there, what would it be? Pig & Punch in many ways is the road map for what a Bon Vivants style party is. Not overproduced, not precious. The flavours are great and it’s about camaraderie and conviviality. Also for that event series there is a charitable component to it which is very much in line with our personal values. We donate a lot of money through Trick Dog as well. Being engaged with philanthropy in that way is important to us.
But we didn’t realize at the time that it was going to be “thing”. We were like “Scott cooks, so I guess we’ll cook a pig in a park and put punch in trashcans and call it Pig & Punch and we’ll make a shirt and sell it, it’ll be awesome.” Not to diminish the success of that first event, we raised $1600 at the time and we thought that was crazy but last year we raised $36,000 from that same event. It has massively grown. Last year we did five of them, the year before that we did five but New Orleans ran as a single one for a few years before we expanded it to other places. The first place outside New Orleans was to the Manhattan Cocktail Classic which was still going on. Then we did Portland Cocktail Week.
BA: So Pig & Punch is the one in New Orleans and the one that goes on the road is called Swig’N’Swine?
BA: Were the Pig & Punch and Swig’n’Swine events successful, or did it take a while to warm up? Do you think it’s as big as you can make it, or are there more plans to expand it?
JH: I definitely feel like we never had expectations of it being bigger than it was at any given point. We were just always really excited that people wanted to come and that seemingly more people were coming each year. One of the things we look at to determine how big it is, is how many shirts we make. It makes it really clear. Last year we ordered this many and they sold out, so how many more should I order this year?
Each of the events are definitely rooted in that New Orleans vibe. The feeling of community and generosity that you get there that you don’t really get in other cities. We want to bring that to other places, but the New Orleans one is always really important to us. We get a great amount of support from Ann and Tales. So that’s the one, you know?
There are always new challenges and so what I think for the future of Pig & Punch is not necessarily to throw more events. For one, because you can only throw so many labour intensive events before you need to bring on a whole other team to do it. It’s also important to us that those events take place at the right times at the right place at the right festival in the right city. With the elimination of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic and Portland Cocktail Week, that makes us think about whether we should continue to do these events in those markets. It’s really important that when people come to a Pig & Punch that they have a great time and they continue to be excited about attending, donating money, buying the shirts. At the end of the day it’s still a party and there are things that we can’t take for granted. It’s not like you can cook a pig and put some booze in trashcans and 1500 people show up. We always want to make sure that it is tight and awesome but can evolve with the world around us.
BA: Outside of rubbermaid containers full of punch, when was your last bar shift?
JH: My last bar shift was June of 2012. There is this awesome bar in San Francisco called Dalva and in the back of Dalva there’s this little back room called the Hideout. So a really good friend of mine is the owner there and I was building Trick Dog at the time. We always joke that Trick Dog was the most anticipated bar opening of 2010 but we didn’t open until 2013, so that was really fucked up, ha! In that time period I started working at Dalva and at the time the Hideout was only doing Thursday, Friday, Saturday. At the time he started talking about opening up the Hideout other nights of the week. So I was like “I’m gonna be a short timer here so give me Mondays. I’m opening my own bar yadda yadda yadda” then it was two and a half years later when I left. So that was my last shift, June 2012.
Thanks again to Josh for taking the time to talk with us.