Sean Muldoon on the ups, downs - and bureaucracy - of opening a bar in the Big Apple
When I was employed as bar manager of the Merchant Hotel in Belfast I befriended a regular customer. His work meant he was based in New York for five weeks out of every six, and he spent the sixth back in Belfast. Whenever he was in Belfast, he would pay visit us and was very taken by the quality of service, drinks and standards that he experienced, as well as my personal determination, ability and enthusiasm. He offered to help us out with investment if we ever wanted to open a bar in New York. At that stage I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, so I declined his offer.
Then in May 2010 I found myself over in New York at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic on a Harry Johnson pilgrimage sponsored by Plymouth Gin. I happened to meet my customer when I was there and he asked me outright when I was going to come to New York to build a bar. "This is where the fight is," he added. "It's not back in Belfast. You've gone as far as you're going to go in Belfast - what else is there to do back there, win another award?"
I thought he hadn't thought the logistics of such a suggestion through at all. "You don't know what you're talking about," I retorted. "Do you think it's that simple to get visas, accommodation, money - how is it realistically possible?"
"I'll invest in you," he said. "What would it take? I'll get the money, no problem. Don't worry about visas or anything else like that. All I want to know is would you prepared to give up everything to pursue your dream? If everything was made possible for you, would you come here and do it?"
He was offering me the chance to come to New York and create my own bar from scratch. It all seemed highly improbable to me but I finally admitted I was interested.
Over the next few days, I met him and several of his investor friends. They told me to go away and create my dream bar, regardless of cost. They said I had one chance only to get this right, so I should think about it long and hard and come back to them with a business plan.
Over the next month or two I came up with the idea of creating a mid-nineteenth century community tavern called "The Dead Rabbit" - a world away from the luxury of the Merchant Hotel, it would be a rough and ready tavern that would serve great quality food and specialize in cocktails. As much as I love cocktails, I also love drinking in old taverns and I felt my 'dream bar' should amalgamate the two styles.
The Dead Rabbits were an Irish gang in New York City in the 1850s, whose name translated as "men to be greatly feared". In riots their emblem was a dead rabbit impaled on a spike and I felt that the name, together with this type of imagery might conjure a little controversy, which is always a good thing in my opinion.
The investors liked the idea and decided to go about making it all happen. The first thing they did was sort out my visa for me and create a job for me here in New York. I arrived in New York in November 2010 and am currently passing my time working in the back bar of Harry's Bar down in the Financial District, getting to know the city while I develop the Dead Rabbit concept.
I'm already settled in although it has to be said that the first few weeks, getting set up and organized over here, proved to be very problematic and stressful indeed - everything from getting my accommodation and social security number to bank account arranged was fraught with difficulty.
I've also been out studying all the very old bars in the city and have just now started checking out all the cocktail bars. I take a note of every single thing I see that I like and usually don't make my presence known. I like to hover 'under the radar' at the moment, watching all but saying nothing. My favourite by far - at least in terms of drinks - is Milk & Honey. My second - and again, only as far as drinks go - is Mayahuel. I think they are doing some amazing stuff with tequila - which is my least favourite category. My third favorite is a new addition to the Manhattan scene - and this time, not just drinks, but processes, space, bar lay-out etc - and is Weatherup in Tribeca.
I have been visiting the various neighborhoods and trying to establish where I would most like the location of the Dead Rabbit to be. The four areas we're concentrating on are the Flatiron District, Coopers Square/the Bowery, Chinatown and the Financial District. We're about to appoint a broker to find us a desired site and the idea is to then secure the lease. One of the investors is a publican with a proven track record of opening and running bars and is already the proprietor of four very successful establishments in New York, so he is extremely well versed in architects, community boards, residents and work permits etc.
One of the first things I've learned living here is that everything seems to take so much longer to happen than it does back home in Ireland - the processes involved in opening a bar are much, much more difficult.
What we are looking to procure an existing bar or restaurant with a full liquor license. Ideally it ought to be a 1400 2000 square feet ground floor space with a basement; prominent frontage, high ceilings and a high level of passing foot trade are essential. We are looking to take out a 10-year-lease on the property.
We have pinpointed certain streets, for example: Mulberry, Mott Streets in Chinatown/ Little Italy; Stone, Pearl, South William, Fulton, Wall Streets in the Financial District; 17th-23rd streets around Broadway and 5th Avenue in the Flatiron District. We have to appoint a broker, who will arrange site visits for us in premises that are already up for rent and will also approach the tenants of 'suffering businesses' on our behalf and offer them key money to buy their business from them. It's all taking a bit longer than I first thought but that is not a bad thing to be honest, for the longer I'm here the more I'm learning. It can be extremely frustrating at times, but the main thing to me is that the process is in motion.
If I'm honest, I'm hoping we find the site in the Flatiron District. The buildings there have prominent frontage, high ceilings, passing foot trade and the area itself is practically right in the middle of the East and West Villages. Another good thing about Flatiron is that it falls under 'Community Board 5', whereas bars in the East Village fall under 'Community Board 3' and bars in the West Village fall under 'Community Board 2'. A 'Community Board' is like a local residents association which approves or disapproves applications for bar and restaurant licenses in monthly hearings - and Community Boards 2 and 3 are the most notorious for being problematic and for disapproving licenses.
Once a premises has been found and a contingency lease negotiated with the landlord, an engineer is sent to inspect the building and an architect assigned to draw a plan of our intentions, an application to open the bar must then be sent to the local Community Board. Even if you have bought an existing bar or restaurant with a full liquor license, you must still seek approval from the local Community Board to 'transfer' the existing license over into the new business. It could be that the existing bar might have had a 4am licence whereas you might only be granted a 2am licence. The Community Board will also take other things into consideration, such as noise complaints from neighbours during the previous tenant's occupancy. Over here, the neighbour is king and you have to stay on their good side, especially those who might be living directly above the bar.
Once we get that approval, we'll then apply for a work permit to refurbish the existing premises. It might seem like we've a long way to go but I'm convinced that we will have found the site, got our license approved, have our work permits to carry out necessary work and have the doors open by September/October at the very latest.
Living in New York is as tough as it gets. It's a place that is totally unlike anywhere else I've ever lived. I've discovered that I'm going to have to make things happen myself if they are indeed to happen at all. Nobody is going to hold my hand and show me the way - investors are investors and they are busy with their own lives. You can be high as the sky one day and as low as the ground the next day - a complete roller-coaster of emotions. But the thing that gives me comfort is knowing that most people living here feel exactly the same way. We're all in exactly the same boat and have all come here to succeed.
That being said, it has to be said that I am becoming more and more agitated as time goes by. The novelty period is definitely over now and when I was home in Ireland recently, everybody commented that my mood was markedly different than usual: I was told I was 'very quiet' and 'not really with it'.
Finding the right site for 'the Rabbit' is turning out to be a bit of a nightmare. We now have brokers onboard and have been to various Community Board hearings to help us understand the process a little better. We have looked at a bunch of different sites and were focused in on one place in particular, which was just the right size (1800sq ft) in the right area (Flatiron District) and made very sound business sense for us to pursue. It had been a newly opened restaurant/bar that had closed just two months previous. The previous tenant had spent a lot of money doing the place up: it came complete with brand new air-conditioning system, a fully-fitted kitchen, prominent frontage and everything was in fine working order. The tenant had occupied it for four months only, because he soon realized - having had no previous experience - that running a bar/restaurant was much more difficult than he'd first imagined.
We investigated the history of the building thoroughly. We had to look at things such as Department of Building (DOB) Records online and sought a Certificate of Occupancy (C of 0) for the premises. When we looked through the DOB records we discovered that some jobs were disapproved, and whilst it was possible that they had been since cleared up, we weren't seeing them on the paperwork. We also wanted to learn more clearly as to where the C of O or Letter of No Objection lay - as one or other would be needed in an approved DOB space to pull a liquor license.
We were told initially that the premises had a full liquor license, so we asked if the license was still active and if there were any Community Board 5 stipulations attached, as in early closings etc. We were told that it had an 11am-12midnight liquor license Sunday through to Thursday and an 11am-1am license Fridays and Saturdays. This was a major stumbling block for us, as a 4am close was vital for us. The sort of institution that we intend The Dead Rabbit to be will rely heavily on industry people, (chefs, bartenders etc) who generally finish work around 1-2am.
The questions go on and on. We asked if the exterior of the building was landmarked (it wasn't) and if there were any signage limitations (it was limited by the community board). What were the terms of lease, what was its duration and would it be a lease or a sub-lease? We were told that it was a direct lease so we could make our offer for length of term.
Was all the equipment included in the deal and was any of it - such as kitchen appliances and dishwashers etc - leased? We asked if electric and gas were separately metered (we were told they were); if the heat was supplied by the building (it wasn't); if there was a separate water meter (there was). Were there any specs on the air conditioning? Where was the location and access to handlers and condensers? Could we arrange to see the equipment? Did the kitchen hood vent to the roof? Did we have access to the roof? What was the maximum amount of space available in the basement for us to use? Etc, etc, etc...
We thought long and hard about it and even though the property ticked a lot of right boxes and made a lot of sound business sense, two of the investors felt the location made them nervous for a few reasons - in particular the stipulations on the licence, certain DoB issues regarding the Certificate of Occupancy and Violations and the premises having residents upstairs. One of the investors, who is himself already an owner of four very successful bars in Manhattan, believes strongly in following the route of least resistance and didn't believe that this was the easiest space we could pick.
Personally, I think it would have been worth taking this premises on full steam ahead. I felt that by pursuing it, even if it didn't come to pass, we would have at the very least, all learned loads from the experience. If it didn't come to pass, it would have set us back only around $3,000 at this stage and I think that would have been money and time well spent. There is such a thing as 'jumping in at the deep end and learning to swim'; and looking for a Utopian space could take forever. I feel there is also a sense of urgency that is being overlooked, as the momentum is right here now. And summer is definitely the best time to do any sort of bar re-fit/construction work in New York, and September/October is the best time to open a premises. I'm worried if we don't find a space soon we're going to miss these opportunities and that will take us into next year.
I know it's not my money, but I'm fully aware that it is very much my reputation on the line and it's also my one shot to make this work for myself. I did not come here for a 'new-life' like most people: I came here to create the world's best cocktail bar in New York. I'm in a strange place at this moment and I need to choose my next steps wisely. I don't know what will take place in the next few weeks, maybe we will go for the space after-all, or maybe the 'Utopian' space will crop up? I sincerely hope so. I'm so anxious to get started.... This is my one shot at the big-time and I don't intend to fail.