April 21, 2020

Redefining Cocktail Culture: Death & Co.'s Alex Day

Redefining Cocktail Culture: Death & Co.'s Alex Day

It was thought that to drink alcohol was to live a life shadowed by death. The Death & Co. team has been offering a warm embrace to those who shine after dusk for over a decade now. Its foundational elements are a love of great people and great drinks. Today, we chat with Alex Day, proprietor of the world-famous Death & Co., a bar that redefined cocktail culture for an entire generation. 

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LINKS

https://www.deathandcompany.com/

SHOW NOTES

  • Dave Kaplan & Ravi DeRossi started Death & Co in 2006
  • Alex was captivated by the youthful, innovative approach to drinks
  • They opened 3 branches of Death & Co, NYC, LA & Denver
  • Early mistakes
  • Not knowing what to do as new entrepreneurs
  • Bars ran themselves
  • “Failing forward”
  • 2 years of growth by luck
  • Difficult neighbour for years
  • Legal implications
  • Biggest lessons
  • It is the owners’ job to find and cultivate good people
  • Provide strong guidance
  • Build a strong culture
  • There is no such thing as smooth sailing
  • Foundation issues in the industry
  • Hospitality workers are not employed or compensated well
  • Astronomical rents
  • High operating costs
  • Poor margins
  • At this time of not operating, they are rethinking every aspect of the business
  • Realigning focus on what the customer wants
  • Avoiding getting hung up on vanity items like perfect cocktail recipe
  • Bringing focus back to the consumer
  • What will they want post-lockdown?
  • Reevaluating how to relate to vendors and improve vendor relationships
  • Improving the bars from an environment perspective
  • Reviewing relationships with landlords
  • How things could be different post-Covid
  • Local cultures in each city
  • Social norms
  • Improving as employers
  • Benefits they already offer
  • Health insurance to full-time staff
  • Wellness credits
  • Potential ideas for future
  • Offering health insurance to part-time staff
  • Creating clearer avenues for staff to grow in the company
  • What set Death & Co apart as a brand
  • Meticulous focus on ingredients
  • Passion about the craft
  • Human, genuine, authenticity in their delivery
  • Being serious about the craft but also having fun
  • Harnessing individuality throughout the business
  • Allowing bartenders to be creative
  • Each bar is not a copy of the other
  • Individual menus
  • Different appearance
  • Using social media as a marketing engine
  • Industry typically focusses on bragging or nice photos of food/drink
  • Creating a more community based social media presence
Transcript

Josh Kopel:
Today's episode is brought to you by Yelp, whose mission is connect people with great local businesses. They're also helping me connect with you, which is totally awesome. Now here we go.

Alex Day:
To look at who we are, what we value, what are the core components of our aspirations, and really finding and searching for that path to get there. Even now when we're not making a cent.

Josh Kopel:
Welcome to FULL COM, the show offering insight into the future of the hospitality industry featuring restaurant tours, thought leaders and innovators, served up on the house.

Josh Kopel:
I'm Josh Kopel and on today's show, we chat with Alex Day, proprietor of the world famous Death & Co, a bar that redefined cocktail culture for an entire generation.

Josh Kopel:
The Death & co team has been offering a warm embrace to those who shine after dusk for over a decade now. It's foundational elements are a love of great people and great drinks. Here, Alex takes us back to the moment he fell in love with cocktail culture.

Alex Day:
I think I know the exact moment that this industry was for me and that it was going to be where I expressed all these various passions and interests that I had. And it was kind of right at the end of college. I was in New York, I was going to NYU, pretty much had no one I deal with the hell is going to do with my life and had this degree in European Studies. That's super useful. I'm thinking I wanted to change the world with the state department but also working in restaurants, kind of listlessly, not really with a whole ton of interest. And I remember my friends and I were running around the West Village and we came across this bar on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Leroy, and it's this little flat iron building. You popped the door open and inside was jazz coming up the stairs.

Alex Day:
And we walked down and a couple of my friends had been there before so they knew what they were getting into, but I had no idea. And there was this just "thunk, thunk, thunk" of cocktail shakers. And this entire world that existed. And that bar is one that's still there today. It's called Little Branch. And for me, that was the moment where this thing that I had been doing, bartending or working in restaurants either in the back of house or the front of house, I suddenly saw that these people were taking it so seriously but also having a really great time.

Alex Day:
They were young, they were kind of other worldly, they were timeless in a way as both individuals on the product and it just really kind of jumped out at me. And I remember it wasn't even a specific drink, it was the like idea of the drink that they put in front of me and I remember in my sense memory, so specifically, the drink that they sat down was a gin martini and you know that movie Ratatouille where he has the bite of the Ratatouille and he the critic goes back to his childhood and has all these visceral memories?

Alex Day:
It was a very similar experience for me having that martini. Not to say I had martinis as a kid, but like my grandpa always had a martini in the afternoon and it was God-awful, but it was something that he did every single afternoon and I was then experiencing it in this new way and I look back at that in the the glossy eyes of hindsight and think of how powerful the moment it was because it brought together history and tradition and personal connection with this new thing that I was learning and discovering and I saw that really as kind of a tipping point into focusing on the craft of making great drinks and really beyond that, beyond just the liquid in the class, the opportunities that's exist and hospitality to connect people to places, to people to memories and all the great benefit that can come with that.

Josh Kopel:
When did you decided you wanted to be an entrepreneur? When did you realize you were an entrepreneur? And what did [crosstalk 00:04:09] look like?

Alex Day:
Yeah. My path to entrepreneurship is by, probably a pretty typical path. There are a lot of people out there who probably say the same things and it generally sums up in dumb luck or something like fumbling along the way and failing forward. And it's super easy to look back at your childhood and pick out these little markers or indications that maybe you have an entrepreneurial spirit. For me it was within music. I was a musician, I play guitar, I had bands, but I also loved production. I loved the assembly of the thing together into a package. And so I got really into music production and I tried to start a little business out of it where I conned my dad into giving me a couple of hundred bucks to get a piece of recording hardware. And I had to build a business plan to justify it because he's a businessman and forced me to kind of go through that exercise.

Alex Day:
And now I had all these justifications, on the other end, the money that I would make and the recoup on investment. And at the time I thought it was just like, "Well this is insane and you're making me go through this, but this is kind of fun." And now I'm like, "Wow, damn dad. Thanks for forcing me to do that." And also what the hell was I thinking? That I'm starting a business as a 13 year old wanting to record his friends making terrible music. And it's that kind of mentality and spirit that I find as kismet in other people that have gone on to open businesses. That there's always been that moment in their life or those kind of milestones in their childhood or adolescence or early adulthood where they've had some sort of gumption to take a risk and to put themselves out there and to see what a path looks like.

Alex Day:
And when you're successful, it's a great narrative. But there's so many people who either make that leap but don't fully commit to it or don't even make that leap at all. And so I think it wasn't long after I discovered that hospitality was my thing and that bars and restaurants provided so much of what I wanted to do in my academic career of traveling the world, of teaching, of changing the world and changing people's opinions and doing better in the world, frankly. And it provided even better opportunities. So the moment I found that out, it wasn't long, man, before I just buckled down and started asking the question, "Well, how can I do it better? Who is the best out there to learn from? And how can I forge my own path in it?"

Alex Day:
It's funny looking back at that era too, because we're talking about 2006-ish in New York city when there were amazing restaurants that were really just kind of pushing the culinary scene. But there were also a handful of people doing it in the beverage space and I was lucky enough to be a part of some of those conversations as a super young kid who had no fucking idea what I was doing. And it really speaks to the kind of, I suppose, juvenile place of the industry at that point that because I was at right place that right time and I had a bit of grit, I guess you could call it, that I was able to get kind of ahead of the line. It's so much harder nowadays to get to where I was in those early days and was able to like experiment frantically and kind of test the waters with what entrepreneurship meant.

Josh Kopel:
How did you meet your partners?

Alex Day:
So I met Dave Kaplan, who's my partner and his business partner at the time, Robby de Rossi, who is still our business partner to this day. I met them when they opened Death & Co. So I wasn't a partner in the beginning. I was working at a handful of places at the time that they opened. A place on the Lower East Side called the Lower East Side Toy Company or the Back Room, which was a speakeasy-style concept where we served drinks in tea cups. I shit you not. But it was also quite fun. But I had done the bug a little bit after my visits to Little Branch and cocktails and was just ... I'm obsessive. I just dive in. I need to know everything and at that point, it wasn't a whole lot of literature out there, so I was gobbling up every book on spirits cocktails that I could, and then being a troll on eGullet and other forums to learn from all these people just simply inventing the industry as they were going.

Alex Day:
So I was working at a place called Back Room and the Lower East Side Toy Company. But after I had gotten that kind of first itch and was exploring and learning as much as I could, I somehow got connected to this guy named Eben Freeman. And Eben worked at a place called wd~50, which is a wildly famous and influential restaurant from Wylie Dufresne, and he had in his pastry department, this guy, Sam Mason, who really ... Wiley was pushing the envelope on savory. Sam was doing some fucking crazy cool stuff in pastry and desserts and he had a vision for a restaurant that really blended and blurred the lines between those two areas in ways that even WD wasn't really doing. And he tapped Eben on the shoulder to express those same ideas within the bar program. And so I somehow found a slot on the opening team of a place called Taylor in New York, which was short-lived.

Alex Day:
But that was really one of those moments where to me, I was moving beyond the threshold of, 'I'm just bartending because one, I need to pay bills. I'm done with my degree. My parents aren't bugging me enough to get a real job. And three, wow, this is like a real job and all these people are incredibly smart, methodical, experienced, have trained all over the world with the most prestigious people in the field." And so it was a market to me to take it really seriously. And learning from Eben I think was one of the motivators for me to pursue working at Death & Co. When it first opened, I sat at the bar and I've probably retold this story so many damn times and the people that hear it over and over again, it seems scripted but it was true.

Alex Day:
I sat there a couple of days after they opened. I had a really good friend named Sonia who I was working for who suggested I go to this bar around the corner from where I live. And I sat down and this bartender, Joaquin Simo, served us and something flipped in my brain, whereas Little Branch, in those early days and I went there, that was so motivating. I loved everything about it. But then I was seeing another expression of the same idea. That you could take something super seriously, but you can also be youthful about it. You could be so deeply human. And not to say they weren't at Little Branch, but there was a different perspective at Death & Co. in those early days. And I hope, to this day, where Joaquin's personality in serving us was so apparent and the drinks were awesome and the room was rad and it was dark as hell.

Alex Day:
And it was great, but it was really Joaquin just guiding us, not just through one drink, but through a whole experience. And I remember it so distinctly, man, leaving that night and thinking, "I need to work at this place." And so as I do, a little bit obsessive, I launched a bit of a campaign and found my way to getting in with Dave. Dave Kaplan opened the bar when he was super young. A couple months before, or even a couple of weeks before I first stumbled in there. And we started chatting a little bit. And I got him to come down to my bar and then we kind of continued the conversation and it took a couple of months, but I was able to go and patronize Death & Co. a number of times and fell in love with the experience and all the other bartenders, be it Phil Ward, who was the head bartender, came from Pegu Club, Brian Miller, Katie Stipe was behind the bar, Kabel Tomlinson, all these people who were, at that point, already legends in the industry.

Alex Day:
And they really inspired me. And so my determination was more steadfast and I got to know Dave as I said, and he brought Phil down to my bar and the story goes that Phil took one look at my menu, put it down and said, "We're done here." And Dave was all worried because he had kind of put his chips in the basket of hiring Alex. And Phil just said, "Anyone who can put that menu together, we can't not let them work for us." Which was probably because I think I had one of his drinks on there that he secretly created for another bar. So it might've been a little bit of flattery in that way or our ego talking. But it was definitely a moment where the stars aligned and I had some validation that I was doing something right and I was doing it all on my own, but I was able to kind of meet these folks and get in with them.

Alex Day:
And over the time when we transitioned from being business partners, but kind of doing our own thing a little bit to deciding on a vision and wanting to pursue it.

Josh Kopel:
And then it was smooth sailing from then on out. Not a problem in the world, right?

Alex Day:
Oh my God, there's no such thing as smooth sailing. And anyone tells you otherwise in hospitality is full of shit. I would say today ... It's 2020 right now and though we are in the middle of this crisis and we don't have operating venues, we have three Death & Co.'s and they span between New York, Denver, and Los Angeles, which is our most recent one. And over the years we've opened a number of other bars with other partners and done some really, kind of, incredible things when we look back at them. But I would say up until a year and a half ago, maybe two years ago, so much of that was grabbing blindly into the dark of not really knowing what we were doing so much as trying to get better at it.

Alex Day:
And I would confidently say the first, I don't know, half decade or more at Death & Co., that was barely a business. It was the bartenders running free rein, myself included, putting whatever we wanted into drinks, like, "What are costs of goods? Who really cares about that?" So long as the place is busy and people are having a good time. And that free license allowed us to create an absolute cannon of original cocktails. But also not necessarily the greatest business structure. So it was bumps along the way of figuring that out. Any restaurateur will tell you that you can rely on a number of things, no matter what you do, that you're going to have to pay your taxes and that you're going to have a crazy neighbor. And we had ours at Death & Co., New York that made our lives a living hell in those early years.

Alex Day:
He lived directly above us and had all these false claims and were in and out of court a bunch. We almost had to close down. We had limited hours till midnight for years. And it was really, really, really, really tough, honestly. And at that stage, I wasn't even running the ship. I was just a bartender there. And just knowing what my business partner, Dave went through to navigate that and remain positive out the other side taught me so much about leadership, if I'm honest. What it means to keep a culture together and keep a ship moving even when it looks like doom and gloom, which I can't think of a more prescient thought in these times.

Josh Kopel:
What were some of the biggest obstacles and what were some of the biggest lessons learned from those obstacles?

Alex Day:
I think some of the biggest obstacles, were learning the business. And what I mean by that is not ... We didn't know what we were doing when we started all this. And I can't speak to you Dave and Ravi in those early days of Death & Co., but I was around and aware and was kind of along with them as I came up to speed. But many of us who were of this era simply had no idea how to run a business. And it isn't just about making drinks or having a good accountant or lawyer, it's about what it means to truly run something that has longevity. And I think that was a huge obstacle for us in those early years of finding frustration in slights of having a not very strong culture where we would find ourselves continually disappointed by people we thought we trusted.

Alex Day:
But as we look back on it and seeing maybe failure in their part, it was all our fault that we did not provide the right structure, the right support, the right guidance to allow them to do their jobs. And that was a really big learning lesson and a check on our egos, honestly. And maybe just speaking for myself, very much a huge check on my ego where I believe strongly in individuals and bringing them into positions of authority and seeing them fail and wondering why? And at first, it's easy to blame them and say these tropes that you all the time by frankly, bad operators or it's just impossible to find good people.

Alex Day:
And to this day, I think that's bullshit. We, as leaders, as owners, as managers, it's our responsibility to find and cultivate good people. So much of the responsibility can lie on our shoulders. So I think that obstacle of hitting a wall with the people that we worked with and learning that it was as much our responsibility, if not more than the responsibility of the individual, was an incredibly valuable lesson to learn and one that I feel like I preach on a soapbox as often as I can.

Josh Kopel:
We have an opportunity, because everyone's closed at this point, to be reflective. And when you look back on your path, the path of your business, the obstacles faced, the high closure rates, the terrible margins, the lack of work-life balance, does it need to be as hard as it is? Is there a strategy moving forward where we could all live a more sustainable life?

Alex Day:
The thing about a crisis is that they always expose the faults in the system. And yeah, we're having that conversation on a larger, kind of macroeconomic level right now. But I think that we can answer that question in our own way individually. The system as it's set up now has so many faults. The way in which hospitality workers are employed and compensated is fucked up. And the way in which many of us in major cities have to bow out who sort certain operating expenses, be it, rents that are astronomical if we want to do this thing we're passionate about is shocking. And I think the sentiment is an important one that we need to look at what are the hard things, why are they hard and are we making them harder or can we do something about it? I guess it's really easy and tempting to look at our national leaders as the only voices to make change in this and to motivate them for larger systemic changes to the sector of the economy that we work in, hospitality.

Alex Day:
But it's also on our part to look at this as our own faults. The way in which we work and how hard we make this for ourselves and what energy we put into certain things. There are so many of us that obsess over, as an example, the product side of things. It has to be the perfect dish. It has to have all the integrity in the world, the same thing of a cocktail. But we never step back and ask ourselves, "Is this really what my guests want?" And I think situation is going to force us to not only ask those big kind of systemic questions, but also ask questions of ourselves, what our guests want and how we can be nimble out the other side of it. So I think, not to dodge the question too much, but it seems so stratified of a question and an answer is that it applies to literally every part of this.

Alex Day:
It is how we as operators navigate this situation. But it's also the people that influence us, be it landlords, the government, regulations, et cetera, and how the overall pie is cut up. Because you're right, it's not a good margin business when you look at it, especially if you're in the restaurant side of things. Luckily we're a far more beverage-focused company and our margin is a little bit different than others, but it will require us, even though we had, I would say, a very strong business before this, to look at every single angle of what we do, not only programmatically, environmentally service-wise, how we approach our hospitality model, how we handle our vendors, how we interact with our landlords and what our expectations are with our staff.

Josh Kopel:
And currently being unemployed and having time to be reflective, are you going to walk out of this with a new perspective? Have there been any aha moments that you said to yourself, "Well, when we get back to work, I'm going to do this differently or that differently?"

Alex Day:
There've been so many aha moments. Being out of work is an interesting way of putting it. I don't consider myself out of work. I am not operating right now. There are parts of our business that are still incredibly active and we luckily are able to have our core operations team nationally together still. And those aha moments you talk about are like, "How can we operate better on the other end of it," is exactly what we are all focused on right now. And it is really fundamentally, not to be too technical about it, but it is honing ourselves so that we can fine tune the way in which we operate so that we are the most nimble we can possibly be on the other side of this. We don't know what it's going to be like when each one of our cities opens up.

Alex Day:
The regulations and restrictions are going to be different. The social norms are going to be different in each one of those. Our relationships with our landlords and our vendors is going to be different in each one of those. And frankly, the local cultures may want different things. So if we are so fine tuned on the things that we thought we were good at before but we knew that we had improvement on. On the other end of it, we can be even stronger and more prepared to hit the ground running, I guess you could say, from an operational standpoint, even if we're not super busy from the start. It's like being prepared for a test is how I feel about it. One of those tests that you had in college that wasn't necessarily multiple choice but that you had to use your brain and engage in and that's exactly the kind of preparation that I feel that we're doing right now and making adjustments to. That also exists within the cultural side of things.

Alex Day:
Do we want on the other end of this, and these are the big questions we're asking ourselves right now. We ideally want to be an employer that does certain things. We have attempted over the last couple of years to put in certain benefits to attract the best people that we can. We have a kind of aspirational product and we need talented folks. So all full time employees have health insurance. We have wellness credits for people. I'm proud of where we've gotten, but it's nowhere where we want to be. So we're asking ourselves right now, "Can we rebuild our business model to make the business that we want to be out the other end? That we have an opportunity even for part-time people to have health insurance in the current system?" Maybe we're going to see a systematic change out the other end of this. I'm hoping.

Alex Day:
Can we offer growth opportunities for people inside and outside of our company in a very streamlined and focused way? Developing the roadmaps for people. As an example, "I'm a barback and I really want to be a general manager of this place." Here is your trajectory and it's clear and understandable. So those are kind of the big questions we're asking ourselves to look at who we are, what we value, what are the core components of our aspirations and searching for that path to get there. Even now when we're not making a cent of money.

Josh Kopel:
There are thousands of bars in the US, but Death & Co. is prolific. And I guess my question is, what was the roadmap that took you guys from being a great bar, doing great work to a prolific brand? Can you walk me through that brand strategy and that path that took you from great guys doing a great job to this national brand that everyone knows about and has a book?

Alex Day:
It is an idea. It is an approach to something. That you can be meticulous and focused on ingredients. You can be maniacal about your love of something. But you can also be human about it. And you can be personal and you can be genuine in it. And that philosophical starting point is where we've gone in every aspect of our outward voice. It is physically manifested in our Denver and LA properties. While where there is a thread of continuity with the aesthetic, if you will. Those little markers and nods to the other places but they're not carbon copies of one another. And not knocking anyone doing that, I totally understand kind of the facsimile model but that's just not us.

Alex Day:
We want to have a unique menu and unique kind of draw for people to come to each one of our places and explore it and we were so focused, especially Dave on the kind of aesthetic brand level, so focused on making sure that when you picked up that book on a visceral on the subconscious level, that you got some part of the experience of walking up to the door at Death & Co. in New York, touching this ridiculously robust brass handle and lifting this massive door open and going into this dark bar.

Alex Day:
The book is attempting to do that as well. It's this beautiful fabric cloth cover, black book. You open it, it has a weight to it, it has significance, it has gravity. And then the book itself, through narrative, through photo, through illustration, brings you into our aesthetic in what we saw as a necessary and very purposeful kind of trajectory. And when we saw the success of that and the impact that it had on people ... So when we saw that, we saw an opportunity to bring that voice even louder. And it's easy to roll your eyes at social media. But social media is just a giant and powerful marketing engine. And as we started kind of growing the Death & Co. feed or seeing a good response, we started looking at what we were doing, what others were doing and realizing that it was a lot of kind of bragging or just kind of throwing out the day to day interactions of the bar.

Alex Day:
And that's not what we're about. We're about teaching people, of helping them, of growing their skills, growing their engagement. And it was honestly an aha moment for us. And I should throw all the credit to my partner, Dave, here because he really saw the opportunity before anyone else and had that light bulb moment. And he saw the opportunity to make social media as a way to really engage our community to push it forward. Because we're not just posting pretty pictures of cocktails, we're sharing our knowledge, be it recipes or how we work. And through this crisis I'm really, really proud of what we've done by not just using our feed to generate money for ourselves, but bring in experts from say, legal counsel in New York to do what we call "Ask Me Anythings' on our stories where people get to ask advice of these people.

Alex Day:
We've had a wellness expert recently talking about kind of just mental health in this crisis for bartenders. So trying to engage a lot of people and I'm hopeful these steps that we've made to be beyond those four walls of Death & Co. are the reason it's become a brand that is respected globally, even if people haven't set foot in our doors.

Josh Kopel:
That's beautiful. You have the opportunity to speak to the entire industry in this moment. Is there anything you'd like to say?

Alex Day:
I would say two things. First, look after yourself. This is almost cliche at this point, but for those of you who are bartenders, this is a scary time and many of you, because I was there once as well, lived a life that had a certain pace to it. It was extremely social. It involved drinking or other things. It involves sometimes hazardous experiences but it's important right now when you're lacking that connection to other people that it doesn't allow you to spiral. And I would say from an owner perspective or manager or leader perspective in the same conversation, it's finding a way to keep momentum for yourselves.

Alex Day:
As leaders, we thrive on the chaos, the problem solving, the opportunities that come with a night of service. And when we are lacking those, it becomes very hard to understand ourselves and who we are as people. I think that that one other advice that I would give kind of outside of the wellness side of things is for leaders out there is to keep a connection with your team. I think that the people who are going to come out ahead of this situation are the ones that maintain their relationship with the people who truly are the gears of the thing, of the machine.

Alex Day:
And if you can even in some way, lend support to them. Dedicate half of your week or a quarter of your week or a couple of hours a week to checking in on people, asking if they need anything. You may not be able to get financial help right now. You may not be able to give them any answers because none of us have any answers right now, but you can give them an ear, you can give them some guidance if they're dealing with some really challenging times. So I hope that people really see this as an opportunity to find greater value in their people than maybe they did before.

Josh Kopel:
That's Alex Day, proprietor of Death & Co. if you'd like to check out Alex's most recent projects, go to proprietorsllc.com.

Josh Kopel:
If you want to tell us your story, hear previous episodes, check out our video content or read our weekly blog, go to JoshKopel.com. That's J-O-S-H K-O-P-E-L dot com. Thank you so much for listening to the show. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And while you're there, please leave us a review. And special thanks to Yelp for helping us spread the word to the whole hospitality community. I'm Josh Kopel. You've been listening to FULL COMP.