All right, let's just do this for the transcription person...
Okay. First, just a few general profile questions. Least favorite kind of weather?
I would say, too many sunny days in a row.
[laughs] I’m gonna say a mix of wind and rain.
Have you ever painted your face for a sporting event?
Well, it’s been a few times here.
[laughs] Let's see, we painted ourselves for the Phillies—-I remember when I was
living in Colorado, the Phillies were playing the Rockies for a divisional thing, and I had my face
painted for that, we just did red streaks on the face, and then in college, we would paint our face
for some of the soccer games and stuff like that. Eagles games, definitely, I've gone completely
He’s done it more than twice.
I never like it, though, ‘cause by like the third quarter it just gets everywhere, and
it's like in like Arrested Development when David Cross is, you know, Tobias's Blue Man--you
just see the blue hand prints as the season goes on--that's kind of how the end of the day turns
out, you're finding it everywhere, your bathroom is all green hand prints, and it's just a greasy
feeling on your face. I've done it a lot, but I don’t think I’ll do it again.
You’ve done it enough.
I don’t think I’ll do it again.
First concert you attended on your own, not with chaperone or parent.
Oh yeah. I remember that. My sister and I got dropped off at the Tower Theater in
Upper Darby just outside of Philadelphia, and we saw the Meat Puppets with Cracker.
My dad grew up in that neighborhood so I think they just went down to his buddy's bar and got
loaded while we were doing it. But as soon as they pulled away, we both were like, you know,
getting cigarettes out, and I remember feeling really cool, you know, to go to a show by myself, I
mean, we did. It was like when the Meat Puppets played, ‘cause they were kind of rock and roll,
we got the crowd surfing stuff...she was in 7th grade, I was in 6th grade, and I remember I just
was like, “I don't think I could ever go to a concert with parents again”—
[laughs] Oh, man, it's a tough one. I'm not sure exactly which came first, but I'll say
that one that stuck with me which was Tingley Coliseum, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Tool
opened up for Metallica. I went with a couple buddies of mine, same thing, folks dropped us off
at the gates, went in, I think, as we're walking in, the Coliseum is just packed with
representatives from every Native American tribe in the state. The first memory I have is before
walking in, you gotta walk down this little like tunnel, and there's just this drunk, bloody-faced,
Native American guy getting carried out by like three of his buddies, right? And as he's passing
by, he reaches out, tries to grab us…this is what you feel like, this is what it's like being at a
It’s like going across the River Styx or something-
Oh yeah. When Metallica opened, their first song, soon as the lights go out, literally
3,000 people from the rafters just start jumping over, and the security guards can’t grab one, so
we were on the floor. We got the seats through my friend Zach’s parents who owned a hotel out
there, and I just remember turning around seeing this charging mob from the crowd jump over
the security guards and right to the front, so it was a pretty cool experience for sure. Still one of
the best shows I've ever seen.
Looking back, if you reverse engineer where you are compared to where you grew up, do you see any of the seeds of experiences or interests that led you into this business?
Like I said earlier, my parents were artists, they had a jewelry business in New
Mexico--my mom's from Coney Island, my dad is from Philadelphia. They moved out West, to
live their dreams, start their business, and so I grew up around this entrepreneurial kind
of…bone that my folks had. And I still remember, I was maybe, 8, 9 years old, every Sunday,
going with my dad to do the casting, and he would basically be making all these little silver
pieces that the workers would come in the next day and assemble. So I would go with him every
Sunday, and I just loved watching the little centrifuge that would just spit the metal into these
molds. I always knew I wanted to work for myself, you know, and at some point back then I
thought I was gonna probably take over my parents' business, but it became pretty evident I
didn't want to do that, and I didn't want to be in New Mexico, you know, by the time I got to high
school. So the entrepreneurial bug was put in me early. I was never really happy doing things
for other people, I always wanted to do it for myself.
And then you started bartending?
Bartending was completely by luck. I'd left school, I wasn't really giving it a go, I was
skipping class, I was partying and stuff, so after a couple years then I was like, “I'm not gonna
waste my money on this school anymore.” I went back to New Mexico to see a buddy of mine
who was a chef, and his buddy that was the GM of this restaurant ended up hiring me the day
of. So I got in just to say hey to an old friend, and the guy's like, “Yeah, you want a job, come
back tomorrow.” Started waiting tables, within a month I was bartending, then I ended up
running that little lobby bar and restaurant that was in a downtown hotel in Albuquerque. That
was kind of how I got into it, and then I was making money. I really enjoyed it, and I never
looked back. I knew I had that skill, and I knew I could get a job, so that was kind of the impetus
for me to come to San Francisco. I didn't know if I was going to be in the bar industry for the
next 10 years but, you know, I think that you carve out a niche and say, “Okay, well how do I
turn this into a more legitimate career?” For us, that meant ownership and opening our places.
My dad really is probably the reason I'm into bartending. My mom too, I guess.
Their social nature is pretty much why I ended up doing something that's as social as bartending
is. As early as I could remember, going out and cutting this little celery-looking thing in the
backyard, kind of like a tubed celery, and cutting those to bring in so my parents could make
Bloody Marys with them when their friends were over. And then learning how to make a Bloody
Mary at a young age, so I think getting that kind of thing down, you know. My dad's friends all
played in bands, or they all worked in bars, or some of them were cooks and stuff, so I definitely
spent a lot of time with toilet paper in my ears, watching bands in bars, you know, back when
you could probably still bring a kid to a bar. They'd usually set me up with a soda in the back
room, playing shuffleboard or something. My sister and I would be there, or we'd be off to the
side, watching music and stuff, but I think the dance of a bar, the vibes, the low light…I always
got excited to go out to dinner, to see music and stuff, it was just something that I always was
really excited about. My parents were very like middle class, 3 kids, you know, if we went to
dinner as a family, it was big, big shit. And one thing that stuck with me the whole way through
was when it came to service, when we would get bad service or something would go wrong, my
parents were always really cool about it. They were really humble, and they would never make a
big deal and never ask for anything for free or anything like that--but I remember they'd get the
bill at the end and it's like, “You go out and patronize a place, and you get bad service or
disrespected or something, it's bad ‘cause it's people's hard-earned money.” So that stuck with
me, that kind of blue collar approach to service, that started at a young age. And in college I
was an art major, so I had a pretty keen schedule which was awesome, like independent study
basically. So I'd go bartend at the president's house when he would do things, and I'd work
banquets and stuff, and I was with the other work study kids, the kids that couldn’t afford to pay
full tuition. So there was a camaraderie in that and also learning those skills at an earlier age,
as opposed to getting out of school and then trying to figure it out on the fly when your career
dies. That was something from my dad, he said, “Just learn how to bartend, you'll have a job for
the rest of your life.” And I kept falling back on that, you know, like I had an art gallery at one
point, but I was still bartending at night to supplement income, and eventually I just thought,
“Well, I'm always supplementing my income with bartending, why not make it my full income and
get serious about it?” I just kind of decided, and that’s around when I decided to move out to
San Francisco. And I met Brian and then, you know, the rest is…
Yeah. How’d you guys meet?
I had just opened up Big, which was a menu-less cocktail bar a couple blocks from where we’re at now.
Yep. No menu. So everything was a consultation, right, you'd come in, it would be,
“Hey, what do you like to drink?” You know, we'd have a spread of herbs and fruit, people would
give you a little direction. It was by no means a great business model, by no means was it really
scaleable, you know, you're really not maximizing anything except for--
–except for the experience.
About 15 people could fit in this place. Or 20 people, maybe(?).
That bar was amazing for us, reputation-wise. It really kind of–that’s kind of what set us off, and it’s why, when we opened this, we really had a lot easier time than what we did there. But I just opened that–I was opening it up like Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights at the beginning. I had Iris working with me, I had no other help, all the bartenders that I wanted to work with were all running other bars in the city, and they’re like, We’re not gonna leave our bar to go try this, you know, stupid fuckin’ crazy–
--yeah, what do you think you're doing, some menu-less bar--people kind of shied
away from it. But the guy I was buying booze off of, he was good friends with Mo. They had
mutual friends in Denver, and he actually dropped me Mo's resume. He's like, “Hey, this guy
wants to move out here, you should meet him, he's a great bartender, he's the missing piece
you're looking for.” I was kind of wrote it off, like “Denver, oh…”
Who knows how to bartend in Denver, we're in San Francisco here! So to be
honest at first, I didn't really give it much thought, again for the next, I think, maybe--
I couldn't get anybody really to come in and help me out over there, and finally, I
just gave him a call. So when he moved out--he moved out on a Tuesday, I think we had lunch
–I got here Tuesday, we did lunch on Thursday.
We did lunch on Thursday.
And then I worked that night–
–and that was basically the beginning of it.
And so you were renting that spot?
I came in as a revenue sharing partner, I wasn't really an owner. I didn't have equity,
I was just making cents off the dollar. Jordan Langer, who spawned all of Big, he built that place
out. It really belongs to him and Pete, they own 620 Jones over here, they just reopened Big, so
basically they found that place. It was in a little hotel called the Vantaggio, which was like a
hostel/hotel, a lot of exchange students would rent out rooms for 3 months. So we had this
funny little bar in there, and then eventually that building sold, which was why we lost the space.
It's now a Marriott. So where our bar was is now just a white--
We had fun working with each other too, right off the bat, it was like, my dad is from Philly, he’s from Philly–
There was a lot of rapport, you know, like a long lost relative you didn't know you
had, like you would go down there and just have your brains going crazy, and we brought in a
couple other people. It was definitely one of those artistic times in your life where everything's
creative, everything's flowing, you know, and that's the vibe that was in there. And I think,
because there was no pretense in the relationships, it didn't really have a hierarchy of who was
who, so we all felt like equals. It kept people just doing what they should be doing, which was
taking care of people, making drinks, having fun, and we've tried to keep that going into this
place. Little more responsibility here, we're kind of more the dads here, but at the same time,
we're still behind the bar.
The great thing is we have a complimentary set of skills even though we have some
overlapping. There's areas he really excels in that I don't, there's areas I really excel in that he
doesn't. He's very eloquent when he writes, I can do math, I can do numbers, so we have this
I know what my job is, and he knows what his job is, and we never sat down and
said, Okay, you'll do this and this, it just happened that way--
–yeah, kind of letting the game come to you a little bit.
Since you got into this in a serious way, what’s changed the most in the business?
I think the starting point for cocktail knowledge for the average Joe walking in is probably higher, now they’re aficionados if they’re from Kansas City. The people really know what they’re talking about here, sometimes you have people talking about whiskey and stuff, and you’re like, wow, you should work here, man–
I think that's the level of knowledge you get here. Now, there was a time where
there was a lot of bowties and little moustaches and such which, you know, I think it’s great
when people dress up and have fun with a vest, but that definitely represented a certain
snootiness, like a pretentiousness. I feel like it's come back towards the middle, and bartenders
have checked themselves a little bit on their egos. There's a little less correcting going on, you
know, like there's a little more “Yes” and a little less “No,”which I think is important. I'm not
gonna be carrying every single vodka flavor, but I'm gonna carry things when I hear enough
people asking for it; it's an easy "Yes". And then, if you do that really well and you get them their
drink and you made them happy, then they're gonna watch and see what you're doing after that,
cause their guard's down. They're gonna say, “Oh, what's that drink with the piece of rosemary
hanging out of the top?” Now you got them, but what you did at first was you gave them what
they wanted. And I think people are getting back to that, a little bit more about the room. We're
lucky enough in this city to have a clientele that want to come in Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,
and that's allowed us to always have something to work with, as opposed to just weekends. You
can refine your craft every night of the week here, so you're given a lot of opportunity, and that's
how things have really changed.
I think you hit it right on the head, the attitude of the bartender has changed a lot.
For me, a bartender's mentality should always be that you're lucky to have the guest in front
you, they're not lucky to have you in front of them, right? So we definitely see a swing back to
taking care of people, not trying to cram down people's throat what they should be drinking or
what you think is the best cocktail. One thing I really think is fun to look at is bar design, the
layout of a place. Is it a hidden door, like, okay, you can do elevated stuff in a dive bar setting or
you can have a jukebox, and it can be a little rowdy, and it's not all about Edison bulbs and
--yeah, exactly, like you have to respect the people around you, don't come in and
bug every girl at the bar. Sometimes we have to check people but there's no list of rules.
So you’re seeing that dive bar mentality come back, but with raised, elevated bar programs.
Another thing you can say about the industry now is people have realized that
longevity in this business is a tough thing to come by. When you're running a business or you're
working in a place, it's like, “Hey, do things the right way, take care of people the right way,
otherwise you're not gonna be here long.”
We’ve been lucky, we’ve been real lucky here for sure.
We were talking about Speed Rack earlier, so let’s talk about women in this industry. It’s obviously very male dominated.
And yet the clientele is fairly mixed, women like to go to bars just as much as men do.
Is it getting easier, do you think, for women to–to get into all the areas of this business?
Women in this industry right now are doing amazing things all across the country,
like Ivy Mix with Leyenda and of course, Julie Reiner with Clover Club and--and Reiner, but
while there are some really, really amazing women on the forefront of this industry, it's still very
But in this city we’re of a very open mind.
Yeah, San Francisco’s in it’s own little realm–
–and I would say it’s getting to the point where if you’re good at what you do, people notice. I definitely think that we’re seeing a lot more female bartenders, but—
Women inevitably do have to work a little bit harder to prove themselves. Any kind
of weakness in their performance behind the bar will get judged a little harsher, and the
misogyny is definitely a big thing in this country. I'd like to be positive and have a good outlook
on where things are going, but I still think there needs to be a complete non-sexualization of
people's roles, you know. The women have to put up with a different level of shit. So more guys
have to stand up for women and let people know, “You don't talk that way, we don't need that
kind of behavior.” The social norms have to be changed, and I think bars are a great place to
start, that rhetoric needs to start in a bar. I think we have a large responsibility in the service
Yeah, set new standards.
I feel like all female bartenders should have yellow cards–
First time he does something sketchy, he gets the yellow card–
If you get the red, you’re gone.
Exactly. So how many times a week does somebody come in with something that they want you to carry?
You get approached a lot, and I think we're lucky in the sense we’ve built up some
really good relationships with the people that sell us stuff, you know, they're excited to bring it in
and show it to us. When you have people approaching you like that, it's really fun.
Yeah, I mean, I’ve been a buyer for quite a while now, probably 10 years or so, and one thing I’ve learned is be really straightforward and don’t bullshit.
The first few years, I did a lot of bullshitting, like, “Let me work on that, maybe I'll
bring that in,” and now I don't want to waste your time. It’s just like management skills, right, like
the first time you have to fire someone it's really difficult, and then it gets easier every time.
Buying is like that. I probably put my foot in my mouth a couple times. I remember with a Mezcal
brand, I told the guy the label looked like it should have been on the back of like a dirt bike in the
X Games, you know--
–yeah, I said it looked like an Ed Hardy t-shirt, and I didn’t realize this guy was the developer of the brand
I remember when I first met Jonathan, with you guys, he had come in with 2 guys
from Wine Warehouse, and they had come wandering in and they said, “Hey, we got this new
thing, we're kind of thinking about bringing it out, we thought we’d bring it by you guys and see if
you liked it.” So that's kind of fun, when you're a part of their process as well.
In the past, I've had people coming in three, four time a week, but we don’t really get that that much anymore. When people do swing by, usually it’s with a good purpose, they know that they’re gonna have something we’re interested in.
There's some back-scratching for sure, but that's the dance because there's gonna
be times when we're gonna need something from them--
--and when there's a good rapport, there's a trust. Those are the relationships we
want. And in this industry, you're always within a couple degrees of separation on things, so you
gotta mind your P's and Q's, you know, really. So we never try to burn any bridges, but we also try not to bullshit people either.
In terms of brands and categories, what’s the last thing you want to see another example of?
Well, you know my answer–Mezcal.
Yeah, yeah, that’s–yeah. I love Mezcal but–
I love it too, but it’s just flooded, here comes another overly-praised–
–hundred dollar bottle–
–that no one’s ever going to fucking order.
Right. And you can’t put it on the menu ‘cause it’s too expensive.
I think for us, the stuff that we really like seeing come in are modifiers, right? Like vermouths to amaros to liqueurs, cause a lot of that is really where–
–you’re gonna add all of your flavors–
–stuff that’s a little more exotic, you know–
–different piscos, you know, eau de vies, we get really excited about eau de vies–
Yeah–aquavit, all this kind of stuff–
Yeah, yeah. The foreign stuff that you don’t see all the time. Those are the things I get really excited about. Things that innately have a story.
Right. Can you imagine yourselves moving into something completely different? Or is this what you like doing?
Yeah, I mean if you get into the dream stuff, you know, I want to start putting
together more creative projects, maybe going back and getting an MFA. One thing I have been
seriously thinking about is getting into distilling. I love traveling, and I think that if I could do more
of that, spirits seem to be a good reason to travel. You know, it's fun to travel with spirits in
mind. But I definitely think having a little more worldliness and possibly moving into actually
making a spirit, going through the challenge of that, or even just apprenticing some place,
learning another nuance of that, and figuring out a way to tie things together, start bringing
music, art and whatever else is going on. Be more like a cultural attache, or a liaison of some
sort. That kind of stuff excites me.
I always wanted to be big fish in a big pond, right, so you’ve gotta be in New York, you gotta be in San Francisco, and once we get to that point where I feel good with what we’ve done here, I would love to go back and do something on a smaller scale. I’m from New Mexico, and the longer I’m in the city, the more I realize eventually I’ll probably want to get the hell out and some land somewhere. And taking what we’ve learned here and bringing it to Middle America, take it to another place where maybe they don’t have it yet.
We always talk, Brian and I, so you catch us next week, we might have a whole ‘nother answer for you. And I think that’s why I really like working with Brian, we’re always scheming on something, like could we open a bar on the rooftop of a place in Tokyo?
Who do we know there, how would that happen? That’s the kind of stuff that we’re always looking at, and then we talk them out and then we figure out which ones stink.
Right. So who is Benjamin Cooper?
This is Benjamin Cooper, right here (indicates photo on wall). You're looking at
him. So Benjamin Cooper was born May 8th, 1885, in New York, and eventually he went to law
school in Philadelphia, where he got kicked out. Something happened with the Dean's son, he
broke up a fight, he was being inappropriate with women, and he ended up beating the crap out
of the Dean's son. Got thrown out, then ends up running whiskey from Pennsylvania out to the
middle of the country, and then he ended up on a riverboat, up and down the Mississippi. He
was a card dealer, that's where he learned to play cards, so he was known to be pretty good
card guy, actually got shot at a few times for it. He ended up in New Orleans where he met
Leona Palomino. They married in 3 days, she was working in like a cabaret thing, he kind of
rescued her from it, and they fled out to New Mexico, where she was from. So she was actually
from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. And her family had a big, big ranch out there, so
they went out there and they learned all these old traditions and stuff, they were pretty like
cosmic for their time. They ended up in Reno, but got run out of town, because Benjamin set up
a 3-day long card game, and he took all the money basically, so he got shot at on his way out of
town. They moved to San Francisco and then ended up living above this place called Frank
Delafor's, this old bar, probably around this neighborhood somewhere. This is right before the
earthquake. So they got free rent for cleaning the bar, they would do maintenance at the bar
and stuff every night. [clears throat] And then Leona got pregnant, with what would be their first
son, so they moved to the Bolinas area, to get out of the city, ‘cause she was pregnant, and
she was having troubles with it. So, right after the son was born, the earthquake happened, and
Frank was killed in the earthquake, and little did they know Frank had willed the bar to them.
They moved back down here, rebuilt the place, reopened it, delightfully called it Frank's in an
homage to their guy. And then war breaks out, you know, World War I, and Benjamin was
older, so he got fast-tracked to an officer role. He saved some general at the Battle of Belleau
Wood, like jumped in front of something, so he won some Bronze Star or something over there.
He comes back, and the bar was doing a lot of stuff for the veterans and stuff like that, so really
ingratiated in the community, so Benjamin eventually started running for City Council at one
point. Then the temperance movement happened, you know, after the war, and there was a big,
big protest. A fight broke out between these people, and he got caught in the middle, gets hit by
the street car, goes into a coma, and then eventually dies on the day Prohibition's enacted. So
this bar is dedicated to him.
Now, I should tell you, that is a fictional story.
That’s the story you read on our website, but really, it’s Benjamin which is my mother’s maiden name, and Cooper which is his mother’s maiden name. And we said, “Hey, that sounds like a guy. We should probably have some folklore.”
So that whole story was made up.
And then we needed a photo, we were trying to find a picture, and eventually I was like, you know, what if someone walks in and says, “That’s my grandfather!” you know, so, my parents have the original of this in their house, that’s my great-great-great grandfather, it’s like 1860’s or so, that’s Benjamin Franklin Logan.
We actually had a historian, a local historian–
A guy that wrote a book called Drinking the Devil’s Acre.
He came in and he had a couple Chardonnays in him–
–he’s getting a little pissed off, ‘cause he was like, “My book just got past its final edit, and it’s going to print—”
“—and I’ve never heard of this guy.”
“How the hell did I miss HIM?” And he believed it up until the last paragraph–
–he’s like, you had me on everything.
Yeah, he came in later and that was the first thing, he was like, “You
motherfuckers, you had me!” [laughs]
The oral tradition of history should live in a bar, for sure.