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Gatekeepers: Jessica Sanders of Drink.Well Makes Curfew

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Welcome to The Gatekeepers, in which Eater Austin roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen who stand between you and some of your favorite hard-to-get tables. This week: Jessica Sanders of Drink.Well

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Michael and Jessica Sanders, Drink.Well owners. [Photo: Andrea Grimes/EATX]
When the long-awaited Drink.Well American Pub opened on North Loop a little over three months ago, it swiftly became clear that the neighborhood was thirsting for a place to grab a great drink and thoughtful meal. The tiny pub, which seats 31 and accommodates 50 people at capacity, reaches that much of the time as locals stake out a table so they can grab one of the neighborhood's favorite hamburgers and newcomers pour in from across the city to see what the buzz is about.

Eater Austin sat down with co-owner Jessica Sanders, who manages the front-of-tiny-house for Drink.Well, making sure the vibe matches the crowd and that everybody's out by that 11 p.m. city zoning curfew.

You’re barely 100 days old, now. What have the last three months looked like for Drink.Well?

I think we've certainly hit our stride now. And we’ve eased into a nice groove of what normal means for us. The week that we opened, you know, a lot of people come because you’re new. And you’re a destination for that reason. And then the week after, that was SXSW, so you have that influx of people that were looking to escape the madness of downtown. And we were a great destination for that. Shortly after that, Workhorse opened, so they brought in a new influx of customers that were seeing them because they were new. It took a good four or five weeks before things evened out, and we said, this is what regular feels like here. This is what our regular crowd is going to be like.

The cool thing about this particular neighborhood is that there’s such a broad swath of people. Younger people, older people. People that are very into cocktails. People that are very new to cocktails, or new to a craft drinking environment. It’s very cool to see the kind of playing field here even out a little bit. And now we’re able to focus on making the place better and make this the best possible experience for the people coming in that are new and the people we’re seeing that are now becoming regulars, the two and three times a week people.

What are your busiest times and your slowest times?

I think what’s fascinating to me is that our Tuesday nights can be as busy if not busier than our Friday nights. The reason for that is twofold. One, is that I think there’s such a demand in neighborhood places like this, for quick, comfortable places that you can go and have a drink or two and have a bite to eat. And it doesn’t feel laborious to have to get in the car and go somewhere. It’s right down the street. We get a lot of the neighborhood crowd that walks down for that reason. And also, we have sort of cultivated a nice industry crowd that we capture on Monday or Tuesdays, which are nights when a lot of places are typically closed. So that’s been great for us as well.

Tuesdays and Fridays are certainly our busiest nights but the crowds on those two nights are obviously very different. Tuesday is a very cocktail-heavy crowd, that’s when we are able to have more intimate conversations with our customers. Those tend to be the more seasoned drinkers that want to experiment a little bit more. Friday night are people that are checking us out for the first time or are a little bit more of the weekend warrior crowd. They’re both really fun nights, and they both have really high energy, it’s just a different kind of energy.

Of course, Drink.Well is a very small bar. What's your capacity?

We seat 31, and then at capacity we’re at about 50.

How do you keep patrons happy in such a small but bustling space?

Yes! I think we’re still trying to figure out the secret formula for that. It’s a fine line between accommodating everyone that wants to come in and that is walking through the door for the first time, and maintaining the experience and the positive experience for the people who are already in their seats. We sort of designed the ordering system in a way, for the people who are sitting at the bar, you know, nothing is more irritating than when you finally get that coveted seat at the bar and you have to do this bob-and-weave all night because people want to order over you. So we created a designated ordering system like what Crown & Anchor has or what Dog & Duck has.

What makes our situation different is that you’re trying to crank out craft cocktails from an ordering station. From a customer’s perspective, that has taken getting used to. For most people, in a bar environment, their go-to is just to grab the attention of any bartender they can find. And we’re trying to create a more intimate experience, where even if you’re in an ordering line, you can still stop and have a conversation with the bartender for a few minutes. It’s a new type of ordering system. Hopfields does it, we do it. People are getting used to it. Our space is small, but it’s supposed to be. If it were bigger, it wouldn’t be the same thing. The thing about Austin is that for so long you had these churn-and-burn sort of bars that were essentially drive-throughs for drinks. You go up, you get your drink and you hightail it outside to the patio. You want nothing to do with what’s going on at the bar.

We wanted to be the bar where the bar was the focal point and people wanted to have that kind of cozy experience. And not everyone likes it. Some people want 160 seats and they want the drive-through experience, and we try to give them the best experience they can when they’re here, but we’re realistic about the fact that it’s not for everyone. No place is going to be the perfect place for every single customer that walks through the door.

Drink.Well has a very cozy, neighborhood vibe; it's a place where people feel comfortable bringing their kids. How do you keep the serious drinkers happy as well as the parents?

So much of that is the details. How loud is your music? How close are your tables to each other? I think the size of our bar is conducive to that sort of warm, cozy feeling. I think that as far as the baby in the bar phenomenon, it’s such a controversial issue. Some people aren’t really excited about it, but then my friends with kids are all, ‘Thank God, a place where I can bring my baby!’ But bars are for adults. They just are. But I also think that an evening can be structured in a way. A lot of times when people bring their kids in, it’s earlier. It’s the 6 or 7 o’clock crowd. And then it gradually folds into the rowdier, more vibrant, drinking and cocktail crowd that want to come and have their date night or Saturday night.

I’m really pleased we’re able to evolve an evening in that way, based on the music that we play. Based on the movies that we put on the screens. Based on who’s working on what night. Some of our bartenders are better on some nights than on others. They’re good for certain crowds. So we’ve tried to be kind of strategic in how we staff. The lighting levels. The music levels. And I think a lot of that kind of helps create that vibe.

It's too bad that vibe has to end at 11 p.m.

That is certainly a challenge for us. And I think going into this, because the Tigress closed at 11, and that seemed to really work for her, we thought people would be used to it. And Foreign & Domestic closes at 10:30 p.m. This isn’t a 2 a.m. strip. So we went into it thinking people will be on board with this because the behavior patterns have been set. And what we’ve found is that that isn’t the case. Especially the first few weeks that we opened, people were like, irate at 11 o’clock. And we say we’re sorry, we’re closed. That is certainly a big, big challenge for us. And from a business owner’s perspective, it’s heartbreaking to see those people leave at 11 o’clock. They don’t want to be out until 2 a.m. They want another hour. So that would be enough for them. And that would be enough for us. We would love to serve them past 11 p.m., but we can’t right now.

It's also heartbreaking for people that I know live in the neighborhood, and not only do I see the business walk out the door, but I see them get in their cars and go downtown. And give downtown all that business. Because there’s no place up here that’s accommodating them right now. At this point, obviously that’s a situation that because of zoning is just out of our hands. If we could be open later right now, we absolutely would. And we have every intention of pursuing that at some point, but it’s a process. It’s not a turn on a dime kind of thing. We just have to go through the city’s process in order to make that happen. But we would never be a 2 a.m. place because we are surrounded by houses with people that have to work. So we want to be respectful to that. To push it to midnight I think is a reasonable hour for people to be out, especially on a weekend. It’s especially hard to see people walk out the door disappointed. But I will say it’s a good problem to have when people like your bar so much they want to stay.

What's coming up for Drink.Well now that you've found your footing?

We will have a new menu coming out for the summer, with an eye towards seasonality. The cocktails will change, they’ll be edited a decent bit to bring in some lighter fare for the summer. That’s our current project right now, is to revamp what we’re doing for the season. And to figure out, now that we have a decent idea of kind of what our customers are asking for and what they want, we can cater our menu to that. It’s kind of a collaborative process with the customers. I continue to be amazed at how much people know. Especially in the last two to three years, customers have become so much more empowered with what they know about beers and wines and spirits and you get people that come in and say you should have a low alcohol drink on your menu. Or you should have something with this particular spirit, because people would really be into. And you can kind of play around with them and test things out as you go. So the new menu for the summer is an exciting project we have.

And obviously the goal to be open until midnight. And the conversation of do we open seven days a week? I think there’s certainly a demand for that, too. We closed on Wednesdays because we wanted there to be a place to eat or drink on this street seven days a week, and given what Foreign & Domestic and what the Tigress was doing, it seemed like the right day for us to close. Now, I think an argument could be made that we know there’s a demand for it on Wednesday and now that Workhorse is open, the street is anchored a lot more than it was a year ago.

So Drink.Well has met your expectations? No regrets?

Oh, thrilled! No regrets. None at all. Before we opened, we thought if we can maybe fill the place on a Friday or Saturday night, good for us. We did it. And now it’s just been overwhelming to see this place packed on a Monday night. Or to have Tuesday nights be as busy as Friday nights. It has completely exceeded our expectations. I had a teacher who told me once that it’s easy to earn an A, but it’s harder to keep an A. So now it’s about taking it and keeping that A.

How do we consistently deliver and keep people coming back and providing that same experience for them no matter what day they come in? That’s the magic trick to it. In Austin, I feel like people are so hungry for the new. It’s certainly not easy to open a place, but I think it’s easy to get bodies in the door the first eight weeks. But to keep that three months, six months, eight months down the line, what’s the secret to the Contigos? That still have packed houses a year later? That’s where our eye is at.

· All Drink.Well Coverage on Eater Austin [-EATX-]
· All The Gatekeepers Coverage on Eater Austin [-EATX-]
· Drink.Well [Official]

Drink.Well

207 East 53rd Street, Austin, TX 78751

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