Five years after he opened Slowly Shirley and the neighboring Happiest Hour, Jim Kearns is once again garnering lots of ink. Lemon’s, his new bar atop Brooklyn’s old Wythe Hotel is all the buzz. However, those two, older West Village bars still feel like they just opened.
On a recent Wednesday night, the adjacent venues were packed by 7pm. By ‘packed,’ we’re talking about doormen with earpieces, reservations only, Ian-Schrager style packed. At the half decade mark, most bars are shuttered or deep in the throes of an existential crisis. Yet, Kearns’ bars clearly avoided these pitfalls. Neat Pour spoke to the magician, himself, hoping to learn some of his secrets.
Two Headed Beast
“There’s some levels of alchemy. It’s decor; it’s lighting; it’s layout; and it’s some things you can’t chose like infrastructure. Making sure that the music is always right,” Kearns mused. “Friendly staff, good service. Such a huge part of the puzzle is hiring good people.”
“There’s a real lost factor, a time before the emails and cellphones that keep us tied to the outside world.”
Those elements add up to an immersive guest experience at the two venues. Specifically, both venues are modeled after resorts reflecting the management group’s belief that an escapist appeal is paramount.
“There’s a real lost factor, a time before the emails and cellphones that keep us tied to the outside world. There was a time when five rolled around, you left work and didn’t think about work until the next day. And, you definitely had a cocktail,” he explained. [Now, we must place] a higher value on leisure and the ability to disconnect.”
Executing two concepts in the same building allows for different styles of disconnection. Upstairs, the warmly lit, The Happiest Hour offers what Kearns labeled “high volume quick service turn and burn.” The atmosphere is evocative of a 1950’s beach resort. The drinks list, six originals and six classics, skews towards bright and refreshing flavor profiles.
Downstairs, Slowly Shirley presents an inverse vision. The room is dark and deco, evocative of a 1930’s Hollywood hotel. The co-founder describes it as “an intimate cocktail lover’s haven, geared toward conversations.” Two different drink lists [more on this in a minute] offer escalating levels of indulgence for cocktailians.
Streamlining the Process
The idea of providing a little bit of choice is not just about the guests. “When I was bartending, I enjoyed having a fast high volume bar where I could make money and also the craft where I could pay attention to fundamentals of building and developing drinks,” recalled Kearns.
That is not to say that the fast paced Happiest Hour eschews the core concepts of the trade. In fact, Kearns bristled when this reporter deigned to categorize the casual venue ‘post-craft.’
“I care very much about craft in bartending,” he countered. “The only way to be consistent is to have sound craft fundamentals and theories behind what you’re making. It’s like music. It’s lot easier if you have the theory behind what you’re doing. You know where shortcuts can be taken.”
“What we sought to do at Happiest Hour was to find ways to take steps out of building drinks—making the guest experience faster and more interactive.”
That notion of shortcuts to builds, but not quality, drove the upstairs concept. “What we sought to do at Happiest Hour was to find ways to take steps out of building drinks—making the guest experience faster and more interactive.”
To that end, the team turned towards the metaphor of an old school soda fountain. “[Fountains were] very popular when alcohol was not available ironically. They needed to pump out a lot of product fast. They made very intricate syrups, incredibly complex [… and mixed them with a seltzer base],” Kearns explained.
That fountain drink concept easily translated into cocktails. ”So, the idea was to essentially combine the bases for cocktails [in advance] and have those at the ready so when a guest orders, it’s not a matter of building the drink. You’re cutting all the steps except measuring the spirit and the base thereby putting a drink into the gusts hand a lot faster.”
Downstairs at Slowly Shirley, the efforts to streamline are more apparent on the guest side of the equation. Nowhere is the effort more apparent than the drink list. The challenge there was to showcase a massive repertoire of meticulously developed cocktails without overwhelming the customer with a tome.
Slowly Shirley found balance via a two menu system. “The main menu is the seasonal drink selection; then a rotating ‘greatest hits’ as is seasonally appropriate plus a few mainstays; [and then] a few large formats,” Kearns elaborated. “21 drinks total.”
For those looking to dive deeper, there is also a second, classics menu. “It tends to be a little hefty to the general customer. Originally, we worked on sections of the main menu based on the five families of cocktails,” he said. “[But] putting them all together was too much for someone to digest…so, we streamlined and bought it down to 21 but if someone wants to see the full list [we have the classics menu].”
And, that classic menu is cocktail lovers’s holy scripture. The 50 plus drinks on the classics list span the gamut from standards like the Joseph Antini’s Brandy Crusta to modern offerings like Samuel J. Ross’ Penicillin. The focus on detail is apparent in the historical annotations that accompany each drink on the list. Focus on detail also runs through the bartenders’ careful preparation of each drink, ingredient by ingredient.
“We tried to be as slavishly faithful to the original drink as possible,” added the list’s author. “The idea is always to find the earliest known spec and work from there.”
Of course, the current hot topic in the bar world is low or no ABV drinks. The subject is close to home for Kearns; the bar maestro quit drinking five years ago.
“I’ve never put together a [low/no] menu that has been very successful”
“[Sobriety is] becoming more common especially for people like myself in ownership. The profession has evolved to the point where it is exactly that: a profession. Maybe it’s best if you weren’t part of the party every night,” he stated. “The stress, less sleep, odd hours, especially times like now with opening. By Slowly Shirley, I had done three or four openings in the span of a year. The rabbit hole that you can easily fall down is to use alcohol as a cure-all. I became physically addicted to it. For me, it became my relationships and my career—or a booze habit.”
Despite his own preferences, Kearns does not see the need to break out alcohol free drinks into their own section.“I’ve never put together a [low/no] menu that has been very successful,” he commented. “We’re always very happy to make one for anyone who requests it.”
The theory is a product of experience and in Kearns’ experience, the ability to offer a low/no drink is simply part of a well run establishment. For example, the entire signature side of the Happiest Hour’s menu was originally designed to be offered with or without alcohol.
“I think any bar with a respectable prep program has an almost infinite ability to make a good cocktail including zero ABV versions,” he theorized.
Some may disagree with that theory. Yet, it is indisputable that the systems and theories that Kearns implemented are working. Just ask the man with the earpiece outside of his five-year-old bars.