A year ago this month, Trick Dog burst onto the SF cocktail scene and quickly became one of the hottest bars in the country, with lines out the door in its early days and reams of both local and national press. The brainchild of the Bon Vivants (a.k.a. Josh Harris, Scott Baird, and Jason Henton), the bar has become known for its thoughtfully constructed drinks, quirky menus (which rotate every six months), late-night comfort food, and nonstop crowds, all of which added up to a Bartender of the Year prize in the 2013 Eater Awards. The trio also do a booming consulting business, with cocktail programs for Kin Khao, Urban Putt, and Du Nord (the latter announced after this interview) on the way. Herein, the Trick Dog gents discuss closing one bar while opening another, menu theft, juggling bars and babies, and their cocktail-supply-store aspirations.
If you could describe the past year in one word, what would you use?
Josh Harris: Overwhelming.
Jason Henton: Whirlwind.
Scott Baird: What they said.
You guys debuted a new zodiac-themed cocktail menu two weeks ago. How's that being received so far?
Baird: So far, so good.
Henton: Our best yet, I think.
How do you guys come up with the ideas for these menus? First it was a collection of Pantone colors, then a record album, now it's this zodiac wheel...
Baird: The Pantone was kind of a happy accident. We had all these other ideas before we were going to open, which I'm not going to talk about, because we might still use them. And we had all these color books out on the desk, and we were sitting there one day looking at them, and I kept noticing how all the names seemed like great cocktail names. I liked the format, so we tried a color-wheel thing, and all these other different ways to make it work, and finally we just committed to it. It worked out really well.
We change menus every six months, so from there, we had the time to talk about what the next thing was going to be, and one of the goals was to come up with a subject matter that's fairly understood by most people—that they can relate to, in one form or another—and we all like music and collect records. It worked well, but not quite as well as the Pantone. So for this one, we took it really seriously, and spent an hour each week talking about the menu in a meeting, brainstorming and going through all the different manifestations we could think of for this thing. We finally settled on the zodiac because it's something everyone knows. They know theirs, they probably know the sign of the person that they're dating, and it seemed like the obvious choice. There's something kind of sexualized about that, too—since a bar is kind of a place you go to look at the opposite sex...
Harris: Or the same sex!
Baird: Or the same sex. Where you go to meet someone you're attracted to. The whole "what's your sign?" thing seemed to play well with the environment, and it's a fun medium in which to do it.
Is people's initial reaction always to order the drink that corresponds with their sign?
Henton: That's the go-to.
Harris: People will turn it a couple of times, and then they'll go, "OK, this works how I think it's going to work." And then you'll see them go to one, and to the next one, and they find their own. And if there's nothing in that cocktail that they have an aversion to, then they order that cocktail. Pretty much every time.
Have you guys had issues with people stealing them?
Henton: Absolutely. The biggest issue was with the first one, the Pantone, because it fit conveniently in your back pocket. Our door guy picked a few out of people's pockets as they were walking out the door, and the response was always, "Oh, I didn't even realize that I had that!" Yeah, sure you didn't. [Laughs.] The record albums were much harder to steal, but we did see some abuse, just because they were vintage and old, and in a bar they really take a beating. With this one, we haven't lost too many so far.
Baird: We designed it to be 12 inches square for a reason. It doesn't steal easily.
Harris: For the next one, we're putting RFID chips on them. [Laughs.]
Baird: The size actually serves another purpose: it's legible. It's busy, it's crowded, it's dark...I don't want to make you work that hard to read the cocktails on the menu.
Henton: [Wingtip bar manager] Brian McGregor actually asked if he could take a Pantone menu and make it his traveling gnome. He took photographs of it in bars all across the country.
Harris: He took his Pantone menu on dates. [Laughs.]
Baird: The Pantone menu was just something that inspired us, and was in line with our overall idea of creativity and whimsy and doing things with a point of view. But we struck onto something that was fairly user-friendly, without us considering the user-friendliness in the way that we consider it now. You could compare two drinks side-by-side, or be three deep at the bar and hold one up and the bartender knew what it was, because of the color. When we did the record menu, it was a bit less user-friendly. From a creative standpoint, or on a slower night, people really dug it, but when it was busy, being able to see it was difficult. Being a new bar, we're in the position of trying to learn as we go, and we have to see the things that we do and respond to them. The zodiac menu is here because we realized that user-friendliness was an equal partner to the creativity of the look and the drinks that were on the menu. It works when there's 20 people in the bar on a Tuesday, or a ton of people on a Saturday night.
Harris: It's also worth mentioning that Morgan [Schick], our bar manager and close friend, had a really strong role in developing that. He has a really strong graphic background.
Since we're talking user-friendliness, you guys have come up with some pretty challenging drinks. Which have been the smash hits?
Henton: The Pantone 7621 [with bourbon and beet juice] and the Baby Turtle [with tequila, Campari, and grapefruit], from the first menu, were the runaway favorites.
Harris: On the second menu, there were two whiskey drinks that were the same drink, with the exception of a house cordial. The first one was Try Me Again, with a house peach cordial, and then it became Freeze Frame, with a house apple cordial. And the vodka-watermelon drink, the Heat Wave.
Any that didn't find an audience?
Baird: The sherry cobbler with menthol [I Am...I Said] from the second menu didn't do so well, which was a shame. I loved that drink. But the thing about "not doing well" at Trick Dog is that drinks still do better than they would at most other places. Those drinks always have a home here—it's the equivalent of going to a big theater that always shows an art film. There's always a crowd that wants to see it, because it solves our creative needs and the needs of the guest that wants that really obscure, weird, strange combination of things that does work, but that if you're not a collector of weird flavors, you're not going to want.
Henton: I mean, there's nothing that anyone thought was terrible.
Baird: Thankfully, no one said, "That was a great menu, except for that one drink that sucked." But overall, there are some drinks that just don't win over the greater populace.
Do people ask questions about things they don't recognize, or do they just go for it?
Harris: Depends on the night.
Baird: How loud it is, how much interaction they can have with the bartender or server.
Henton: You get a lot more of it upstairs at a table, compared to being two or three back from a bartender and you just want to get a drink ordered.
You guys were so crowded that you had lines out the door at the beginning. Are you still encountering those situations?
Harris: On a Friday or Saturday night, it's definitely two or three people deep. Not so much with the line out the door. There are periods of time where we have to hold the door for a little bit, but it doesn't translate into us having a line all the time. There's never a line on a Tuesday anymore; the bar is full and feels great, but you're not going to get turned away.
Henton: That speaks to the ability of our staff, too. Our systems behind the bar have been streamlined, and they've been able to settle in and work more effectively. We hold the door not because the room is too crowded, but so that people can have a great experience when they do get in, and not have to wait 15 minutes to get the bartender's attention. Even when it's full, you look around and everyone's got a drink in their hand, everyone's happy.
What about the food menu? How has that evolved over time?
Baird: The food menu started a long time ago as very out-there and high-concept, and during pre-opening, we had some tastings and played around. Through that, we arrived at the philosophy that the T-shirts for the bar will say, which is "Delicious, not precious." We wanted people to come in and see food that was familiar, and that would be better than they expected it to be. We didn't want to restrict it to American bar food—the Vietnamese rice plate is one of my favorite things on the menu. It's an homage to when [chef] Chester [Watson] was working at 15 Romolo with us, and we'd go over to Vietnam after work for the rice plate. And I do feel comfortable saying that our French fries are the best fries in San Francisco.
Harris: Are they the best fries you've ever had?
Baird: Oh, yeah.
Harris: Because they're the best I've ever had. I've had fries in lots of different countries, and they're still the best fries I've ever had.
Henton: Yeah, I agree.
Baird: The thing about Chester's food that is most pleasing to me personally is the execution and consistency. It's a great dish if it makes it onto the menu, and then it's done the same, every time, every single day of the week. No matter if it's busy or if it's slow. No matter who makes it. That's a very affirming thing.
Harris: I think that a very good portion of our food menu is extremely craveable. We've all had great food, but some of those places that you go have dishes that you're just like, "I want to go to that place and have that dish." The Nopa pork chop, for example. I think that we've hit on more than one dish on this menu that people beyond us think is craveable. There's a low barrier to entry to coming to Trick Dog to eat food. You can come at one in the morning. I think people appreciate that flexibility.
How do you guys divide up duties?
Henton: For the past year, I've been the GM and handled operations, and now we're going to hire someone so I can move into an ownership role, and so the three of us will oversee everything else.
You guys are also doing cocktail consulting for Urban Putt and for Kin Khao. What are you planning for those programs?
Baird: Well, as you would expect, Kin Khao is going to be driven by flavors that work well with big, spicy, rich, full-flavored Thai food. [Pim Techuamanvivit]'s food is incredibly good and I'm really excited about it, so I want drinks that people can suck right down in conjunction with a spicy bowl of curry. In a lot of ways, we don't want to overthink that drink menu. You want a semi-bitter IPA, or a glass of semi-sweet Riesling, or a Thai iced tea—they pair really well with that food. We've crafted up some pretty fun stuff, and there's still a good deal of homemade and unexpected surprises on there.
And for Urban Putt? What does the average mini-golf consumer want?
Baird: A Coca-Cola, probably, because they're 12 years old. [Laughs.]
The average mini-golf consumer in the Mission, then.
Harris: The Urban Putt project is exciting for us, and it's a conversation we started a fairly long time ago. But with opening dates, it's been a completely moving target—that's every project, this one is no exception. With that, things have evolved and been modified so that we're still formulating what that's going to be, based on what their license type is. [Editor's note: Urban Putt originally planned for a full liquor license, but may end up only having a beer and wine license with "loophole" cocktails.]
One thing that's particularly interesting about you guys is that in the same year you opened a bar, you also closed a bar—the Rio Grande. What was it like simultaneously getting this place up and off the ground and simultaneously putting the Rio to bed?
Henton: It was a lot. I was the GM of the Rio Grande as well, and there was a lot of running back and forth in the early days. This place needed a lot of attention, but we couldn't turn our backs on this pop-up, either. The Rio was a lot of fun, and a lot of people really enjoyed it. Thankfully, everyone knew that it was going to be a temporary thing. When we put that to bed, there were some folks that were sad. They miss it, and we do, too. It was a lot of fun.
You've said it's possible it may come back. Have you held on to the fixtures?
Harris: Yup. 100 percent of it. But no plans in that direction at the moment.
You guys also talked about opening a cocktail-supply store.
Baird: Yeah, not going to happen.
Harris: Scott and I have an office around the corner that's an incredible space, and we have a long lease on it. But there was a planning ordinance in place from 1996, and it prohibited us from being able to buy a license and transfer it there. We beat that drum a little bit, and they did change it about four months ago. But long story short, us renting that space in the first place didn't hinge on us opening a store in there; we will do something, someday, because I think we're intrigued by the idea of a retail store, but it may not be in there, it may not be this year.
What's been the biggest challenge of the past year?
Henton: Time management. We're all stretched pretty thin, to give the business the love and attention that it needs. But all of us have a lot going on. We realized over the course of the first year that we needed to bring on more staff, and Morgan, our bar manager, stepped up more than we could have ever imagined. He's been a huge asset to us.
Harris: The biggest challenge for all of us has been trying to carve out an appropriate direction for growth in a climate that is dishing out opportunity all around for young people to try and make a living in this business, to be smart, grow, try to make money. The balance of that, the tension between your physical and your mental lives, what the right thing to do is—there's no precedent for that. So you kind of walk off into the darkness, and see if you come out having done the right thing.
Baird: The last time I opened a bar, I had a baby. And I just opened a second bar, and had another baby. Managing to get enough sleep, and the crucial importance of taking care of one's health: that's the lesson of this year. You can't be this busy and have as much fun as you want to have at the same time.
What's been the most gratifying part of this year?
Henton: The length of time that it took us to get this open, and the amount of effort, and love, and thought, and creativity that went into this room...and all the time that we stood in this room, from where there was dirt on the floor and no walls to watching it grow and come together and watching fixtures come into place...from the get-go, for the three of us to stand back in a corner and look at a room of people that are really enjoying the space and the drinks and the food is very satisfying to me. Having opened places in the past, there's that fear right before opening. "What if nobody comes? What if people aren't into it?" Thankfully, that wasn't the case here. And it was very satisfying to have people let me know how much they enjoyed something we put so much time and effort into.
Harris: Being able to work towards making a viable career out of something that I'm also passionate about. You see people in their jobs who are good at their jobs and make a lot of money, but in their off-time, they do drastically different things. Whereas we all live and breathe being in the drinks business, in some way, shape, or form. That we've been able to push forward from a business standpoint with that has been really cool. You always assume that your friends are going to support you, but when you walk into the bar and see a room full of people that you don't know, and somehow they've all come here and you can see this genuine energy consume the room, it's so gratifying. It's an overwhelming feeling of emotion to see people respond to the bar that we built, and like it the way that they have.
· Trick Dog Debuts New Astrological Cocktail Menu [~ ESF ~]
· Announcing the 2013 Eater Awards for San Francisco [~ ESF ~]
· All One Year In interviews [~ ESF ~]