By Joseph L. Garcia, Reporter
Only two bars in the country made it to Asia’s 50 Best Bars Awards by Drinks International, ABV (ranking at 14) and The Curator (ranking at 16) , both located in Makati. Oddly enough, both of the publicity-shy watering holes are hidden behind other establishments, making them to a certain extent reincarnations of the speakeasy, the secret bars that plagued Prohibition-era authorities in the US while blessing tipplers in the 1920s.
While speakesies began in the 1920s and the early part of the 1930s as a necessity (at least, from the perspective of a drinker), these days, speakeasies are now just for fun, creating an atmosphere of mystery and concealed glamor to accompany excellent drinks. If you’re breaking the rules, might as well look good doing it, right?
Of course, modern speakeasies bank upon the novelty and the surprise of having a bar concealed by a more prosaic establishment, such as say, a hotdog joint (as in the case of ABV). So how do you earn money in keeping a secret, as well as sustaining the growth and the glamor once the secret’s out?
BusinessWorld interviewed Pylon Partners, Inc. CEO and Founder F. Patrick Cuartero during the launch of one of its e-commerce platforms, bevtools.com. Pylon Partners is also the parent company behind ABV, so in terms of expansion and diversification, ABV, through its parent Pylon Partners, has that part down pat. Mr. Cuartero describes Pylon as a venture builder, telling BusinessWorld about 13 other food and beverage establishments in the planning stage, as well as five e-commerce companies, and a digital marketing creatives company. Soon, Pylon plans to open a bar in Boracay, as well as a bar in Kuala Lumpur. According to him, the Kuala Lumpur bar will be in a similar format as ABV, “but more grand in scale.”
ABV only opened last year, and as speakeasies were wont to do, was kept a secret for a while, holding private parties in its premises before going public. “Even… the press… we’d push [them] back for the first three months,” he said.
“While this is secret, if you give a person a really great experience, nobody’s ever going to want to keep it secret… that’s kind of how we grew. People just talked about it,” he said. “Literally, in my phone, I sent 12 text messages,” he said, reminiscing about the first few parties that started it all.
Meanwhile, The Curator doesn’t quite identify as a speakeasy — for one thing, it does serve coffee while the sun is up. Evenings are a different story altogether, with drinks crafted after cars, and other whimsies. For one thing, the place that conceals The Curator happens to be a wine bar, so boozing at this place was never exactly out-of-bounds. “I think it’s because people need to brand [us] as one, to [understand it],” said Jericson Co, Curator cofounder.
“The hidden part is not because we wanted to be cool… making money is cool; having a sign is cool — it’s just because this is the rent that we could afford,” said Mr. Co.
When BusinessWorld arrived for its interview late in June, renovations were under way to convert the wine bar into the coffee shop-side of The Curator — like making an honest person out of it, at last.
There are some commonalities between the two bars: aside from both are hidden, they have very little in line in terms of marketing. Said Mr. Cuartero, “We plan by… intentionally not marketing,” he said of his marketing plans.
“The way we do market though, this’ll be very honest, we market to the international crowd outside of the Philippines… honestly speaking, it [has] worked… people who… come in from Singapore, first place to visit. We have regulars from San Francisco, first place to visit. Literally, right off the plane, they bring their bags here — it’s pretty awesome.”
Mr. Co, meanwhile, guffaws at his marketing budget, ranking in at about P5,000, instead relying on word-of-mouth. As with Mr. Cuartero’s case, Mr. Co also has international clients, recalling trips to New Orleans and Singapore to promote the bar. Mr. Co also has a system of thank-you cards that customers can give to a friend to receive a free drink, and then recalling that one of the cards came back to them — from London.
As well, neither of the two bars accepted sponsorships from external companies (so yes, no cigarette-company ashtrays here, and neither are posters of branded drinks). Said Mr. Cuartero, “No — they tried, in the beginning; we took everything away… that’s the easy way out… my whole thing is, if we’re going to build a lasting brand, I want to make sure that ABV is at the forefront, not other people’s brands.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Co said, “It loses some of the independence… I want to sell alcohol based on its merit, rather than its branding. That’s our perspective.”
When the boys say alcohol, they mean it. The liquor behind the bar is like an adult version of a candy store. No supermarket brands here: in ABV, for example, Mr. Cuartero lists absinthes sourced from the US, France, Germany, and Switzerland, while The Curator boasts of rare whiskeys and odd additives (think liqueur extracted from violets).
Mr. Cuartero says that some of his bottles are sourced from trips abroad, as well as having some guests bring them a bottle, “Because they know that we’re really into it, which is really endearing, and I love that.” Meanwhile, Mr. Co said, “There [are] several companies that bring it in now; it’s getting more and more available.” Both serve cocktails priced at a premium: while Mr. Cuartero’s drinks jump between the P300-P600 levels, Mr. Co keeps his at a steady P450, figuring out the price of each cocktail via food-costing measures.
The business might sound shaky to some: inconsistent sourcing, little or zero marketing plan and budget, no sponsorships, and a deliberate concealment, but then, they made it. According to Mr. Cuartero, after opening last year, they have, “Maybe, a few more months to go,” before breaking even on ABV’s capital, and then pointing out that he average time it takes for food and beverage establishments takes about 30 months. Mr. Co says that his bar has broken even, being founded in 2013. It added of course, to their appeal, the novelty of discovering something new, but this is no longer the case for neither, seeing as the jig is up and everybody (at least, everybody in the know) knows about them. “The hidden part was great for marketing when it started… [but] it’s not what’s going to keep customers coming back,” said Mr. Co.
So what does keep these two afloat? “For us, the focus is really making sure that [that] experience’s is top-notch, or memorable, or top of mind,” said Mr. Cuartero.
Said Mr. Co,”Our idea is if you do something well, if you do it better than anyone else… if you do things that are interesting that [have] a voice, that voice will find its way out.”
Joseph L. Garcia (@josephjlgarcia on Twitter) covers the food and fashion beats for BusinessWorld. He usually has a drink in his hand. BusinessWorld Researcher Jochebed B. Gonzales (@jochebedgon on Twitter) helped provide data to the infographic.