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Going Underground

What it takes to run speakeasies and pop-up restaurants

By KARIN CURLEY
On November 15, 2012

The lighting is dim; décor made of artfully bound sticks hangs from the ceiling. People cluster around low couches and tables. Candles flicker, and someone in black slacks and a crisp white button-up glides around, picking up empty glasses. A woman with red lipstick leans toward a man wearing a thin tie. This could be the scene at any number of bars or lounges in the New Orleans area. Instead, this is a house, and that 'waiter' is resident Matt Cronin.
Once a month, Cronin, a Baton Rouge native who moved to New Orleans in June, turns his house into a speakeasy. It started off simply as a way to meet people in a new town, born out of the idea of a house party where everyone contributes a fifth of alcohol. It quickly became something much different.
He thought it would be a nice thing to do for the community, to bring various groups of friends together. He is also happy to be making an experience available to people who would not normally be able to afford it. The drinks Cronin serves could cost as much as $12 at a bar. If you go out and have one or two, you might feel guilty for spending the money the next day, he said. At his place, you have a chance to try craft cocktails at a fraction of the price. Cronin prints menus with the available cocktails, which change every month. The menu includes classics, such as the Sazerac, as well as original and creative drinks.
The Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control defines speakeasies, also called "good houses," as anywhere that sells alcohol without a permit. In the state of Louisiana, according to revised statute 26, any dealer of alcohol is required to have a permit. A dealer is anyone "who, as a business, manufactures, blends, rectifies, distills, processes, imports, stores, uses, handles, holds, sells, offers for sale, solicits orders for the sale of, distributes, delivers, serves or transports any alcoholic beverage." Whew.
The New Orleans area has seen speakeasies happening both in people's homes and after hours at restaurants around town.
The phrase "as a business" is an important part of this law for speakeasy operators, according to Jessica Starns, attorney for the ATC. The minute making money becomes involved, any private property rights become null. People operating speakeasies could be subjected to criminal charges.
Speakeasy and pop-up operators are aware of the laws. Cronin and others seem to trust in self-policing. He refuses to allow anyone under 21 at his events. "We are doing something clandestine, but not sketchy," he said.
Just like alcohol is regulated, restaurants are, too, by the Department of Health and Hospitals. DHH spokesman Ken Pastorick said anyone making and selling food is required to have a permit, to make sure foods are safe to eat and certain standards are upheld. Aron Chang started the traveling restaurant pop-up Tsai. A pop-up restaurant is born when a chef uses other restaurants or people's kitchens to make and sell their own menu of food items, and Tsai often holds events in people's homes. Chang holds himself personally responsible for health and hygiene. He is confident, he said, that there are no issues with that at Tsai.
On any given night, a Loyola student looking to go out on the town has the option to choose from over 400 permitted bars in New Orleans, but the allure of a speakeasy is attractive.
Cronin does very little marketing for his events. He prints small, "cryptic" cards with only the date, time and place on them. He passes them out to friends, and the only way you can find out about the party is by getting a card or knowing someone who has been to an event before. They have just recently started an email list so that those who have already been to the event can find out about the next one. This strategy serves two purposes: to keep the events manageable and to make them exciting.
Exclusivity is the main reason why the speakeasy model is popular. "People like the idea of something that you sort of have to be in the know about," Cronin said. "If there is a semi-secret thing happening, you want to go to it."
Kathryn Fernandez, a first time patron of Cronin's speakeasy, agreed. "People like to think they found the newest thing."
Sam Ficke, a regular at Cronin's events, said there is a certain appeal. People are dressing up and trying something different, he said.
Cronin agrees, saying each event is unique with the ever-changing menu and décor. For traveling speakeasies and pop-ups, a chance to be in a new home or space every time is exciting.
At a Tsai event in September, the feeling was similar to that of a restaurant, but felt closer and more intimate. Chang says there is a community feeling at Tsai events. The host always loves it, he said, because it's a party at their house but they don't have to do anything. They get to meet various groups of people.
"Because it's a domestic setting, people are more comfortable," he said. "You would never approach somebody at a restaurant," said Chang. But at Tsai, it's a different feel, he said. Chang said he has seen many new friendships and business connections made, with someone even getting a job through someone they met at a Tsai dinner.
While exclusivity and the sense of the unexpected may be what draws the crowd, many people who start pop-ups and speakeasies do it out of a desire for a creative outlet and a drive to fill a perceived void in the market.
Ali Mills and her friends, all professional bartenders in town, found they had ideas for new and creative drinks that didn't fit into the menus they controlled at work. "Weird stuff," she called it.
The answer became the Dash and Pony, a traveling speakeasy they started about six months ago as an outlet for their liquid creativity. The menu consists of five drinks, always different and always original, with rare and unique ingredients like beet and green chili syrups. It was a place to try out their ridiculous ideas, Mills said. The Dash and Pony also features "fancy bar food" from different chefs and is in a new location each month. Their events started off just with friends but have gotten pretty big - Mills doesn't recognize half the people anymore. "It is interesting to see how the grape-vine works," she said.
For Chang, it was a lack of vegetarian options in New Orleans that lead him to start Tsai, which is a Chinese word that means "vegetable" and "dish," according to their website. Chang, along with three other people, operate Tsai out of various host houses, as well as at the monthly Oretha Castle Haley market. They have also made appearances at various restaurants, including Rio Mar.
Cronin has worked in coffee shops for years and came to New Orleans with hopes of one day opening his own place. He looks at the speakeasy as an exercise in running or managing a small business. He makes detailed budgets and cost/profit analysis; it is all practice, he said.
"Beyond just enjoying having parties at my house, there is a practical side of it as well."  


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