Bodacious Beer Bar Owners is a terribly named weekly feature—and also a slightly misleading one; biweekly-ish is more likely—spotlighting the bodacious owners of Long Island's best spots (bars, restaurants, stores, etc.) for beer.
The format is simple: Each bodacious owner will bodaciously tackle the same four topics in relation to their spot(s), so we can better understand their bodaciousness.
"ON STARTING OUT"
DD: I opened my first bar, The Dead Poet, on the Upper West Side in 2000. I was a fed-up 27-year-old high school English teacher who loved the literature and the kids, but I couldn't wrap my head around the bureaucracy of the school system. I knew I wanted to make my own way and live on my own terms, which was a bold move because if I succeeded, I would reap the rewards; but if I failed, I would suffer the consequences. I decided to go for it. I found this dive bar on Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan that was for sale and convinced a bank to lend me enough money to open the doors. The first year was rough: we never closed through the renovations. Our loyal daytime regulars simply jockeyed positions down to the part of the bar we weren't working on. I tended bar three or four nights a week and did paperwork, maintenance, and hand-shaking on the other days.
I've opened six other bars over the years. T.J. Finley's was my first on Long Island, in 2007. I saw what was starting to happen in NYC, saw that drinkers were more willing to branch out and try more, and I noticed that mentality was still lacking on Long Island. People were still conservative drinkers here—the Bud Light bottle served as comfort, a constant that could be found in any bar at any time; any bar, that bottle of Bud tasted the same. We realized early on that if we wanted to convert them, we'd have to introduce people to all these different and flavorful beers through education. We held Beer 101 classes and we would invite industry people to talk about brewing and give samples.
Another thing we did, which is something we still do to this day, is offer an alternative to every macro brand on the menu. Hey, if you like Stella Artois, try Gaffel Kölsch. Hey, If you like Blue Moon, try Weihenstephaner. It would have been easy to just sell Bud Light and not do anything else, but we weren't interested in that. I wouldn't say we're responsible for the craft-beer boom on Long Island—the Effin Gruvens, the Croxley's, they came way before me and they paved the road. But I'd like to think we've taught people about better beer. That's something I can always hang my hat on.
"CHOOSING YOUR BEER MENU"
DD: The spirit of craft beer is a local, small-business oriented philosophy, so we try to support the Long Island breweries as much as possible. About half of our 27 draft lines are usually dedicated to local—especially Great South Bay, that's like our neighborhood butcher, our neighborhood baker. We believe you have to support the people in your backyard for everyone to succeed, for a community to grow. The rest of our drafts, and most of the 50 bottles, are a mix of everything: American, Belgian, English, German, so on. This is partly because of our Beer Club, another thing we started in the early days to build loyalty and reward customers for trying new beers. In a nutshell, after you finish the 100 beers on the list, you get 50 percent off all beer every Wednesday for the rest of your life and discounts on all our events. Looking back, that probably wasn't the smartest thing to launch. [Laughs.]
But again, a lot of our best customers started coming here because of the Club. They started to sit around and talked with the others, talked about the beers, and everyone became friends. We are a Public House. We created this bar for people to gather three, four times a week for beers and discuss life, the current events. That’s important to us. Back in the day, the public house was the gathering place for the community. It was the day's social media.
"PRICING YOUR BEER"
DD: It's getting crazy now. Beer prices are often higher than appetizer prices on some bar menus! Pricing has always been a sticking point for me—after all, at the end of the day, it's just beer. As a general rule, we try to stay under $10 for any pour. Most of our pints are in the $6-$7 range. With the bigger or more rare beers, sometimes we'll use a smaller glass to keep the pricepoint down.
"OPERATING ON LONG ISLAND"
DD: It's certainly not getting any easier to own a "beer bar"—or any business—on Long Island, but business at Finley's has improved every year since we've been open and our revenue has not gone down. However, our beer and liquor costs have gone up, utilities have gone up, and taxes have gone up. It's a highly stressful profession and that's not even mentioning the difficulty in trying to raise a family in this business. We begin working when most people sleep, and we thrive on weekends and holidays. I'm 42, and just because I work long, late hours, I still need to get up at 7:00 a.m. and take my two girls to school. That's just the sacrifice.
The other reality on Long island is that there are "beer bars" everywhere now. Eight years ago, there were just a handful of places you could get good beer. When we opened Finley's, we had a spectacular draft beer lineup but no one drank it! Despite the fact that we had 100 different beers, our number one seller was Bud Light in bottles. At that time, people didn't trust draft beer because historically it was seen as subpar to bottled beer; most local bars had archaic systems and the quality of draft beer simply wasn't there. Also, operators and tenders were not educated. But things have changed here. We don't have to trick people with Arrogant Bastard's cool name, because people are just willing to try Arrogant Bastard. It's a great time for beer on Long Island right now. They sell Dogfish Head at Ruby Tuesday's!
Lately, our focus has been less about being a "beer bar" and more about being a "great bar that serves craft beer." We focus on the guest's experience first, and we’re always trying to come up with new ideas. If you don't constantly try to reinvent and stay ahead of the game, you'll fizzle out and die. And we don't plan on that happening.