Hidden Gems: How to Launch Your Own Speakeasy

When it comes to starting a hidden bar, the secret is out.
hidden gem speakeasy mirror
More than just clandestine drinking clubs during Prohibition, the speakeasy changed the face of the bar industry in America. (Photo: The Coldroom)

If you know much about U.S. history, you’re likely to have heard of Prohibition, when the manufacture, transport and sale of alcoholic beverages was outlawed nationwide. But not all bar owners were dissuaded from their business due to the ban on alcohol. Many continued to operate illicit drinking establishments, or “speakeasies,” throughout the period.

While these establishments no longer need to fear police raids and prosecution, speakeasies have gained new popularity in recent years. But what makes a speakeasy different than a regular bar, and why are they still popular today?

Jeanette Hurt

A good speakeasy is highly stylized to tell a story for its patrons, said Jeanette Hurt, award-winning author of “Drink Like a Woman.”
(Photo: Kyle Edwards)

To learn more about the speakeasy movement and what entrepreneurs need to know about starting their own, NCR Silver talked to Jeanette Hurt, author of “Drink Like a Woman,” and Kevin Demers, owner of Montreal speakeasy The Coldroom.

Understand the speakeasy’s historical significance

Typically hidden behind a legitimate business, speakeasies were among the few places you could get a drink during the Prohibition era. Because they were illegal establishments, patrons often had to provide a password to enter or use an unmarked back-alley entrance.

More than just illegal drinking clubs, these clandestine establishments actually changed the face of the bar industry, said Hurt.

“For the very first time women and men were drinking together in public,” she said. “It was really liberating because historically women were not allowed in saloons and taverns unless they were servicing the customers.”

In recent years, speakeasies have morphed into historically themed bars, designed to give customers a unique, memorable experience deeply rooted in this moment in American history.

Related: Leveraging Nostalgia: 4 Things ‘Stranger Things’ Can Teach Small Businesses

Focus on crafting inspirational cocktails

According to Hurt, the rise of the modern speakeasy coincided with the craft cocktail movement, when bartenders started using fresh ingredients and quality liquors. Today, the term “speakeasy” has become synonymous with craft cocktails, and these mixologists have earned a reputation for being at the top of their craft.

bartender making craft cocktails

Mixologists who work in speakeasies have earned a reputation for being at the top of their craft, skilled at giving classic cocktails a new twist or making time-honored recipes really well. (Photo: Lifestyle Stock/Shutterstock)

“It’s all about the cocktails,” she said. “You have to hire bartenders who can make them, and who have the creativity to come up with new things. Who understand the difference between aperol and campari and can come up with new twists on classic recipes.”

Both Hurt and Demers said a speakeasy owner’s top priority should be hiring highly skilled bartenders who can provide guests with an exceptional cocktail experience.

“There’s a certain professionalism to it. A speakeasy is a completely hidden business, but with a quality product,” Demers said. “It’s exclusive. It’s a hidden gem.”

Related: 6 Cocktail Trends That Could Spike Your Customers’ Interest

Find the perfect, clandestine location

For a speakeasy, the right location can look very different from what you’d find on “restaurant row.” Because a sense of mystery or exclusivity is what makes the speakeasy so unique, a prime location will be very near, but not in the thick of, popular areas. Guests should feel important or “in the club” because they know of your secret bar.

“It’s not all about the big signs and the really nice facades,” said Demers. “Many are completely hidden bars where, when you walked by it, you wouldn’t even know there was something there.”

For example, the entrance to Demers’ bar The Coldroom is a nondescript black metal door.

“It’s an actual fire exit,” he said. “Our claim to fame is a doorbell — just a random doorbell on the wall. You press the doorbell and one of our bartenders comes and answers the door. That’s what sets us apart from the other speakeasies in the city.”

Kevin Demers

“For us, it was important that when guests come in they feel comfortable. They feel like it’s home,” said Kevin Demers, owner of Montreal speakeasy The Coldroom. (Photo: Kevin Demers)

Related: How to Choose a Restaurant Location that Sets You Up for Success

Create an exclusive — but welcoming — atmosphere

But while being privy to exclusive information about a secret cocktail bar can make your customers feel special and important, it’s equally critical to ensure everyone feels welcome once they come through your doors.

“For us, it was important that when guests come in they feel comfortable. They feel like it’s home,” said Demers. “At the end of the day, you want to go out and enjoy yourself. When you’re out and you’re not comfortable, odds are you aren’t going to go back to that place.”

One way many speakeasies, including Demers’, work to foster this unique environment is by posting a list of “house rules” for patrons to follow, such as keeping a reasonable volume, no phone calls at the bar and general etiquette guidelines.

“I just wanted it to be real and be authentic, where you can actually be yourself without worrying about what somebody next to you is doing, whether it’s hitting on you, talking too loud or being obnoxious,” he explained. “So that’s where the house rules came from — and at the same time, it doesn’t hold us accountable if we have to kick somebody out.”

Related: 4 Ways Restaurants Are Creating a More Authentic Experience

Let the details tell your story

Do you have an image of a craft cocktail bartender with suspenders and a distinctive mustache in your mind? According to Hurt, this is because a good speakeasy is highly stylized to tell a story for their patrons.

“There’s a lot of thought that goes into the bar and its offerings,” she said. “[Speakeasies] don’t just use the big brands; they use whatever is local. Most big cities, and even small cities, have distilleries. Those are one way you can incorporate products into your brand’s story. There’s a bar here in town that makes their own vermouth, and every customer that comes in gets a tiny little glass of it when they sit down. Little welcoming details like that make a difference.”

It’s these little details that can set your speakeasy apart from other bars and give your guests a unique experience they will remember for a long time. For example, the front for Please Don’t Tell, one of the most famous modern speakeasies in New York, is a hot dog stand. Guests enter the bar by being buzzed in through a vintage phone booth within the joint.

Related: 5 Trends That Could Set Your Bar Apart

“A good speakeasy or a good bar… you have to go there because it’s got something different,” explained Hurt. “It starts with the drinks and the service, but it’s also the decor and the thoughtfulness that goes into it. It has to be intentional. All the pieces must come together for a memorable experience.”

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