Bartenders and Business: JENNIFER COLLIAU

by Paul Clarke

Bartenders and Business focuses on bartenders who have taken the professional skills and interests they’ve developed behind the bar, and applied them in an entrepreneurial direction, introducing products and brands designed to create an exceptional experience for guests.

Since launching Small Hand Foods in 2008, San Francisco bartender Jennifer Colliau has redefined the way many bartenders and drinkers think about the quality and integrity of cocktail syrups and flavorings. Between making, labeling and shipping batches of orgeat and pineapple gomme, Colliau tends bar at Slanted Door.

PC: From your experience as a bartender, what need did you see for a product like yours?

JC: It goes back to an argument I had a long time ago about the Mai Tai with [Slanted Door bar manager] Erik Adkins, of how it was being made as a mixture of rum and juice, with raspberry syrup to make it pink, and pineapple juice—I didn’t know anything about the history of it or how to make it right; I was even using amaretto to get an almond taste in there. Erik got tired of hearing me bitch, and he went and did some research, and we realized we needed orgeat to make the drink right, but all the orgeat we had was shit!y. I was always a person to mess around and make stuff and bring it into the bar, and he said, why don’t you make some?

I like to research and make different things and experiment, and I kept bringing batches of orgeat into the Slanted Door, and we’d make Mai Tais and Japanese cocktails and that kind of stuff. Once I got the recipe down, Erik was stoked, and we kept serving them to local bartenders until people were like, “How do I get this?” So it was, “I can make you a bottle, I guess,” and I didn’t know what I was doing at first.

Then, when Thad [Vogler] opened Beretta [in 2008], he wanted gomme syrup for aromatic cocktails, and pineapple gomme for Pisco Punch. He asked if I’d ever worked with gum Arabic, and I said I’d try, so it was a whole path of research and discovery—it was just seeing the problems I noticed in the recipes that were out there, and tweaking them and seeing if there’s a better way to make what I want to happen in a more efficient way.

I brought in a bunch of bottles of different syrups, with different ratios and brix levels, and we sat down at Slanted Door and made a bunch of cocktails. Thad picked the formulas he liked best, and said, “If I put this on the drink list, can you make enough?” So I just made the decision, I’m going to do this for real. I went and got my permits and started using commercial kitchen space, and did all the paperwork.

PC: Larger companies may hire a marketing firm to do research or have specialists develop a strategy for introducing a new product. As a small startup, what kind of preparation and consultation did you do with other bartenders to make sure you’d have people who’d actually buy and use your product?

JC: I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I kind of created this market. There’s a demand for this, and my stuff is still kind of hard to get, but people seek it out because it’s something special: it’s syrup made from actual food. As far as I know, I’m the only person in the country [commercially] making pineapple syrup from actual pineapples, not flavorings—and there’s a huge demand for that.

I didn’t come at it from a marketing standpoint; tending bar is absolutely necessary for me. The point is, I use these products. When I was working on orgeat, I made the Jerry Thomas version with clarified sugar and egg whites, thinking, “I’m doing this for real,” and I wanted to see what’s the thing about this that’s good? But it was so thick you had to spoon it out of the jar, and from working behind the bar it was clear it just wouldn’t work. I need stuff that’ll fit in a speed rack and has a neck that a pour spout will fit—I need a functional product, and I had a bartender’s perspective so I knew these would work in a bar.

You can make it precious, but for me, the marketing’s less important—all that I’ve done is by word of mouth. When I go to a new city, I bring in bottles and leave them with people. I don’t sit there and make them taste—I say, “Try this, this shi!’s good.” Being a bartender and letting them be able to experiment with cocktails with these syrups—I know these will work.

PC: Producing, packaging and marketing a product—not to mention all the mundane tasks that come with running a business—can take up a substantial amount of time and energy. How do you balance your business with your continuing work in a bar?

JC: Not very well—I’m not very good at it. It sucks, it’s really hard, but I’ve been really fortunate to have great people on my side. My graphic designer has done everything for free; we’re both woodworkers, and I’ll help her with furniture projects and she’s done all my design work for free. My web designer used to be my TA when I taught woodworking, and he does stuff inexpensive for me; all that really helps. And it helps that I’m nice and appreciate people—that sounds really f_cking dumb, but I’ll always throw down to help other people, and that goes a long way.

I now have a team of business people—a bookkeeper, an accounting firm—because that stuff makes me want to stab myself in the eye. I’m not good at doing that kind of stuff, so this is important. And I have a business manager now, which is awesome, and a friend of mine has done business development stuff in the past, and he’s helping a lot.

People see my stuff everywhere and they think I’m really big, but I keep tending bar because I have to—the bigger I get, the more cash-flow problems there are. I run off a personal credit card all the time, and I’m different from a big company that had a bunch of money and had it laid out where all the costs are going to be. I started small, and I didn’t pay myself for two years—I just put all the money back into production.

Knowing what I know about production, I now approach making syrups in a different way. I won’t do projects that aren’t reproducible and consistent, and that can take an immense amount of research.

PC: Is there anything you’ve learned through hard experience that you wish you’d known when you first started on your business?

I definitely made some mistakes. I worked with some people who were inappropriate for my business—I learned that just because people say they like my stuff, doesn’t mean they want to work with me.

PC: Many bartenders have ideas for a kind of spirit, liqueur, tool or other product that they think would work well in a bar. From your experience, what should they know before they head down the path of actually putting that idea into effect?

Ninety-eight percent of the business has nothing to do with making the product you love so much.

I spend so little time now doing R&D. I started off doing the research and making the product, but once you get it out there, it’s all about business and consistency. You can’t f_ck around with the recipe anymore, because people have cocktails based on that recipe. If you keep making it yourself in a way where there’s potential for error, there’s the possibility you’ll get it wrong and disappoint people, and that sucks.

I still make the orgeat by hand. Once, I did the math wrong, and wound up adding more sugar than I should have. I looked in the pot and it didn’t look right, and realized I needed to add this much more almond milk—which takes two days to make—and that I had to deal with cooling and storing the syrup to comply with FDA regulations, and to get my shift covered so I can do this and correct it, and now I’m making a way bigger batch than I meant to and I have to get more bottles. As a result, I spent way more time and money than I should have, and I was late getting stuff to people.

It’s maintenance at a certain point; you can’t f_ck with the recipe anymore, you have to have it down. Here in California—it may be the same in other states, I don’t know—you have to submit a formula to the government and they give you permission to make the product according to this exact formula; if I change my recipe, I have to resubmit and get a new letter of approval.

Because of the time and the money, the creativity gets way tooled down, and that comes into play with new products—it costs $16,000 every time I want to do a run of pineapple gomme and plain gomme. After that, there’s not a lot of room to mess around.

If you have visions of, oh, “I love making these bitters,” you better look into the liquor laws—it’s expensive, and going through the ATF is gnarly. You can’t make sh!t in your kitchen and sell it—that’s not how the laws work. Know that going in, and do all the research, and talk to other people who’ve done it.

It’s way more than I thought I would be, and I love it, but it’s not what I thought it would be. I now have people working on the things I’m not good at doing, so I can do some R&D, and that’s what’s fun for me.

You have to ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” If you’re doing it because you like making things, that’s not what the business is about. The glory will come if your product’s good, and if you’re nice.

PC: Any last words of advice?

JC: Know everything you can. Research the hell out of what you are doing. Know the history, know how people are making these kinds of products now, and know why. Know why your product is different, and better.

If someone asks you why you do something a certain way, saying you don’t know, or because it’s how you've always done it, or because it’s cheaper, is not an acceptable answer.

Have integrity. Believe in your product. Have those beliefs founded in research and taste, not marketing whims.

That's not to say marketing won't make you money. Grey Goose has done an amazing job marketing a product they don't make. But if they started explaining they are master blenders, they could appeal to the geeky bartender set, whereas now they are lost to us.

Read more from Bartenders and Business.