BARTENDERS & BUSINESS: Nicholas Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz

by Paul Clarke

Photo Courtesy of Todd Gross

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.

Nicholas Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz founded Bittercube in 2009. Based in Milwaukee, Bittercube produces an ever-expanding line of small-batch bitters, and offers event and consulting services to bars and restaurants throughout the upper Midwest. Koplowitz, an alumnus of Violet Hour in Chicago, and Kosevich, a veteran of Town Talk Diner in Minneapolis, are applying the skills they developed as bartenders in multiple directions with Bittercube. The duo are now partners in Eat Street Social in Minneapolis, and continue to work as consultants and event coordinators at The Hamilton in Milwaukee, while developing new styles of bitters such as barrel-aged blood orange and lemon bitters, which may be available in early 2013.

PC: From your experience as a bartender, what need did you see in the marketplace for a product and a service like yours?

Nick Kosevich: We started making bitters about the same time some of the other small-batch bitters were starting. We’d been making them at our respective bars, and when we met, it was a point of conversation. It wasn’t until we’d been friends for a little bit that we started sharing recipes on bitters, but when we started building them together, we saw a lot of benefit from our partnership. Ira was at Violet Hour [in Chicago], and his knowledge of cocktails and flavors was more advanced, and I was focused on the culinary side, so putting those together and making a product out of it was really exciting. We had the dream that maybe we could sell these, and have a company.

Ira Koplowitz: When we got started, I was at Violet Hour and Nick was at Town Talk [Diner, in Minneapolis], and the only bitters on the market were Angostura, Peychaud’s, and Regan’s Orange — Fee’s had some, but their line wasn’t that extensive at that point. For us, it was, “What other types of bitters would we like to see on the market?” and seeing that bartenders and people in the Midwest were craving more products like these. We’d both reached a ceiling in the jobs we had, and we saw an opportunity to try to do this full time.

Nick: The bitters and the consulting work always went hand in hand. The idea of Bittercube, when we were forming the company, was we’d do a few different things, so we’re not relying on just one aspect of what we do. The consulting was very important to dial in, and as we started growing outside, we started building bitters flavors for those programs. Then the events slowly built steam, and when all those things are firing well, that’s when our company is working the best.

PC: Larger companies may hire a marketing firm to do research or have specialists develop a strategy for introducing a new product. From your perspective 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 and services?

Ira: When we first got together, we were developing small batches, like 100 bottles at a time. We’d make a batch and barter them away for money – that’s a little joke – and they’d go rather quickly. We realized it could work. But the final batches, when we got to the point where we liked what we had, we went to distribution companies in Illinois and Minnesota and asked if they’d be interested in carrying these products. Our original idea was that cocktail bars would buy the bitters and that’d be our main source of revenue, but the home consumer has really driven the craft market – you see consumers as the ones really getting excited about new products. We went to distribution companies and asked if they’d be interested, tasted them on the product and showed them how to use it, and we got an overwhelming, “Yes! We want that product.” That was the motivation to move forward from the beginning.

Nick: With the consulting side and events – Ira mentioned how we’d reached the ceiling with our past jobs, and we were wondering, “What’s the next thing we do?” With Ira’s and my backgrounds, we thought we had a special product to sell and share with the consulting, and we focused on that idea for a few months, just put our heads down on our laptops and tried to form this company and create it the way we wanted it to be. We were living in Milwaukee at the time, and that’s where we got our first consulting work, and we learned a lot from there. We’ve done eight or nine projects since then, and they got more in depth and more hands on, such as at Eat Street Social in Minneapolis – the projects are bigger and the work is more in depth, and we’re happy with what we’ve done. And it has been very Midwest – the I-94 corridor is Bittercube territory.

Ira: We’ve done cocktail classes, weddings, trade shows, working with big spirit brands – all this work over the last few years. We’ve done some major consulting work. We’ve also done some really small projects, like if a restaurant gets in touch with us and just needs a little help finishing the menu, one of us might go for one day and tweak and taste and give some pointers on how to update their cocktails.

Our goal is to do work in whatever capacity it is — if it’s a small project that’ll help get a program off the ground, we’ll build that into our schedules. Nick has been doing a cocktail class with a couple at their house, or with friends for a birthday — we’re willing to do stuff small like that, as long as we’re getting the word out and doing good work, and if it’s gonna be fun. What a cool idea: a wife gets a box of bitters for her husband, and in the box, there’s a gift certificate for a free cocktail class. We’re also doing cocktails for Wine & Dine Wisconsin, a trade show with 7,000 people coming through the door; we’ll oversee and execute that. We do projects of all sizes, and that fits the whole model of what we’ve been doing the last few years.

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 have you managed to balance your business with your continuing work in a bar?

Ira: We drink – it’s research and development.

What we’ve had to realize is we’re like a Swiss army knife; there are lots of different tools and we have to put time into each of them. Neither of us has a degree in business, and we’ve had to learn a lot of different things — how to keep the books, how to send out invoices; when we started, we didn’t know what a purchase order was. We’ve had to learn all this new terminology and these new tasks; the balance comes through delegation. We each have the mundane tasks we’re responsible for at all times, and we build in the time to keep everything in order.

We make the bitters at Yahara Bay Distillers in Madison, and they’re a great help to us. We make the bitters ourselves, with some help from the distillery, and we’re there to oversee production; they help with bottling, labeling and packaging, so we don’t have to be there for all of that, which frees us up for a lot of time. We’re trying to get creative when thinking about the tasks we didn’t know about when we started.

Nick: We just had this conversation earlier this week about the amount of time we spend on invoicing and managing, and how that takes up time we could spend getting new clients and events. We’re doing these repetitive-motion tasks that come with any business. We moved ahead and hired our first employee –

Ira: Whoa, whoa — “independent contractor.”

Nick: – and it’s someone who’s worked with us off and on, and now we’re growing. We’re giving other people opportunities, and we’re excited about that, and it’ll free up those hours during the day — there are only so many of them. The amount of work we do in a week is so much more than we’d want to do for someone else; you have to be passionate about what you’re doing, and see a goal in the future.

PC: No matter how much you prepare in advance, there's no substitute for hard experience. Is there anything you've learned that you wish you’d known when you first started on your business?

Ira: A couple of little things I feel didn’t get started best are simple things now. Pricing out those first few batches of bitters way more meticulously, or financial stuff — that first year, we didn’t hire an accountant until way late in the year, and we were pushing the things forward we thought were most important, but there were hiccups where it was like, “Oh, no – we owe taxes!”

Nick: The books catch up with you. If you put it off, they’re gonna get you, and you have to keep up with it. It used to come down as a wave crashing; now, it’s a steady ripple.

Ira: There were a few things on the financial side that took us longer; maybe if we’d been able to hire someone straight away. But we have everything in good working order now, and I love our design and packaging, and we have a great website. There’s nothing in the scheme or the outer face of the company that I wish we’d done differently. I dunno, we’ve done pretty good for a couple of dudes who’d never started a business before.

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?

Nick: Be prepared for gray hair — or less hair. I think me and Ira would both agree that, since starting Bittercube, we’ve both worked harder, and more, than we ever had in our lives. That gives us solace in our business plan — what separates us from a lot of people is we’re willing to work that hard. If you launch a product, be ready to work harder than you ever thought you’d work, and be prepared not to make a dollar for a while. If you’re prepared for that, you can make it.

Ira: You have to realize that you’re not going to be working for a paycheck. There’s a real comfort in having a paycheck come your way, and there’s an uneasiness to getting into a venture – and it’s also very exciting — where the money is going to come from your work. There are times when it’s a little scary, but you’ve got to be prepared to work hard. The one thing we did, I think the best assets we had, is we were willing to jump in completely. We came up with the idea, and we talked about it forever and did our best to make the perfect business plan before we jumped in — but we dove in all the way, and one of our greatest assets is that we were willing to do that.

Nick: Agreed.

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