Lessons from the best USA bars: do good, reap the benefits

The OKRA Charity Saloon, a bar that donates 100 percent of its proceeds to charity, is located in downtown Houston's Historic Market Square.
The OKRA Charity Saloon, a bar that donates 100 percent of its proceeds to charity, is located in downtown Houston’s Historic Market Square.
Photography: Julie Soefer

My US Sabbatical – Part 3: Do Good

By Jason Jelicich
Jason Jelicich has just returned to Australia after a 2 year ‘sabbatical’ living in the US and working with some of that country’s top operators. This is the third in a three part series in which he highlights some of the systems and strategies that these bars use to maintain their edge.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect from the US bars and restaurants when I began my ‘sabbatical’ living and working in the US in January 2015. Seeing regular listing from fine local establishments such as the Black Pearl, Baxter Inn, Bulletin Place and The Everleigh in World’s Top Bar listings had led me to believe that we’re doing okay, thank you very much.

So what can we learn from our top performing American counterparts? What are the top players doing that we would benefit from applying back here?

Stand for Something

Case in point: Bobby Heugel, a multi-site operator out of Houston, Texas. Those that follow Bobby on either Instagram or happen to be Facebook friends with know that Bobby has strong opinions – and is not afraid to share them if he can make a difference!


Bobby got his start in venue ownership in 2009 when he and a partner took on Anvil Bar and Refuge, combining a flair for craft cocktails with a ‘serve ‘em quick’ mentality borne from his nightclub bartending days. Anvil quickly started winning crowds and awards – but Bobby was only getting started. At the ripe old age of 32, his group is now eight locations strong and growing. But at the core of his business lies a few basic philosophies that run deep:

He is a strong advocate of ethical sourcing. He is known to pull all products from his bar group if he learns that somewhere along the supply chain someone is being treated unfairly. They get reinstated only once they can prove the issues have been satisfactorily addressed by the company.

He believes in investing into the community to rebalance any harm caused. Let’s face it, there is a dark side to the industry that is generally not talked about. Bobby not only talks about it, but has established a not-for-profit bar called OKRA Charity Saloon with handful of local bar and restaurant operators to ‘give-back’ to the community that gives so much to them.

He feels he owes a debt of gratitude to his staff. Bobby pushes his team to perform. For example, to pass the bartender evaluation at Anvil you must be able to prepare the Top 100 cocktails to a full room of bar regulars from memory and be able to BLIND taste 50 spirits and get 48/ 50 correct. Because he asks so much of them he also gives them much, teaching them how to run a business – and even opening pathways to go into partnership with him.

The time I spent with Bobby made me take a look at what I was contributing to the world – and what/ who else I should be standing for. By making a clear stand in things that are important to him, he inspires his staff, brings in customers, and attracts investors – all because he wants to not just be good – but to do good as well. A community-conscious industry is a healthy industry, and this is good for everyone.

Note: I will be running a special masterclass for some of our top Aussie clients on Jan 18 in Sydney to help them design their purpose statements & clarify their service strategy. Sean Finter (Barmetrix CEO) will also be joining us from the US. For more info pls email me jason@barmetrix.com

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