James Beard Award-Winning Bar Cure Turns 10
The co-owner of the New Orleans’ craft-cocktail establishment recounts the highs and lows of its first decade in business.
I don’t really know how I came to be writing this. I should probably be living under a bridge trying to figure out how to pay off my debts but instead I’m the co-owner of New Orleans craft cocktail bar Cure. How we not only stayed in business but won a James Beard Award is a minor miracle and is truly thanks to our amazing guests, our talented team and a good deal of luck.
I started working on what would eventually become Cure back in 2004, while bartending in Manhattan. I didn’t always plan to be in the bar business, because at the time I didn’t think it was a real career. However, one night I remember meandering through lower Manhattan thinking about my future. As fate would have it, I walked past a tiny old bar in SoHo called the Red Bench and at that moment I asked myself, “Why can’t I open a bar?” The obvious answer was “I can,” but there was one problem; I didn’t actually know how to open a bar or any kind of business for that matter.
In late August of 2005, my world changed (although, not nearly to the extent of so many others) when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans. Suddenly, I knew I wasn’t where I was supposed to be; I needed to go back home to New Orleans where I was born and raised. I can’t explain it, but if you were from Nola and didn’t live there anymore, you knew the city you loved needed its sons and daughters to return. So, by December of 2006, I was back in town and ready to start working on opening my dream bar with my childhood friend, Matthew Kohnke.
Finding a location in flood-torn New Orleans wasn’t easy, particularly for two guys with limited means. In areas that were spared by the water, rents were expensive and neighborhoods weren’t receptive to new bars opening up. Ultimately, after I had almost given up hope, we purchased a building in the flood-affected Freret Street corridor and went through an intense ten-month renovation and zoning change to get the doors open at Cure.
I could write an entire article about the Freret neighborhood, but the CliffNotes version is it was a commercial corridor that had been all but left for dead. We purchased the building in April of 2008, which was quite fortunate, since if we had waited a bit longer we never would have received financing due to the financial crisis.
To say it was a rough neighborhood is a severe understatement, there had been a murder on our corner just a few weeks prior. Multiple friends and relatives tried to talk me out of sinking money into such a long shot. In some ways, I agreed; I didn’t see the potential of Freret nearly to the point of my partner, Matt, but I was desperate to get Cure open, so I went along. As a builder, he could imagine what the street could be with some TLC.
I finally truly understood his vision when he had me crawl up above the ugly and discolored drop ceiling. I saw that the strange looking building that Matt had been so confoundingly excited about was in fact a perfectly preserved turn-of-the-century fire house with 14-foot ceilings. I was completely in awe.
That was the moment Cure became a reality for me. Over the next year, Matt lovingly restored the firehouse and his mantra was “addition by subtraction.” The funny thing is, as I look back on our early days, that mantra has been a foundational principle of every aspect of Cure. We have always tried to strip things down until you find beautiful simplicity.
Just as we started construction, the late Rob Cooper, founder of St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur and Lock Stock & Barrel Rye, introduced me to my future friend and business partner Kirk Estopinal at a Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Dinner. Kirk had been displaced from New Orleans by Katrina and landed in Chicago where he found a spot on the opening team of the ground-breaking craft cocktail bar, the Violet Hour.
As I recruited bartenders with an interest in cocktails from across the city, I realized that while all of us had a passion for cocktails, no one had actually worked behind the bar in a modern cocktail bar (there just weren’t many at that moment in time). Fortunately, Kirk emerged as a natural leader and was a partner in Cure by the end of our first year. We’ve now been business partners for nine years and friends for about 11.
The early days were wild. We were woefully unprepared both in business acumen and operating systems. Cure had gone significantly over budget and had no capital left. Based on that crucial fact alone, we should have failed. We had a soft opening for friends and family for the first two weeks and we were so broke that I used the contents of my home bar to make drinks and people were encouraged to make donations.
The first months our liquor shelves were barren. I’m convinced people started giving us bottles for our rare liquor case because they felt bad for us. Slowly, we started bringing our team together and we used the donations to buy more booze. People actually started showing up and little by little we were able to fill our shelves with bottles until one day Cure actually looked like an actual bar.
Sometimes in life it’s all about the breaks you get and our break was our opening team. We had an incredible group of bartenders anchored by me, Kirk, Danny Valdez, Rhiannon Enlil, Ricky Gomez, Maksym Pazuniak, Turk Dietrich and Mike Yusko. It was a pirate ship. We were family with family issues. We constantly debated. We always asked “Why?’ until we built consensus. After we had consensus we had policy. It was a democracy. Our drinks were slow. Our service sucked. But after the shift we’d get drunk and talk about how to get better. And eventually we did get better. We’d even play street football at 4 AM in the middle of Freret Street to blow off steam. It was a special time and a special group. I will always be indebted to them and they will always hold a special place in my heart. This group created the DNA of Cure and forged our no bullshit attitude, but all good things come to an end.
Slowly, some of the opening team of Cure started to move on to new projects and I started to bartend less as bartenders needed more shifts to make ends meet and I realized that the business actually needed someone to run it. New apprentices came in to start training, but that changed the dynamic. Before I had been a friend that happened to be an owner, but now I was squarely the boss and I realized that I better start acting like it.
In the early days, we spent every shift educating our guests. Our goal was to break the automatic order. We did this by bringing people out of their comfort zones. We shunned a number of popular brands (some of them quite good) so that our guests wouldn’t default to their usual drink; we took that away. Man did it piss a lot of people off. How could a bar survive if it refused to give people what they wanted? We believed that we knew better. I know this sounds pretentious and awful, but think about it, if you open a bar or restaurant it’s your job to show your guests what you think is good. If what you think is good isn’t, well then you’re finished, but if slowly your guests start to buy in, then you got something special. You’ve got more than just something, you’ve got passionate guests that are spreading your gospel and evangelizing for you.
Our amazing guests grew Cure. They would get more sophisticated and then in turn we would have to do the same; it was a symbiotic relationship. Slowly more guests started to understand what we were trying to do and embraced it. Suddenly people wanted to work at Cure, because they thought it was cool. In fact, one bar back candidate offered to “lick the floor” to work at Cure, so we gave him a job. We were all confused because we understood that cocktail bartending had been a bunch of outsiders working harder and being paid less than normal bartenders, but we welcomed those that were eager even if they were just pursuing the new hip thing. Some of them were willing to do the work and some weren’t, but ultimately there had been a sea-change.
As Cure matured, more established professionals like Ryan Gannon, Nick Jarrett, Genevieve Mashburn, Alexandra Anderson, Ashley Danella and Christina Rando joined our team and help move the program forward. We’ve been extraordinarily lucky to have very little turnover and that has created a sound training ground for younger bartenders. Every new bartender (no matter how experienced) starts off as an apprentice and I think this has been a critical aspect to our success. Some apprentice for as little as a month and some for as long as a year. You don’t move up until your peers sign off. Is it a perfect system? No way, but it has a created a culture where you still have to pay your dues and earn a spot. There have been times where I have questioned whether it’s an outdated process, but every time I see a young bartender turn the corner and become a great young bartender, I am ever more convinced that the process works. It’s our belief that you have to spend time learning the rules over and over until you can break them.
We’ve successfully opened other bars in New Orleans, but professionally Cure is my heartbeat. Initially, I opened Cure to be able to bartend the way that I wanted, but eventually I had to run the business and then help run our other businesses. I miss bartending just about every day, but then I realize all that the growth of Cure has afforded me personally. I’m the father of a bright and beautiful daughter and I’m lucky to count my wife, Kea, as my partner in life and business. She’s brought a new level of sophistication to Cure; she manages to challenge and support me simultaneously. That is rare, and again, I am lucky.
For most of my life, New Orleans has been my actual home and there’s no denying it’s a strange place. Most things here don’t entirely make sense to the outside observer. We have our own culture and we’re proud of it. In New Orleans we are defined by the relationship between preservation and progress and the pendulum swings back and forth between the two. Post-Katrina was a time when New Orleanians talked a lot about the new New Orleans and what the city could be if we all started looking forward a little more. Cure stood for the new New Orleans. The aspirational New Orleans. The ironic thing about Cure’s place in the new New Orleans is that we had to look back to history before we could move forward. Most things in New Orleans are old or restored. Cure is by all accounts a modern cocktail bar, but we’ve always tried to honor the past by focusing on well-made classic cocktails (especially the New Orleans cannon of drinks) and only using traditional recipes as a template for our more contemporary seasonal updates. Like New Orleans, our goal was to have one foot in the past and one foot in the present. We represent our city and that’s one of the things that I’m most proud of.
Ten years is a long time, but in New Orleans ten years is like a blink of the eye. I’ve always wanted for Cure to stand the test of time and be here long after I’m dead and gone. Ten years is one small step closer to that goal.