8 Jan. 2020
Aurélie Panhelleux on the inner working of "cocktail, pastis and food"

« Cocktail, pastis and food ». If the first and last terms of this very appealing motto are common bedfellows, the middle one sets apart the bar it has come to define. When CopperBay opened in Paris in 2014, it brought a breath of fresh air to a very varied cocktail scene but, still, by and large, centered on rarefied, muted spaces bearing the speakeasy imprint.

« Our idea was to come up with a place that would be pared down, full of light — and that was not usual back then », co-owner Aurélie Panhelleux tells us. « The sun, the mediterranean, that’s part of our DNA. My two partners — Julien Lopez and Elfi Fabritius — are both from the south and I grew up by the sea .» Hence the maritime feel of the room, the huge window and the brass-lined centre bar, we guess. This is not the only meridional touch tough: the French also associate the south of their country with warm hospitality and from the get go the idea was really to make anyone walking through the doors feel welcome and at home. This sounds like a cliché — most bars claim the same — but as most cocktail drinkers would acknowledge, many do not pull it off. CopperBay does.

Obviously, most of this is due to the staff — Aurélie has a luxury hotel background and she has instilled their standards in her team, without any of the obsequiousness usually associated with five-star hospitality. The way the drinks are introduced also helps, she says: « We want to democratize cocktails and help our clients get what we’re doing. Many menus are only understandable if you’re a bartender. For us, it’s really important that they understand what they’re going to drink ». The menu is designed with this in mind, the staff also does its part: « We take the time to explain the drinks, adapting our vocabulary. As long as everything is explained correctly, no one feels like they can’t have this or that drink ». CopperBay is known for culinary drinks (« food is in our DNA ») that might scare away less experienced drinkers but with proper pedagogy, « there are no limits », Aurélie insists. A perfect example, she says, is a surprise hit on their winter menu, based on guanciale infused vodka and « petit pois - carottes » (carrot and peas), a French school canteen classic.

Aurélie further argues that CopperBay’s success is also down to the way the partnership between the co-owners work. While Aurélie’s background, as we commented, was in service-focused high-end hospitality, Julien Lopez grew up as a professional at Papa Doble, a place known for its very high technical and drink-making standards. Elfi Fabritius, for her part, worked with brands and in consulting. A very varied skillset arguably very useful for managing operations — if everyone gets along. « People tend to get in business with friends who have similar qualities and flaws. There’s a lack of diversity », Aurélie argues. « Our background and mentalities are very different, we complemente each other and we learn a lot. There are disagreements, of course, but we have a common aim, we know where we’re going »

And in 2018, they decided to go to Marseille… « Elfi was telling us about the city and we went, the three of us. We felt that the city was moving in a direction that we liked and that the CopperBay concept was a perfect fit ». When most bar entrepreneurs would have looked at opening a different concept in Paris, they opted for opening the same bar in Marseille (« we’re not opening a chain », Aurélie is quick to point out). There are differences, though: « It’s a different dynamic. There are so many bars in Paris. You have some very nice bars in Marseille and we could feel people were ready for something new. It’s a growing scene, with another culture — the apéritif is very strong — so their outlook on the menu or even the events we do is very different ».

This attention to the needs of their clientele, this capacity — and willingness — to adapt helps explain their success so far. « We’re very fortunate to have created where people feel good. An important part of our clientele is made of regulars. It’s like a family. It’s important that we’re there, that we recognize them, welcome them. In a way, we’re a neighborhood bar with a Mediterranean touch that’s all about togetherness and sharing », Aurélie says. Five years on, both Aurélie in Paris and Julien in Marseille still work regular shifts behind the bar — something that’s unfortunately becoming an exception in successful cocktail lounges. « At the end of the day, it’s our job, it’s our passion, it’s our home. Of course, we want to be there. » And this, friends, is probably why CopperBay is only getting better and better.

François Monti