Learning is a process
It’s March 19th when I’m calling Nicolas Muñoz, the owner of Bisou and Divine, two Parisian bars. On the 15th, all French bars were closed as per government’s order to slow down the inevitable spread of Covid-19. And yet, Nicolas sounds relatively upbeat: the social safety net is strong in France and the government has taken measures to relieve the pressure entrepreneurs are put under at the moment. Some bars — in particularly those who were already facing difficulties — will unfortunately go under. « We’re taking bars and restaurants for granted. This is showing us how important the hospitality industry is in the day-to-day of French people », Nicolas says.
Nicolas should know: he grew up in the industry. His father owned a restaurant, where he worked as a teenager. And, as a student, he made some money as a waiter. He opened Bespoke, his first business, aged 25. And he also knows what losing a business means: he lost Bespoke in late 2017, after three years. Although the issue was not a global pandemic or plain old economical mismanagement (the owner of the space just wanted to get it back), it was still emotionally draining. « This made me grow up as an entrepreneur. You need to love your business and the memories you build with your first one are unique, but I let it get to me too much. I learned how important it is to make a clear distinction between the personal and the professional spheres », he says. And although his experience cannot be compared with what the industry is now facing globally, he remains, as ever, optimistic: « As long as you don’t lose your motivation, you will get back on your feet ».
When it opened in early 2014, Bespoke was not on anybody’s radar: the cocktail scene was growing but most bars were opened by bartenders with a following or industry credibility. Nicolas was an outsider. « I had no idea there was a cocktail industry. Had I known about it, I might have taken my time. But it allowed me to do my thing with no pressure », he recalls. Ironically, Bespoke fast became an industry haunt. « I think our approach was refreshing: we were new to the industry, our attitude was quite relaxed and cool. » And freer maybe: Nicolas and team didn’t feel they had to use this trendy product or, on the contrary, forget about this other very uncool liqueur. « Taste is what matters », he insists.
A few months before Bespoke closed, Nicolas opened a second bar, called Bisou. Low-risk business-wise but high risk in terms of cocktail strategy. « It didn’t make much sense to open a bar in a 31 square meter place, but I saw it as a business opportunity: the rent was low, it came with a flat upstairs… », Nicolas explains. The thing is he decided to run it as ‘no cocktail menu’ bar, where the drinks they serve depend on the conversation between waiters or bartenders and clients. This is not a unique approach, but one that many entrepreneurs find scary — what about costs? mise-en-place? consistency? Nicolas acknowledges those fears and admits he took the decision to run Bisou this way out of sheer laziness (and desire to have fun), but three years later, he is very happy. « At Bespoke, we’ve always been great at hosting and at delivering incredible service. The size of Bisou and the way we’re tailoring cocktails for our guests builds on this special relationship ».
Interestingly, while many bars think their cocktail menus are essential tools to communicate with their guests, Bisou’s experiment has led Nicolas to think they also act as barriers: « Many of our clients are not cocktail drinkers. We’ve come to realize that they’re put off by lists of ingredients they’ve never heard of. At Bisou, staff talks with guests and drinks are created based on their preferences, so this barrier is removed ». And once trust is established, bartenders feel free to add a touch of bitterness, maybe, or of smoke, « educating » (the holy grail of high end bartending) customers in the process. For this to work, though, staff is key: « That’s the toughest part. We’re looking for experienced bartenders who are great hosts but also creatives », Nicolas add. They are now developing training protocols to teach the team how to interpret what their clients are saying.
Last May, Nicolas opened another bar, Divine. It’s very different: « You always want what you don’t have. We wanted to have a lot of room so we could party ». Although they do work with a menu, it’s more focused on taste profiles than on specific ingredients so guests don’t lose valuable party time picking their drinks. Divine also has a strong beer program (« for those on a budget »), natural wines (« we’re in France ») and food. Great service remains, of course, top of the agenda. The bar was well received and did well throughout the year, although 2019 was very though for French hospitality — lots of social movements culminating in a general strike in December. Now that things have ground to a halt, for God knows how long, things are up in the air — for Divine, Bisou and so many bars throughout the world. But Nicolas remains optimistic — and we have to admit that his optimism is a breath of fresh air in such troubled times.