Interview With Claire Sprouse Of Hunky Dory

Welcome to the first edition of Setting The Bar. This is a new interview series where we’ll be talking with all sorts of impressive folks in the bar industry, and, as we were looking for our first guest, one person in particular came to mind. Her name is Claire Sprouse, she owns a restaurant called Hunky Dory in Brooklyn, and she’s also a highly-skilled bartender who introduced us to her refreshing vermouth cocktail known as the Alligator Arms.

Originally from Houston, Claire spent several years making a name for herself in the Bay Area cocktail scene before relocating to New York City. Nowadays, she runs Hunky Dory, with a focus on sustainability and a newly instituted no-tipping policy. She also founded a climate-change initiative called Outlook Good, and you can find their first project (a book of sustainable cocktail recipes) right here.

We wanted to get Claire’s thoughts on optimal bar practices and running a bar program in the middle of a global pandemic, so we sat down for a chat.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

First off, how’s Hunky Dory?

It’s good. Well, as good as we can be. We have a pretty big patio outdoor space, and we’re extremely lucky. We have about as many seats as we used to have inside, outside. And when the weather cooperates, it’s great.

Have you been in touch with other bar or restaurant owners? How are they doing?

Not well. I’m in touch with my peer group, in terms of owners, and we talk quite a bit. I’ve also been involved in ROAR and the New York Hospitality Coalition, and they’re activating on a legislative level. But a lot of my friends own bars and restaurants, and everybody’s kind of doing 30 to 50 percent of business, which seems like the standard. Again, we’re really lucky, and we’ve actually been doing closer to 60 percent.

Have you been advocating for any kind of legislation or government aid?

One piece of legislation that I’m really trying to push forward is a bill being put forth by One Fair Wage that will remove the tip credit, essentially, from New York. Right now, I feel like more than ever, we need to be thinking about, talking about, and addressing inequities in our industry – how we can all be helping secure our futures and bring some sort of safety and security to our lives. And that has to start with people being paid a fair wage.

What specific inequities are you talking about?

Front of house people – like bartenders and servers – are making anywhere from one and a half to three times more than back of house employees, and that’s a pretty big problem. It’s something I’ve always felt very challenged by working in this industry over the years. As an owner, you get to actually see what that comes down to on the net paycheck line, after all the taxes and things come through.

So that’s one element. Also when tip structures are present in restaurants and bars, it increases what I believe to be a very negative power imbalance between guest and server. People’s work should be dictated by their employer and not by a stranger walking through the door. We as an industry need to need to step up and bring some sort of safety and security to our employees. Especially right now when we don’t know what the sales are going to look like, and we don’t know if we’re going to get rained out.

How do you see the current pandemic changing bar and restaurant culture over the next few years?

Obviously the pandemic has exposed a lot of the deep fractures within our industry and other industries, so I think people are being forced to confront those issues directly, and I think that we’re also more open to having those conversations, in the midst of this social justice movement that’s happening. But operationally and creatively, we’re all figuring out how to operate on a shoestring budget right now. The industry as a whole, we already operate on such razor-thin margins, and obviously we were caught off guard by this.

If we’re able to get past this, how can we set up better safety nets for ourselves? If it takes so many people to deliver a service to a guest to the point that your business is barely breaking even or you can’t pay your staff livable wages, is the service you’re offering necessary? Is it worthwhile? What is it actually contributing to our society?

Is our industry truly sustainable if we keep prioritizing these things that ultimately aren’t that important, in light of the fact that people are not being paid well and our businesses are hanging on by a thread at any given moment? I don’t think that has to come at a sacrifice of quality. It just means that we have to be a little bit more creative and a little bit more willing to bend the rules.

It seems to me like shielding the guests from what it takes to do business in New York is only doing a disservice to ourselves. Every time I’ve made some sort of transparent gesture, like, “Hey, we’re not a zero-waste place because it’s impossible, but we are trying to do things as best we can,” or, “Hey, we’re getting rid of tips because it’s fucked up, and it upholds these white supremacist values,” people have always responded to that really well.

Do you have any other examples of these fussy unsustainable things that restaurants could do away with? Anything specific you had in mind?

We started batching our cocktails here, which we had never done before. Over the last several months it was just me working, and I was selling cocktails to-go out of the window, and before that, I was literally walking them to people’s houses. So I was batching everything to get it out faster, and that’s a standard that we would never do in cocktails.

You want to sit at a cocktail bar to see the bartender making drinks. It’s kind of fascinating. But more and more cocktail bars have less cocktail seating and more dining tables, so what’s the point of having this cocktail that takes 20 minutes to get to your table if you can’t even see it being made?

I don’t think we’re making inferior cocktails now by batching. They might be five percent different, and is that difference worth it? I would say yes. If the ultimate payoff comes in the support of humans, the support of our environment, I’m definitely willing to be flexible on a lot of those things that we always said we could never do.

How do sustainability and climate change factor into the practices at Hunky Dory? And how has that been affected by the current pandemic?

I’ve always had a very holistic approach to it. I think a lot about plastic. I think a lot about food waste. I also have a particular fixation on water and agriculture. They’re the two things I think about the most in terms of sustainability, and that has manifested in how we source and what we purchase, making sure that the supply chain is as sustainable as possible. Then there’s the operational stuff like light bulbs, water fixtures, and fixing leaks. I always say the “non-sexy stuff.”

In COVID times, obviously, things are different. Our trash output is a lot more because we switched to single-use items for guests, but we tried to source as best that we could. I spent a lot of time making sure we source the right materials that could get processed properly in New York because every city has different processing facilities.

And then in New York, a lot of the composting budget was cut, because everything’s getting cut from the city budget except for funding for the police, strangely enough. That disrupted where we could get rid of our compost for the most part, but now I just walk our selective compost down to the community garden and feed the chickens with it. I spend a lot of time with chickens these days.

And we’re still pushing ourselves to be creative, even if that’s: How can we use celery leaves from the celery? Or how can we process this food to make it into something to help stock the community fridge? We make enough food to feed 10 billion people in this world, and yet there’s seven-point-something billion people. So there’s places for food to go that’s not in a garbage bin. Food waste itself contributes to 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, yet there are so many people going hungry, especially right now. So, as a small business, we’re trying to think about how we can bridge that gap. And then whenever I get sleep one day, I can start collaborating with other people who are thinking about bridging that gap on a larger scale.

Are you not sleeping well?

You know, actually, I’m sleeping a little bit better. Prior to this, we were open
18 hours a day. That’s quite a few hours to be in operation. But now we’re only open eight to nine hours a day. I still have a lot of work, it’s just a different kind of work now. And, you know, my mother’s the director of ICU at one of the larger hospitals in Houston, and my brother’s also in the hospitality industry. There’s just so much that’s going on. It’s a lot to think about. It does keep me up at night. I won’t lie.

It’s OK. Don’t lie. What’s the biggest thing bars could stop doing in the name of sustainability?

I think maybe the most obvious is just addressing issues of food waste, and I picked that one because it’s not insignificant, and it’s also a very creative, driven process. I feel like people get more emotionally involved and inspired by it – creating new recipes, ingredients, and flavors. And it also saves money.

OK. I need to ask some bar questions. What are your favorite bars? Where did you hang out and drink pre-COVID?

For cocktails, I really love Nightcap on the Lower East Side. It’s fun and lively, and I love the people there. Where else? I drink a lot of wine, I wouldn’t say strictly at wine bars, but I do live near The Fly, and I go there quite a bit.

Anything in Houston or San Francisco that you miss?

Houston, gosh, so much. I wish that I didn’t grow up in Houston because I would move back. It’s such a great city. One of the bars I helped open there, Grand Prize, was like the ultimate dive bar that also served really good cocktails. I loved working there, and I loved drinking there. In Houston, there’s another great dive bar that’s actually closing, and it is really, really sad. It’s Alice’s Tall Texan, it’s been there for 30-something years, and it’s closing because of COVID. It’s really heartbreaking. I would take every single person that came to visit Houston there. It’s old school, Alice is the bartender, and they have these big frosty goblets full of beer.

Oh, and West Alabama Ice House. That’s the one. I don’t know if you’ve been to Texas, but in Texas, we have ice houses. They started because that’s where you’d go to buy ice, and then, eventually, the ice houses started selling alcohol. Now they’re more or less just beer bars – but they’re huge. They also sell what they call “setups,” so you can bring a bottle of whiskey and buy a cup with ice and soda, and that’s your setup for a couple of dollars. It’s the most perfect place.

And then in the Bay Area, there’s too many to name. My friend Eric Ochoa owns a great bar called Elda.

How’d you get into bartending?

I got my degree in art history and anthropology, and I took a break from one of my many unpaid internships and started waiting tables at a restaurant where I was a regular.
That’s where I had my first cocktail, and I kind of fell in love with it. So I talked them into letting me barback, and I slowly worked my way up from there. I worked there for a little over two years and eventually became their bar manager, and I never looked back.

What’s your go-to drink?

If I’m at a cocktail bar, I’ll always at least try one cocktail on the menu, and then usually I drink wine.

Any specific wine?

I tend to like it all, honestly. I’m not gonna lie. I really like it all.

I’m the exact same way.

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