Small and special trump underserved bar market

Rene Wisely
Special to The Detroit News

Metro Detroiters are thirsty for something different when it comes to beverages and a night out. Small and special trumps big and impersonal.

It’s the same sentiment that fueled the craft beer or microbrewery boom and is now helping a handful of new local businesses carve out their own niches in the beverage scene, quickly capturing the nation’s attention as well.

When Brillig Dry Bar, a pop-up alcohol-free concept, hosted its first pop-up bar inside Mighty Good Coffee in Ann Arbor in early December, owners Nic Sims and David Myers expected about 50 guests. More than 300 made the trek to try unique mocktails created by Sims. The chef included her Brooklyn egg cream, pomegranate-rosemary soda and a Vernor’s cranberry sour.

Similar exuberant responses greeted Rusted Crow Distillery in Dearborn Heights and Farmington Brewing Company in downtown Farmington.

Sims’ phone rang for days. People from all over the country, as far away as Salt Lake City, wanted to know her hospitality secrets. How could they open a dry bar in their towns?

Just as she’s getting Brillig off the ground, the immediate interest in it has fueled a new business for her. She’s consulting with those far-away callers, helping them introduce the dry bar concept. “I’m beyond thrilled with the reaction it’s received,” she said.

She believes the instant success is because she has tapped into underserved markets.

“I think there are a lot of people in recovery, a lot of people who don’t drink for religious or health reasons, and the bar scene can belong to a rowdier crowd and some like it a couple of notches less rowdy,” she said.

It helps to be in a college town, where many students are under 21, she admits.

“Brillig’s a happy place,” she said. “I approach it as we are having a party and we’ve invited Ann Arbor,” she said. “Everyone is welcome here.”

Brillig’s next pop-up bar is 7-11 p.m. Saturday at Mighty Good Coffee, 217 S. Main in Ann Arbor.

Making customers feel welcomed is also a hallmark of Rusted Crow Distillery, which makes its own vodka, gin, rum, whisky and bourbon. They offer tastings and tours of the distillery, as well as craft cocktails from scratch.

“People are intrigued by the distillery, so we take all the time in the world to explain it,” said Joe Schebel, who owns Rusted Crow with his father, also named Joe Schebel.

“They want to be educated about the process and they feel like they are friends after we take them on a tour, explain every drink and how it tastes and talk to them to discover their likes before we make them a cocktail. They leave feeling connected with our products.”

Schebel said the craft cocktails he and his mixologist have put together take several minutes to make — rather than seconds at a traditional bar — and patrons are captivated by the process.

“They know they are getting something special, something handmade and they are willing to wait for it,” he said.

Today’s consumer craves that attention, said Dr. Bonnie Knutson, a Michigan State University professor in the School of Hospitality Business. “The underlining consumer driving force is this need for personalization and customization,” she said. “This Millennium generation and the younger generations, too, have been told all their lives they are special and they want to feel that uniqueness.”

Knutson also cites a 1943 psychology study, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, to explain the success of these bars. They are places, she said, where consumers want to feel safe, feel that they belong to a community, feel they’re prestigious and are at the top of their game in their lives.

“They’ve found these common bonds and a sense of authenticity at these establishments,” Knutson said.

That authenticity is what keeps Livonia resident Dave Piontek, 43, returning to Farmington Brewing Company, a craft brew pub that opened in November.

“I like small, locally owned places and every time I’m there, the owners are there and talk to me like I’m a regular,” he said. “I like the grass-roots feel.”

He also likes its beer. It’s the only item on the menu besides bottled water and Faygo in bottles. Because the location is small, accommodating 85 patrons, there is no room for a kitchen, spirits, fountain drinks or an ice machine. Any food patrons want to consume must be brought or ordered in, explained Jason Hendricks, who owns the pub with father-son duo Jason and Gary Schlaff.

“We could have opened a bigger space with a kitchen but we filled a void in downtown Farmington and we really like it here,” Hendricks said.

Rene Wisely is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

Niche bars

Brillig Dry Bar

217 S. Main, Ann Arbor

(734) 222-4514

Rusted Crow


6056 N. Telegraph, Dearborn Heights

(313) 551-4164

Farmington Brewing Company

33336 Grand River, Farmington

(248) 957-9543