Once an aspiring law student, native San Franciscan Josh Harris is a bartender and entrepreneur at the forefront of a movement to bring high-quality hospitality, spirits and craft cocktails to a broad-based audience. His goal? To spread this movement throughout the U.S. while operating the popular San Francisco-based restaurant and cocktail bar Trick Dog. We sat down with Josh to discuss the unique professional path he took to find his passion, his experiences as a first-time small business owner, and what’s next on the horizon for the craft cocktail scene.
“I have no doubt that doors wouldn’t have opened for me if I hadn’t chased every possible new experience in the years before.”
How has perseverance contributed to your business success?
For some, perseverance means following the same path until you find success. But to me, perseverance meant trying new things constantly and striving towards an uncertain goal. I started working at a bar the summer after my freshman year in college, during a time when most of my friends had accepted corporate-style internships, and I continued to seek out restaurant jobs at every possible chance during my college years.
And how did those “uncertain goals” and experimentation eventually evolve into a more concrete life mission?
Through experimentation, I was exposed to new opportunities in the industry. At one point early on, I acted as a brand ambassador for a newly developed line of spirits. Later, I was asked to consult on the opening of a new bar in San Francisco. It was an honor to contribute to the growth of these projects as someone just beginning their career, and I have no doubt that those doors wouldn’t have opened for me if I hadn’t chased every possible new experience in the years before. These opportunities helped reinforce that “growth” in this industry was possible and didn’t have to be linear.
Talk to me about venturing out on your own.
I realized there was real potential in the consulting gig, and from that opportunity, The Bon Vivants was born. Within three months, we were hired for two more consulting jobs — to consult on the cocktail programs for big restaurant openings in Washington, D.C. and in San Francisco, where we worked with the restaurant Quince, which now has three Michelin stars. We were propelled into this other world and had to adapt very quickly.
Along the way, what did you discover about running your first business?
We quickly realized that being proactive about growth would be crucial to our future success. To build a firm where high-capacity growth was possible, we had to branch out from new restaurant cocktail consulting. No matter how highly recommended our firm was, it’s impossible to control the frequency — or infrequency — of new openings, and operators’ desire to bring on a consultant.
We started expanding and taking on new opportunities — event creation and management, and brand promotion, launch strategy, etc. — out of necessity.
Over time, we learned to focus on our strengths. As bartenders, we know how to create events and marketing programs that resonate with other bartenders, diners, and drinkers. We started to build a team of respected bar personalities around the country and started using that network to contribute to the growth and success of certain spirits brands.
How extensive is that network?
Right now, we work with 16 brand ambassadors in 13 cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Miami and Chicago. Expanding into those markets would have been impossible if we hadn’t had the foresight to branch out from our core consulting offering in the beginning.
Eventually you opened your own restaurant, Trick Dog. What spurred that?
In 2013 we wanted to create a cocktail bar and restaurant with a high-level program that wasn’t pretentious. We filled a need there and have been very successful — so far, people love it!
What role did you play in reshaping the foundation of San Francisco’s cocktail scene?
Around 10 years ago, San Francisco was a leading influencer in the then-burgeoning cocktail renaissance. People were becoming aware of their food, what they ate and how it was grown. That interest spread to the bar, and restaurants rose to the challenge. I was offered a job manning an elevated cocktail program — that was when I started to see that I could potentially make a career out of this line of work. It was so much more than cracking beers and making jokes even though that must remain a part of the experience.
How do you use your success as a platform to give back to the communities where you do business, and why should small business owners support the communities they serve in this way?
People want to be involved with businesses that do good in their communities, and charity work is one of the ways business owners can connect to their peers and customers on an authentic level. We launched our charity event series, Pig & Punch, in 2010 out of a desire to donate volunteer man power and raise money for the communities we serve. We were able to bring people together during a cocktail festival to volunteer at a charter school, and we threw a party in a park that had consumers and industry insiders eating barbecue, playing lawn games and drinking fancy punches that we served from 40-gallon trashcans. That first year, we raised $1,600, which we donated to a New Orleans-based charter school. Today, the festival spans seven cities. To date, Pig & Punch has donated over $320,000 and coordinated over 8,000 volunteer hours of labor for charter schools in those cities.
Some people say entrepreneurial success usually comes after a failure or pivot of some sort. Have you found this to be true?
My career path has been unconventional in many ways. When I was young, I certainly didn’t see myself going into the bar and restaurant business. I originally thought I’d go into law or local politics, but as fate would have it, my path turned out to be different — and I appreciate that.
Eventually I discovered that I could apply many of the things I learned and enjoyed in school — like how to think critically and articulate my thoughts in a demanding environment — to a small business in the drinks and hospitality industry, which is a better fit for my personality and goals. I may not use those skills in quite the way I originally thought I would, but they’re still just as important to helping me grow and evolve as a person, not only an entrepreneur.