Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price stopped by Little River Restoratives to meet co-owners Chris Parrott and Patrick Miceli and discuss startups, cocktails, and small business growth in Hartford.
NAN PRICE: How did the idea for Little River Restoratives get off the ground?
CHRIS PARROTT: Patrick and I met a few years ago while I was doing my wine training for my sommelier certification. Patrick had just opened a restaurant, 50 West in Plainville, CT, so we had a lot of common interests. He would come in to the place I was working and we would talk about trends and business and what’s happening in hospitality. We found out we have a lot of similar viewpoints.
We both saw an emerging market for a cocktail bar in the near future. We were aware of trends in drinking and eating and knew that if we were to do something like that we’d have a good chance of addressing an underserved market and being a unique presence in restaurants and bars. And it’s something we’re both kind of passionate about—I’m a big cocktail buff. I like the history of it.
NAN: So it was both of your ideas, but did one of you have a stronger inclination?
PATRICK MICELI: Oh, Chris for sure.
CHRIS: I came in with the idea of a cocktail bar. Patrick loved it immediately. We both knew it was viable as a concept within the hospitality business in the Hartford area. And everything you see here is pretty much an even, cooperative effort.
NAN: You opened November 1, 2015. Tell me about the growth and business reach since then.
PATRICK: We have a large industry following. We don’t do any organized marketing other than social media. We have a $0 budget for marketing. It’s kind of interesting.
NAN: That seems common. Most of the craft brewers and distilleries we’ve talked to say they don’t focus on doing big flashy ads or anything like that.
CHRIS: There’s a value added when you have to seek it out. Something is worth more when you have to find it. If it’s constantly thrown in your face it loses value.
One of the great things about the bar is that we are in this great period right now. It’s cool to say: Hey I found this cocktail bar.
NAN: That was the buzz I got and how I started to hear about you.
PATRICK: The fun thing about doing this—there’s no barometer because it’s a one-of-a-kind concept for this area.
NAN: Little River Restoratives really is one-of-a-kind. How do you stay innovative?
PATRICK: I think you’re always evolving. Chris changes the menu all the time. We always try to keep it interesting. I think we are going to add brunch eventually.
CHRIS: The concept is always evolving. We’ve already implemented two or three events a month. We have pop-up dinners. We’re trying to do one of those every month. We also do themed nights.
Cocktails is a very dynamic culture right now, so it’s hard to stay stagnant. Things are always evolving and changing. It’s kind of easy in a sense to keep changing things when you’re caught up in the wave of change that’s happening around you.
NAN: Let’s talk about Hartford. Is it important that Little River Restoratives is located here?
CHRIS (pictured left in photo): Yes it is important. It’s important because Hartford deserves to have at least one solid cocktail bar. Hartford is the capital city of Connecticut and it deserves a more ambitious and adventurous drinking and eating scene. And we want to be a part of that.
It’s a point of pride. And the city has actually been very good to us so far in terms of getting things done.
PATRICK: The city has been fantastic.
CHRIS: We didn’t know that going in, but it’s encouraged us to want to do more locations and concepts in Hartford.
NAN: Can we talk about that a little bit? Did you receive any state funding?
PATRICK: We self-financed. We don’t have any investors. We didn’t go to the city for any kind of money. We may for future ventures. We did work hand-in-hand with them for planning and zoning. We had to go for a variance because this space has been zoned residential. The rezoning and variance was quite a process, but the city made it fairly easy for us. They were good to work with.
NAN: Was the city of Hartford supportive in any other ways?
PATRICK: When the city heard about our concept they knew nothing like it existed here in Hartford. I think they were looking for something different.
Also, we are younger folks willing to take a risk and I think the city ultimately wants to drive more small business owners downtown. I think that’s a major focus for them right now.
NAN: You own a separate restaurant, Patrick. How is that in terms of finding balance?
PATRICK: There’s no such thing as balance! We’re working on it. It’s a lot of juggling, but at the end of the day it’s about the people you have working with you—your staff. As long as they are solid, it makes it a lot easier.
NAN: We just shared a laugh about the “balance” part of it. What would you say are the biggest challenges to launching a startup?
CHRIS: Well there’s always the challenge of getting enough people through the door to pay the bills. That’s something you always worry about. However, I don’t want to frame it like that because we don’t worry. We don’t look at it in context of “challenges.” Challenges are getting concepts up and running, but once we’re functioning and we have the right staff in place the challenge part is in the rearview.
We’re looking for the next challenge because you can get to the point where it’s like every detail of what you do is a challenge. For example, a challenge would be different aspects of service being performed meticulously with every guest. So there are intricate challenges within the daily operation, but that’s more the fun part than anything else.
PATRICK: I think it’s finding time to develop new concepts. That’s the biggest challenge. We have several things we want to do in the next year or two in Hartford. So the challenge is finding time to really do a brain dump and talk through our ideas.
CHRIS: Managing time, that’s a challenge.
NAN: So you definitely have plans to open other ventures?
CHRIS: We have ideas for no less than four things that Hartford needs.
NAN: Can I quote you on that?
CHRIS: Yes. Sure.
NAN: Will they be similar to Little River Restoratives or completely different?
CHRIS: They are going to be entirely different and they are going to be more food-driven.
PATRICK: The principals are the same.
CHRIS: You would know going into one of them though—you would say: I bet you these are the Little River Restoratives guys. So there will be a design elements that are similar.
PATRICK: Design elements, hospitality elements, Service elements, stuff like that. We’re excited about that and we think Hartford’s a great place to be.
NAN: Do you plan to keep all your business ventures in Hartford?
NAN: So the plan is to enhance your presence and create more small businesses throughout the area.
PATRICK: Right. It’s very important.
NAN: And when can we expect to see the next venture?
PATRICK: Definitely one per year for the next three years. We want get one up and running—if not two—by the end of 2016. Maybe another in 2017. The sooner the better. You have to strike while the iron is hot.
NAN: With regard to business planning and conceptualizing, do either of you have a business background?
PATRICK: I have a background in finance. I worked in the corporate world for quite a long time but I always came back to hospitality, it’s where my love has always been. Entrepreneurship at the end of the day. Not a desk.
NAN: What about you Chris, did you always have an entrepreneurial streak or know you were going to own your own business?
CHRIS: No, I talked about it for a few years. Bartending is hard. It’s physical work. It’s not something I wanted to see myself doing when I was 50 or 60. So there was only one logical exit strategy, which was owning a bar. It seem like a fun challenge at the time.
With the business plan, it was about three or four years of planning and consideration.
PATRICK: He had an extensive business plan and everything. He crunched a lot of numbers.
NAN: It seems like it’s very important for you to collaborate with local businesses.
PARROTT: Small businesses help each other by cross exposure. So when Jamie “The Bear” [McDonald of Bear’s Smokehouse BBQ] comes and cooks here, we get exposed to his fan base and vice versa.
I think it’s really important for any small business to figure out how to utilize each other in a fair and equal exchange of cross exposure.
NAN: It’s like hyperlinking on a website.
CHRIS: It’s hyperlinking in the real world.
NAN: Any advice for those who are starting out?
CHRIS: Just do it. One of the reasons we are self-financed is because no one thought we would pull this off. But just don’t care. Do whatever it takes. If you truly believe you have a viable concept go ahead, because the worst thing that can happen is it doesn’t work out and you go back to something else.
PATRICK: There’s only so much planning you can to. You can write out a business plan until you’re blue in the face, but it all happens when you open the doors.
CHRIS: If you believe in it, find a way to get it done.
NAN: From what I’ve seen, you’ve been fairly successful.
PATRICK: We’re fortunate we have a lot of loyal patrons.
NAN: So you’re building a good customer base?
CHRIS: It’s only been seven months or so, but we appear to be developing a good regular base. And a growing base too.
We rely very heavily on other restaurants, speaking of exposure. Part of our model is to make sure bartenders and chefs like hanging out here because they have the most intimate access to all of our potential customers.
There’s a challenge: How do you get something good enough to get people to talk about it? Because they’re inclined to not talk as much when it’s good.
We know we’re going to be successful by doing something good enough for other bartenders and chefs to tell others: Little River is a good place to grab an after-dinner drink if you’re looking for something a little different.
We need that. That’s our advertising.
NAN: Final question: What would you say is the best thing about being part of Hartford’s community?
CHRIS: I think we are first wave. I think it’s really cool. I have always seen Hartford on the verge of growth. I’ve always believed in it. And I think it’s really happening.
Hartford is poised to grow as a small city and become really cool—and necessary by virtue of its proxy to bigger cities that are no longer an accessible option for a lot of young professionals. Being a part of that first wave that I see coming is super cool.
MICELI: The barriers around here are fairly low. You can do things. We did this whole thing in about 55 days, this whole building. If you were in San Francisco or New York, that’s not how it works. Even just securing the liquor license is a really long process. So there are many benefits to being here in Hartford.