Erin Bellard, e's BAR
We caught up with Erin Bellard, co-owner of e’s BAR, at her new Morningside Heights location just blocks away from Columbia University. From spending six years working for B.R. Guest Hospitality to her role as Food and Beverage Director for Soho House New York, Bellard has a track record of success when it comes to launching, developing, and leading restaurants. In 2014, Bellard and her co-owner Ethan Hunt opened their first e’s BAR location, which has become the Upper West Side’s go-to neighborhood bar. With jukebox music from 1960 - 1999 and over 150 board games to play, e’s BAR is a place reminiscent of the past where you’ll quickly find yourself becoming a regular.
What brought you to New York City?
I moved to New York in 1995 from Texas, to study dance at Marymount Manhattan College. I focused on ballet in my earlier years before transitioning to musical theatre, because working as a ballet dancer is… well, pretty much impossible (especially when you’re 5’2”). A few weeks after arriving, I got my first show and that was it for school. But touring is tough! It takes a toll on your body, is super transient, and it can be a short career unless you want to choreograph. So here I was in NYC, 23 years old and knowing that the things that I wanted to experience in life (kids and a husband) were going to be awfully tough with that lifestyle. So, I started looking at other paths.
How did you start your career in the restaurant industry?
Without dance, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I thought I might go back to school because it’s awfully tough to support yourself as an arts major who is not going to pursue the arts! So, I was waiting tables, because that’s what you do between shows, and I was working for B.R. Guest. They owned a ton of restaurants at the time – Ruby Foo's, Blue Water Grill, Dos Caminos, and others – and the Director of Operations needed a manager at one of their restaurants. I thought, “What am I doing with my life anyway? I might as well check it out.” So, I started there and… I hated it.
What convinced you to stick with it?
The Director of Operations convinced me to stick with it because the man who was the General Manager was great, but was on vacation and he really wanted me to meet him. So, I figured, “Okay, let me go back,” and I loved him. His name’s Steve Scott, we became really good friends, and I took over as General Manager a year later. Relationships can make all the difference. I think it’s similar to performing. When you’re on the floor you can be whoever you want to be – you can become the host of a big dinner party – and once that mindset kicked in it felt totally natural and fun.
What inspired you to open your own bar?
No matter how high up you go in a company, no matter the industry, you are still clocking in to someone else. The restaurant business is no exception AND it’s notoriously tough to find work-life balance. Given all of that I figured there’s a ceiling on both my freedom and my salary, and I needed to make a change to bust on through.
At 36 years old, I had worked for other people for a very long time, and wanted the freedom to see my family when I want to see my family, go away when I want to go away, and have the prospect of building my own business. It was now or never and the worst thing that happens is it doesn’t work. There should be nothing that stops anyone from trying things. It’s only money and you can always get a job and make it another way.
What was the transition to becoming a restaurant owner like for you?
After working as Director of Food and Beverage at Soho House, I worked in sales for Tom Colicchio’s (the host of Top Chef) restaurant group. I had a baby at the time and so before setting out on my own I moved to his corporate office which was fun. Learning how to grow revenue and motivating people on that level was really interesting. I had never done a commissioned based structure before and it was super valuable.
How did you and your co-owner, Ethan Hunt, meet?
We lived in the same building, and he knew my son, who at that point you have to understand was 5 years old. But he was like a 5 year old mayor of the Upper West Side, and he talked to EVERYBODY. We were in the elevator together one day and Julian actually introduced us. “Do you know Ethan?” he asked, and I was like, “No… wait… how do YOU know Ethan? You’re five!”
One day Ethan and I got on the elevator together and I said, “We should open a bar together.” The elevator opened, and he said, “Yes we should. What’s your name again?” And that was it. We opened a year later. The timing was right.
How does your partnership work? How do you split responsibilities?
We are equal partners with complementary strengths. He came from real estate, so he is great at finding locations and understanding the ins and outs of that part of the business. I come from hospitality operations. We hash out major decisions together. Sometimes it’s hard to see past yourself and we’re good at knocking heads and loving each other afterwards. I love having Ethan as a partner because our experience is so different - surrounding yourself by the right people makes a big difference.
What made you want to open a bar instead of a traditional restaurant?
After being in restaurants I saw that it’s much harder to run a restaurant. You make a lot less money on food than you do on booze! So, it was a financial decision. We’re 80% liquor and 20% food. We really are a bar. And I have to say that my husband and I found ourselves bemoaning the disappearing neighborhood bars. P&G was gone, The All State Café was gone… I’m a Texas girl who wants a good shot and a beer and saw the opportunity!
Are there many female bar owners in New York City?
There are not many – certainly not enough. More people came from the chef side of things which is interesting. It’s funny, a lot of times when we’re setting up accounts, people will call me Mr. Bellard. They assume that there isn’t a female. And when you see my name spelled out it’s clearly female, but they clearly think that I’m Aaron. That said, it can still be a battle even when they know…
Do you find yourself at your new e’s BAR location every day?
I pop in and out! We are really lucky to have great people with tons of experience at the other location [Upper West Side], so it’s pretty autonomous. I definitely come in and out of here [Morningside Heights] everyday, but conceptually my idea is that when it’s a bar, if we hire the right people, they can do it. We don’t have management which is really different. We have a head bartender and floor host, together they handle everything. And then I do the business side, like invoices and payroll, but I can do that from anywhere. I think that autonomy can go a long way with people. They treat the place like it’s their own and take care of it really beautifully.
However, the first 6 months of our first location [Upper West Side]— I lived there. So, I’m here [Morningside Heights] more now, but it should be able to do its own thing. I think a lot of that has to do with hiring folks who are self-motivated and responsible even more than age and experience. Millennials get a bad rap. There are some incredibly hard-working, talented people out there.
Speaking of hiring, how do you organize your team?
We have one or two cooking and a dishwasher. Depending on the night, the maximum we’ll have is three bartenders, three support staff, two people in the kitchen, one porter, and a floor host. It doesn’t sound like a lot of people, but they’re busting their humps. I think that when you want people to be motivated, downtime is the worst – people love to be engaged. There are some people who are good at being self-starters, who are always on the lookout for something to organize, clean, or someway to help. I have always found it’s better to have less people working really hard than too many people not doing anything, plus the peeps that can handle that environment are the ones that you really want.
How would you describe the atmosphere at e’s BAR?
We have always described the Upper West Side location as a “dive bar for adults”, which is what we’re hoping this neighborhood [Morningside Heights] embraces because it’s a different kind of vibe. We don’t play any music past 1999 which helps us skew older. When you sit somewhere, and you think about going out you remember the music from high school or college and that sticks with you. That and all of the board games are part of the reason that you don’t even see many cell phones out which is AMAZING. People are talking! As much as we love our kids, this is a BAR, and all of that helps us maintain a more mature crowd.
You’ve been extremely successful at managing and developing restaurants in New York City, which is a tough task. How did you learn these skills?
There are so many different ways to learn skills. When it comes to managing and developing in food & beverage, college is one route, on-the-job training is another, and a combo of the two can be a way to go as well. For me it all happened on-the-job, but I was really lucky to have amazing mentors and role models. They set bars (no pun intended) that made me work incredibly hard, but always learn from the experiences (and when they weren’t so good I tried to learn from that too). Anyone can learn the basic stuff, but being a good teacher, leader, and role model for others, knowing when to challenge employees to grow and when to give them room to breathe - that is totally different and key if you want to grow in this business. Throughout it all I’ve tried to repay that and play that role to other people. Not only does it feel great to give back and help others, but it makes things better in business and in life.