For years, Florida State University has been ranked among the top party schools in the nation, so it’s no surprise Tallahassee has its share of college watering holes. But what a bar looks like in the city has been changing.
Take Alchemy, for example. It’s modeled after a 1920s speakeasy and opened about a year ago. There’s a hidden door and a bartender who’s well-versed in all the classics and always ready with a fresh recommendation.
Evan Bown went to International Bartending school in Michigan at the age of 15 and has been mixing drinks ever since. In fact he knows more than 14 versions of the Old Fashioned – some that come from an old mixology book his grandfather used to use. But all that knowledge comes at a price. Maybe the best deal at Alchemy is the $38 punch bowl – best shared with six-to-eight people. But Stephen Leon, a patron who’s trying a gin drink called a slap stick, says the price is well worth it .
“I’d rather have two or three good drinks than to go to the strip to get a watered-down rum and coke. You know, you’re paying for a thimble-sized drink that you’re paying $3 or $4 for. I guess as I grow older I just realize it’s better to have quality than quantity,” Leon says.
Chad Kitrell is the owner of Hunter+Harp, the firm that operates Alchemy and a number of other nightlife establishments. Kitrell says he sees evidence in his bars of the economic recovery Tallahassee is supposed to be enjoying, but not in the way one might think. He says during the recession, instead of cutting back on how much they drank, people just asked for something on a lower shelf.
“Social settings will always have a place no matter what someone’s budgets are, but they will just be driven by what they consume. The volume is something that’s very hard to change. They prefer to change types of liquor and beer,” Kitrell says
Kitrell says at his establishments he’s seeing increases in sales for higher-quality drinks and bottle services.
And across the street, at Waterworks, a 1960s-style tiki bar, owner Don Quarello says business has been good lately for him too.
“People always thought that the bar business was recession-proof and it was not. Yes, 2007 to 2010 dipped a little bit, and, starting in 2011, things definitely turned around. We are now back to the sales of the pre-recession years, and actually started building on that a little bit to where we’re above that now,” Quarello says.
And the numbers back that up. According to the Tallahassee Economic Index, which uses sales at drinking establishments as one way to measure the local economy, sales have been increasing. And the number of alcohol licenses issued to local businesses in 2012 nearly doubled from the year before. That means more competition – for example, two period bars across the street from one another, and a third not far away. But Quarello says that’s OK, adding that a little variety keeps people from getting bored – something he says Tallahassee needs to avoid the brain drain he’s seen since he attended Florida State University in the '80s. But he says that requires a careful balance.
“Tallahassee is a really sweet town, and the people here tend to be genuine, sincere, polite and easy to get along with. So you don’t want to lose that. It’s great if people decide to move here, but you don’t want to gentrify Tallahassee either. You don’t want to change it. You can always improve any city, but you don’t want to make it worse,” Quarello says.
Quarello says change can be a good thing, but it’s also important to preserve the city’s character.
“I think it’s important that the established businesses that made Tallahassee good to begin with are able to survive all that too. I mean, you want Whole Foods to come, sure, but you want New Leaf to stick around too. So it’s really important that people understand that Tallahassee shouldn’t just become another corporate world where a giant corporation in another part of the world throws a dart at the map and says, 'Oh, we’re going to open up here.’”
And another sign of change Kitrell says he’s noticed is that rather than being spread out around town, the drinking establishments are starting to group themselves in certain neighborhoods. That’s come to the attention of Tallahassee transportation officials too.
“We have really good entertainment bones, and this is going to be the tendons that’s going to hold them together,” says Star Metro Senior Planner Samuel Schibe.
Schibe says the concentrations of bars led the city to plan a late-night trolley on weekends with stops at some of the city’s major night spots.
“I really don’t think that half of those places were open for business four years ago, certainly not five years ago. I don’t think this would have made sense to do five years ago. But, there’s just been so much activity. So many businesses have invested,” Schibe says.
But what’s all this change mean for the old guard, the dive bars with no fancy cocktails? Just ask Bill Hasselback, the owner of Leon Pub.
“Well, I’m concerned. Midtown, when I opened, there wasn’t much in midtown. There was the Cabstand, Paradise and myself, and that was it, and Ken’s Liquor Lounge, which is now Waterworks. And it’s blown up a lot,” Hasselback said.
But he says even if people aren’t buying a $3 can of beer, they’re still probably paying less for one of the hundreds of kinds of beer he offers than they would for a fancy drink at one of the places nearby. Hasselback says his plan is to just keep “doing what I do well.” He says, even with all the changes the city is seeing, he thinks there’ll still be plenty of room for a place like his.