San Francisco Startups: Bartender-Owned Bars are Changing the Cocktail Scene

Ever since Gold Rush days, when San Francisco claims to have invented the Martini (disputed by the small city of Martinez, 35 miles to the northeast), one thing is for certain: the City by the Bay is heavily infused by a creative cocktail scene.

Perhaps the proliferation of bars is due to the chilly, foggy evenings that are known in other parts of the nation as summer. Or, maybe the dogged determination of 19th century pioneering gold miners who required plenty of stiff drinks along the seedy Barbary Coast left a mark.

Whatever the root of the matter, mixologists in the land of startups have launched a trend. It’s a spinoff from celebrity chef restaurants that brings bartender-owned bars.

A magnet city for dining out, San Francisco has developed a reputation for outstanding chefs and laudable food trends such as sustainable, organic, local California farm-to-table. Now, bartender-owners are breaking ground on the drinks circuit, developing significant fan bases in bars where they own, manage, pour and sometimes serve their own bar food.

Bartender-owned watering holes are changing the face of your local bar. Debbie Rizzo, industry insider and founder of DRinkPR, says, “A bartender-owner understands the business from all sides, from the bar stool, from behind the bar, from the beverage suppliers’ side, and from the bricks-and-mortar investment side, too.”

Meet some of the movers and shakers with their names on the deeds as well as the cocktail menus.


Going on record with his favorite drink as a rye old-fashioned, H. Joseph Ehrmann, bartender-proprietor at Elixir in the trendy Mission District explains how it happened.

“My gregarious nature got the best of me, and I found myself behind the bar, where I could be both creative in a culinary way and interactive, too. It was a personal journey from the classroom to the office to the kitchen to the bar. After getting my MBA and doing a stint in the corporate world, then losing it, I realized it was time for me to show what a world-class neighborhood bar could be. Once you think you know this business inside and out, you’re ready to go on your own — and really learn it.”


Based in the heart of the Castro, patrons get comfy on leather sofas, sipping cocktails  aged 4-6 weeks in oak barrels or labor-intensive handcrafted cocktails that involve house made syrups and plenty of muddling, shaking and stirring. Shawn Vergara, owner at Blackbird, summed up his own experience.

“During my years of bartending, I have identified the best practices from all the places I’ve worked. Now, as an owner, I have my chance to implement what works best by streamlining operations for the crew while improving the experience for our guests. It’s a great combo.”

Third Rail

Jeff Lyon is the former bar manager at Valencia Street’s Range, now co-owner at Third Rail in Dogpatch, a burgeoning formerly industrial micro-hood. Here’s what he loves about being on both sides of the bar.

“It’s imperative that a bar owner be in tune with both his customers and his product. I get a lot of personal gratification out of my interactions with regulars. Many bar-goers want to dig deeper and learn about drinks: What exactly is mezcal? What’s the difference between scotch and bourbon? What’s pisco? What, exactly, defines bitters? What’s vermouth? Does absinthe make you hallucinate? I love the conversation and energy in a bustling bar.”

Shaken or Stirred

According to Lyon, San Francisco has no shortage of food- and drink-savvy people who want more from their bar experience. From Downtown to Dogpatch, from Nob Hill to Telegraph Hill, a few more San Francisco cocktail bars where drinkers can grab a stool and engage in a bit of banter while the boss works behind the bar include: Bar Agricole, Churchill, Comstock Saloon, Smuggler’s Cove, Rye, 15 Romolo, and Trick Dog.

Has the trend of bartender-owned bars arrived in your city?

Coyle Hospitality Group advises owners, chefs, bakers, mixologists, winemakers and master cicerones who are committed maximizing customer experiences connected to their personal brands.

© 2024 Coyle Hospitality Group. Reproduction of any material without written authorization is strictly prohibited.

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