Ep 6 Josh Harris of Bon Vivants

Rarely do you get the chance to sit down and pick the brain of someone you truly admire. Luckily for us, we got such an opportunity. Josh Harris has exemplified creativity and innovation in our industry for years but now with our changing environment, we could use his perspective more than ever. Join us as we discuss everything from Menu and Bar design to how something as simple as a closet dresser can lead to inspiration about form and function.

Stevan: I wanted to welcome Josh Harris to the podcast. You may have known him from his bar Trick Dog, the James Beard award-winning bar, known for its menu design in San Francisco. Josh, it's a pleasure to have you on.

Josh: Good to be with you.

Stevan: I wanted to understand what it might have been like for you and the people at Trick Dog while you were going through the pandemic in san Francisco. Can you walk us through your journey?

Josh: Yeah i'm sure that trick dog has had an experience very similar to bars all around the country of course guidelines and regulations in each city in each state uh make the chronology of these things a little bit different but you know in the middle of march we figured we had to close our businesses and do it in a fairly permanent or long-term kind of way although most of us on our team would have maybe thought it would have been a couple months three months we just all are gonna go stay in our houses and a few months later we're gonna come and reopen the businesses and everybody's going to go back to work and everything is going to be the same that's obviously not what happened but at the beginning of all this i think that that was what was on everybody's mind we stayed closed at trick dog for about six months and didn't do anything no to go no store no nothing like that until the middle of september when we reopened to say the least has been uh scary and sad but also we are grateful that we haven't closed permanently and in the case of trick dog uh you know have have come back with something that is uh you know getting us a little a little further down the road

Stevan: I'm glad to hear that you all have figured out a way to morph and change your business model to get through this pandemic. Do you think that the way that you set up your menu helped you to kind of be ready to shift and pivot?

Josh: It's funny that you bring that up because while there is a very similar mindset that we were in when we were exploring quick dog, which is the concept that we opened in the trick dog space, there was a lot about flipping the menu at Trick Dog that we wanted to distance ourselves from. Of course, were some similarities with reopening that we benefited from having done it before.

Stevan: Trick Dog is lauded for its menu development and the way that you change menus around during the year, creating really fantastic designs. Could you possibly break one down for us and explain your process in creating new menus?

Josh: We have a two menu a year schedule and those menus launch on January 8th and on July 7th. We felt in San Francisco that there were not four seasons, that there were really only two from a flavor perspective. A six-month period of time felt like an amount of time that people could come and enjoy a cocktail menu as a body of work and of flavor. Where they could navigate their way through the menu. Start with the drinks they were comfortable with, work their way through to the drinks that they needed to explore for the first time, find ones that they loved, and find ones that they wanted to come back for to build a relationship with those drinks. We didn't feel like that could happen in a three-month period of time. That was too quick. So prior to Trick Dog opening in 2013 we knew we weren't going to do a menu on an eight and a half by eleven piece of paper or any similar format of a menu that typically was the way. The first menu that we landed on was a little bit of an 'aha' moment where we had a number of like Ben-Moore paint guides and Pantone paint guides lying around our build site at Trick Dog. That 'aha' moment was: that would be a great way to present a cocktail menu. We weren't the first people that figured out that that would be a great way to present the menu because kalu kalei had done it before but we just didn't know that. We actually did it differently than they had done it, which I think is kind of cool to see how conceptually two people can be inspired by the same thing.

We felt like a lot of the names of paint colors that we were seeing made really great cocktail names and that was one of the things that helped seal the form is that we started combing through all of the names of colors and just picking out names that we thought would make a great cocktail name with no other context other than that being a cool name. Then we started matching the recipe portion up and so all of the names of the drinks on the first menu were actual paint color names. We weren't doing anything like matching the colors of the drinks to the paint colors or anything like that, but they were actual paint colors and that menu was really well received. It was a cool form. It functioned really well. I point a lot to the Pantone menu and how it functions and how it was a success in terms of our model of service which of course we didn't premeditate. It was luck at the time, but we learned how great that menu was afterward through the challenges and failures of other menus that we had, but that menu kicked us down a road that we hadn't necessarily planned for, and six months later we were like 'oh man what are we gonna do now?'

Here we are uh eight years later. We've done a lot of menus and eventually over time they became pretty grand flips. Changes of food, changes of some decor, changes of art, changes of small wares, not becoming an entirely new business. That wasn't the thing but really changing everything that we could in line with the theme of the menu. Also building in pretty significant charitable components to our menus which fits into some of our philanthropic values across our company. We were able to use the menus as a way to raise money for some of the things that we wanted to support and sell the menus to connect with a lot of artists and so on. So it became a lot bigger and a lot cooler to us than we would have expected when we made that first Pantone menu but it became the thing that really marked trick dog uh it's sort of you know singular uh greatest identity point.

Stevan: It's great inspiration going from a color palette and using it as your first way of making a statement. I think that's the mark of a truly great source of inspiration, it can carry on and inspire others. Where else do you draw your inspirations from?

Josh: I'd say it changes. Over time I look back at the things that I thought were cool in 2013 and then the things that I thought were cool in 2015, 2018, 2021. They're all different from one another. I've actually given a lot of thought to what it is that I think is cool and where I take my inspiration from and how different that is from when the business was started. It's about the world around me and the things that I see. I'm inspired by design. Certainly, by objects and by art I have a side hobby business of finding, sourcing, selling, and collecting vintage items of all kinds. I'd say that certainly is an inspiration to me: the study of those things and how I can employ them in everything else that I'm doing.

Stevan: I found your antique Instagram page that has a lot of those reused and antique-style items. It was really fascinating to see your perspective because different things catch different people's eyes. I think there was a closet cabinet that you found and you were just really interested in how simple and basic and functional it was and sometimes that's really all you need from an object.

Josh: I really like that you were drawn to that shelf. I really like that shelf too. It was very simple the brackets were inlaid into it. The shelves could be configured in different heights. It was clean. It was old strong. Form and function are really important. Obviously, I'm not anywhere close to the first person to emphasize that relationship but I am definitely a person that will champion its importance and that's a relationship that needs to be the foundation at a bar or restaurant. Certainly, it was the foundation of all of our menu creation, the thing that we were striving for. It has to look good but it also has to work and if it doesn't work then it doesn't matter how it looks but also looking good makes the fact that it works have that extra thing. Finding that relationship and the balance between those things is important and with respect to the vintage items that I like many of them are utilitarian. I mean I like something that just sits on the shelf as much as the next guy but when I find something that is a functional sculpture to me that is a a very cool thing to have...

To hear more from Josh Harris listen to the podcast above!

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