"We Should TOTALLY Buy A Bar!"
We dream of belonging, not owning a low-margin services business, so why are we forced to?
Cafe Society is Maxwell Social’s Whenever-I-Have-The-Time-To-Write magazine on the intersection of community, society, web3, F&B and more — an anthropological look at the underpinnings of what makes the world tick and how tech is changing it, written by David Litwak (@dlitwak) and the Maxwell team. Maxwell is building a new type of social club in Tribeca, check out the photos on Instagram.
If you don’t have the dream yourself you’ve definitely heard it from friends, the dream to have your own spot, a “Cheers where everyone knows your name” bar filled with your friends.
How I Met Your Mother even lampoons the urge one season when they say that “every group of friends will one day say the words ‘we should buy a bar.’” True to form, the episode has Ted and Barney experience actually running a bar for an evening, having to deal with drunk ungrateful patrons and conclude it’s far from what they want to actually do on a daily basis.
Yet the urge is there.
In our pitches for Maxwell Tribeca we have a line that always gets a chuckle:
“The dream to own a bar with your friends is not a dream to run a low-margin services business.”
Yet for some reason society has decided that the only way we can get what we ACTUALLY want, a place to call our own, a place to entertain our friends, is by starting a services business hawking food and drinks to anyone who decides to waltz through the front door.
Bars & Restaurants Have Shitty Business Models
The traditional F&B (Food & Beverage) operating model is a shitty fit for building real, long term, sustainable community.
Huge Staff Costs: A comparably sized social club to Maxwell w/ full F&B operations that recently shut down in NYC had 45 full-time staff compared to our 6.
Inefficient Real Estate Usage: Anywhere from 1/4 to 1/2 of a bar or restaurant’s real estate is taken up by back of house. Of the 8,000 square foot space that makes up Maxwell Tribeca, 3,000 of it was previously used as storage or industrial kitchen.
Inefficient Customer Acquisition & Low Loyalty/High Customer Churn: Difficult customer acquisition means prime foot traffic corner location requirements for natural IRL discovery.
Low Margins: All this adds up to low margins — 3-10% is a successful restaurant, and even then all but the most successful often are living on the edge.
This skews the incentives for any F&B establishment — while a bar or restaurant’s initial inspiration may have been community, the primary motivation becomes survival — and in order to survive they become increasingly transactional, seeking to shove as many $25 cocktails down their patrons throats as possible, to turn as many tables over as possible. In short the incentives are:
Selling Services to Sustain Staff
I often joke that all this combines to make bars and restaurants such shitty investments they aren’t investments anymore, they are purchases — most people investing have ulterior motives and would be happy just to get their money back.
But a community space doesn’t HAVE to be a service space — there are examples throughout history and throughout other societies of alternative models that prioritize freedom and community, not food and beverage service.
The Local Ethnic Social Club
Your grandpa’s Italian American society or the Romanian Men’s Association that you drive by in Brooklyn used to be an actual thing. One of the few that is still around and has modernized, Palizzi Social Club in Philadelphia, describes what social clubs used to be like:
“Social clubs were where everything happened: from anniversaries to funerals and business deals to celebrations.”
They were shockingly common, all ethnicities had one and they were so prevalent they even started segregating based on interest.
“In the 1880s and 1890s, growing middle-class participation in cycling led to the formation of hundreds of clubs . . . Italian, German, Belgian and Irish clubs. There was a Harlem Cycling Club, one for Mongolians and even a Norseman’s club, “which I saw somewhere advertised as ‘limited to the sons and daughters of Harold the Fairhaired,’”
These clubs didn’t age well for obvious reasons — we want to hang out with more than our own ethnicity now, but they were a 2nd home for many immigrants coming to America at a time when maybe the only thing you wanted was a safe place in a scary new country.
These places sometimes served food, but often members staffed the bar or helped themselves and service wasn’t the point — you were there because this is where your community lived, not for the fancy Negroni.
Another one of these models is the San Sebastian Eating Clubs of Spain, or Txokos. Txokos are mini social clubs in Spain where you pour your own drinks and can cook in the kitchen. You take beer, wine and liquor out of the members cabinets and pay at the end of the night by slipping money under the office door, honor code.
They tend to range from 80-200 members and are specifically focused on cooking. There are 150 Txokos in San Sebastian (population: 175k) alone, and an estimated 1500 around Spain and form a core part of Basque society.
It’s not a huge mystery why San Sebastian is the epicenter of this phenomenon — Basque country is notoriously cliquish, separatists waged a terrorist campaign to split from Spain for a very long time, and are culturally distinct: the Basque language is not related to any other romance language like Spanish or French. Many Basque stay in the towns they grow up in so it’s a culture primed to withstand globalism and carry on a tradition like a Txoko.
In U.S. society we are familiar with a few additional models that prioritize the community they gather over the services.
Fraternities & Sororities: I’ve never seen a fraternity or sorority with a bartender — while not everyone may join Greek life with such virtuous values like “community,” the product is undeniably the people, the sorority sisters or fraternity brothers you’ll meet and the potential romantic partners you’ll interact with, not the service of pouring your own Natty Light on sticky floors.
Churches/Synagogues/Mosques: While becoming less relevant to an increasingly secular society, and withholding judgement again on the intentions for joining a religion, it’s worth noting that religious institutions provide gathering spots that were 100% NOT about the services (the food and drink ones at least).
Fraternal Organizations - Rotarians, Kiwanis, Elks, Moose & American Legion: A variation on the ethnic club that is slightly less discriminatory (many required belief in a “higher power” but were flexible past that), these “service” organizations all have their own temples or gathering spots and their own traditions that are largely self-run, but mostly at this point are relegated to suburbs and small towns.
Clearly there is a precedent for community spaces that exist right alongside service spaces. So what’s wrong with society today?
The Prejudice Towards Service
One of my key theses is that community spaces have a branding problem. “Self Serve” is almost a dirty word, evoking cafeterias or dinky airport lounges. Our evaluation of good and bad is so linked to service, especially in American society, that they have become one and the same.
But what if we leaned into a freedom instead of service?
No one thinks you are slumming it if you book an Airbnb and cook your own eggs for breakfast if that Airbnb is a French Chateau. That is undeniably a luxury experience, even if no one is putting a mint on your pillow.
Self-service travel accommodation has jumped the shark and so can self-service community spaces.
But that isn’t enough.
We Need A New Organizing Principal
Almost all of the examples I gave were community spaces built around organizing principals that are getting weaker and weaker.
Ethnicity is no longer the trait most of us prize most when we choosing our friends. As cities in particular become increasingly secular, gathering spots that are based around belief explicitly (religious institutions) or implicitly (the fraternal organization) are also no longer in vogue.
Every group of friends, by virtue of “having things in common” chooses to be non-diverse on some metric, the difference is that increasingly those “non-diverse” traits are things like “we’re all building companies” or “we share a similar outlook on life and sense of humor” not “we look the same and come from the same town.”
“Buy A MAXWELL With Your Friends”
Maxwell Tribeca is recreating the local social club — Kitchen Islands, Not Bars, and building a new model for community spaces that aren’t required to be services businesses. Every member has the ability to pour their own drink, store their belongings in their own locker, take beer out of the fridge, cook in the kitchen or hire a chef to do so.
Our goal is to show that minimum service spaces can indeed be luxurious — we have $1.5M in build out sponsorships, amazing brand partners like Focal (amazing speakers) and Gracie wallpapers are making the place shine.
And our organizing principal is simple — our friends, friends of friends and simply people we feel we’ll get along with, whatever their background.
We’re building more in this area this that we’ll be announcing shortly, but for now, get in touch if you want to “buy a MAXWELL with your friends!”
David (@dlitwak), Kyle, Joelle