Bobby Green was struggling to stay afloat at his bohemian West LA coffeehouse, Cacao, and he saw alcohol as the answer to his problems. No, not just consumption. He created the concept for Bigfoot Lodge and shopped it for three years until he found a match, Dimitri Komarov and Dmitry Liberman, the owners a clothing company called Komarov. The trio opened the first Bigfoot Lodge in Atwater Village in 1999 and now own seven themed 1933 Group bars. Sassafras is their latest creation, a Southern vision dreamed up after a magical experience in New Orleans. Green and Komarov discussed the group’s background and approach at the Sassafras opening party.
Do any of you have a connection to The South?
Green: Not really. I grew up in Oklahoma, but that’s as close to The South as I got. We kind of all fell in love with The South in the last few years. We took all of our managers down to Tales of the Cocktail…and we just had such an amazing time. It’s so nice to experience the South after living in L.A. for so many years, because it’s such an eye opener how friendly people can be, and how laid back and relaxed people can be. We fell in love with The South four or five years ago. It was always a goal of ours to bring that to L.A. It really took hold three years ago. We all went down as a group and then sat around talking about what is it about New Orleans or Savannah? Is it the heat? Is it the humidity? Is it the pace of the city? I just analyzed it and analyzed it for so long. There’s no right answer. It’s so many things. We set out as a goal to bring all of that to L.A., as close as we could.
In terms of what you’re offering to drink, what does it have to be that says South?
Green: There are a lot of stereotypical things. Pecans. Molasses. Sarsaparilla. Sassafras. Root beers. But we wanted to not do anything too cliché. Really cliché would be like Mind Eraser slushy bombs, but that’s only Bourbon Street.
Green: Yeah, surprisingly, the cocktail scene is growing in The South, but it’s not anywhere to the level yet of some of the bigger cities like New York and L.A. We were able to take little cues from stuff people know of being in The South, as well as researching back to pre-Civil War days, the early 1800s, learning about how soldiers would take their cocktail with them in a barrel for months at a time, to the battlefield, and these drinks, and how they would change from one day to two months later.
So there were barrel aged cocktails during the Civil War?
Komarov: Out of necessity, is what it was. They were in battle, and they had these barrel aged cocktails.
Green: It even dates back to the pirates. That’s just how you would carry your drink with you. I want you to talk with Jared [Mort] and Aaron [Stepka] if you get a chance, talk about the cocktail program, because it’s really their baby more than mine, so I don’t want to take credit. They have done two years of extensive research, but I will tell you one thing that they won’t tell you, and that is that this cocktail program at Sassafras is the most unique things I’ve ever seen. It completely strays from the norms and the trends…I’m really impressed.
Now that you have a number of different bars in your group, are there any through lines, common threads of what a bar has to be, to be in the 1933 Group?
Green: Yes, but those are guarded trade secrets. I can’t say. [laughs] No, no. We learn from day one, which is 1999, when Bigfoot Lodge opened, we learned that we like and what we think people like, is an extremely warm, comfortable environment, and a design that kind of transports you a bi away from your daily work, away from the fight you just had with your wife at lunch. So what we strive to do is create extremely comfortable settings that don’t really seem like you’re in a bar, but help people libate, and also take you away from right outside the door.
Komarov: We create such different environments. Even with the Bigfoot Lodge, when we just opened it, it was an environment that L.A.’s never seen before because it feels like you’re up in the mountains, not in the middle of L.A. And people just identified with the coziness of it and just made people stay and we realized we have something there, where we created a completely unique environment that’s so new to L.A. With every bar that we do, we try to follow the same kind of guidelines, but obviously with different kinds of themes and settings and stuff like that.
Green: We pretty much glamorize Americana, other than La Cuevita – which is south of the border – but everything else we do is American. American history and Americana and American kitsch, and very American things. We don’t do any European bars. We like to re-introduce America’s past to people.
Would you say your priorities have changed at all since opening in 1999, as you’ve opened more and more bars, just in terms of the weight?
Komarov: We’ve learned a lot since then. We’ve kind of learned what works and what doesn’t. We’ve been honing our skills over the last few years, and that’s not necessarily something we want to talk about, but we’ve learned the business a lot more over the last few years.
Green: The one thing that hasn’t changed in the 13 years is that we still run it as a family. Our managers, our staff, we look at as a giant family. And we like to get everyone together and help each other and bounce ideas. And we tend to fight corporatism as much as possible, even though we are forced to enact some kind of regimen of things that may appear corporate, just to manage it, but we still keep it very mom and pop.
Komarov: Even though we’re a group, we still try to run each place very individual, so that each one has its own identity. Also, one of the most important things we stress is customer service. And that’s what really separates us from a lot of bars. We pride ourselves on having the friendliest and most accommodating staff, which is not easy to find in Los Angeles.
Speaking of that, what do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work behind the bar?
Green: Personality. We look for social skills and personality.
How do you divide the duties?