It started with a newspaper advertisement for an estate sale. But no one had died — no real, living person anyway. Rich Furnari, founder and executive president of concept development for Barter & Shake, had placed the ad as a promotion for the company’s first cocktail concept called Counter Intuitive. The bar, like the others Barter & Shake would later open, featured a rich narrative evident in the marketing, interior design and drink menu that elevate the experience from service to entertainment.
“We created a fictional character, killed him off and then had his estate sale,” explains Kailee Asher, director of communications for Barter & Shake. “We bought a bunch of stuff from antique stores and put it on a shelf in the bar with price tags.”
While some patrons familiar with Jason’s sterling reputation as a mixologist knew to come thirsty, others wandered into the bar in search of a bargain, buying up items belonging to the now-deceased character.
“To be honest,” Jason Asher, founder and executive president of beverage for Barter & Shake, says, “we just did things that most [bar owners] wouldn’t be interested in trying.”
That instinct to experiment has borne fruit for Barter & Shake, which now operates three award-winning concepts — UnderTow, Grey Hen Rx and Platform 18 — and offers a robust suite of consultation services.
Enjoying a drink at one of Barter & Shake’s bars feels like sneaking onto a movie set with the cameras already rolling. Each concept’s environment is distinct and pairs well with the cocktails served: UnderTow’s tiki vibe is enhanced by the portholes guests can peer through and see the ocean, Grey Hen Rx’s New Orlean’s-style apothecary — complete with an alligator hoisted above the bar — evokes a night on the bayou, and Platform 18 has passengers boarding a Presidential-Pullman-inspired train car to imbibe as views of the Rocky Mountains roll by.
“We have ex-Disney Imagineers that help build some of these pieces to make the spaces come to life,” Kailee notes.
Prior to opening UnderTow, Jason and Furnari started working with local architect and designer Wesley James, founder of LINE LAB, to imbue each bar with an enchanting quality that’s impossible to fully appreciate in a single visit.
The immersive nature of each concept, from the built environment to the fiction and illustrations in the drink menu, gives an escapist quality to the experience — a theme in the cocktail world with roots stretching back to the rise of tiki bar culture in the run up to World War II.
“So many people struggle being in the moment,” Kailee says. “The ultimate goal was to create this space where people can be present and enjoy the time that they have and not worry about anything else that’s going on.”
Time to imbibe with Barter & Shake
Creating an intimate environment where guests can lose themselves in the ambiance and conversation has been a resounding success for Barter & Shake — so much so that the company has to limit patrons to a 90-minute stay.
“We couldn’t get our guests to leave,” Jason says. “In the beginning, a four-to eight-hour wait was not abnormal.”
Eventually, a reservation system was adopted that allowed for tighter control of how many people would be seated each night. The 90-minute time slots also reduced the likelihood that customers would have to get cut off — a safety concern considering that none of the concepts serve food. Kailee notes that the Barter & Shake website encourages people to eat before or after their visit, and its Instagram page has a guide highlighting nearby local restaurants.
With each guest limited to an hour and a half stay, the staff can focus on delivering the best hospitality possible within those time constraints. But it also serves an important business function. Each concept has approximately 40 seats, which Jason says is larger than most cocktails bars across the country offering drinks with the same complexity of execution.
“We want to get our guests in and out as fast as we can, give them an amazing experience and allow as many guests as possible to have that experience every day,” he explains. “That’s really what building a business is all about — the amount of people that come through your door to [try] what you have to offer. And if we’re only getting 100 people through the room, that’s not enough revenue to build a sustainable business.”
Barter & Shake also brings in revenue from the consultation side of the company that helps clients with drink creation, operations and marketing. Jason notes that sometimes an operator will hire Barter & Shake to help with the day-to-day managing of employees and money without needing assistance with the menu, while others want a turnkey option where Jason’s team develops, builds and runs a concept for a time before handing it back over.
Some of Barter & Shake’s accounts include Marriott International, Riot Hospitality and Prime Steak Concepts, along with national chain restaurants such as P.F. Chang’s. Sam Fox also hired the team to do the beverage creation for the much-anticipated Global Ambassador hotel.
“[Our consulting services] are fully comprehensive,” Jason concludes. “We can do anything.”