How It Started: Elixir Saloon - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

San Francisco boasts many a world’s best bar, including ABV, Pacific Cocktail Haven, and Trick Dog, plus new destinations, like Stoa, that continue to elevate the city’s cocktail scene. But H. Joseph Ehrmann’s Elixir Saloon has something none of these bars can claim: legacy status. With 165 years under its belt, Elixir is the second-oldest operating bar in the city and a museum of San Francisco’s history. After going through a dozen owners over nearly two centuries, Ehrmann became its 13th proprietor upon purchasing the Mission Dolores neighborhood bar in 2003. Twenty years in, we caught up with him to find out how it all started and how he transformed the bar from a neglected watering hole into an award-winning cocktail bar.

H. Joseph Ehrmann:

In 2001, I became a “dot-bomb” tragedy, losing my international, post-MBA software job to the tail end of lay-offs that ended that era. I found myself in San Francisco, with $100,000-plus in MBA debt and zero MBA job prospects. I started an all-natural, refrigerated soup company with a high school buddy, did some brand consulting for a couple of other friends’ companies, and got a bartending job helping a new bar get off the ground. Everyone was unemployed, but the bars and coffee shops were packed. I soon realized that this was the time for me to finally open a bar.

In December 2002, I gave notice to my business partner, my consulting clients, and my bartending job. And that following January—100 percent focused on opening my bar—I began living on my credit cards and writing a business plan.

“I quickly recognized the Victorian bones and figured out that this was a real deal Old West saloon. And they probably didn’t even know it.”

My favorite bar jobs were in neighborhood bars. I had a vision for what I began calling “the exceptional neighborhood bar.” After looking at everything on the market, I couldn’t find the right spot until a local friend pointed me to Jack’s Elixir Bar. I quickly recognized the Victorian bones and figured out that this was a real deal Old West saloon. And they probably didn’t even know it. That October, I got the keys and threw a party to drink the kegs dry. 

An army of friends and I restored every square inch of the 1907 redwood that lines the room. (The original saloon burned down in 1906, along with most of the city, and was rebuilt by the same owner in 1907.) We also restored the late 19th-century mahogany bar, which has its own unique history and pre-dates the building. For 52 days straight we transformed that broken-down, dilapidated bar that no one had fixed in a 100-plus years. Then, on November 11, we threw a hell of an opening party.

The original goal was to create that exceptional neighborhood bar experience, while maintaining a local, everyday focus: exceptional customer care, open 365 days, a diverse selection of drinks for everyone, a reverence for the neighborhood and city, pricing that represents value, and marketing programs that drive various audiences through different times of the day and days of the week. My playbook was built from everything I had learned across the 18 bars and restaurants I had worked in, from corporations like Bennigan’s in New Jersey and Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, to independent operators like The Jackalope in Vail and my last job, The Fish Bowl in San Francisco.

Enter Mixology

In 2004, I worked my tail off pulling it all together, paying myself as a six-day-a-week bartender, and learning so many lessons it made my head spin. By 2005, I was tired and happy. But I wasn’t making money. We just weren’t standing out. What the neighborhood really needed was a higher-quality, better option. That’s when I decided to lean on my culinary background, focus on real cocktails, and upgrade everything. I ordered a bunch of cocktail books, went through my inventory to see what I was going to change, and began planning for a dramatic shift. 

“I wrote my first cocktail menu in that hospital bed, based on what I was learning from Dale DeGroff, Gary Regan, Dave Wondrich, and others…”

Then I had a pulmonary embolism and almost died. Enter mixology. The cocktail books arrived while I was in the hospital and my roommate brought them to me. I wrote my first cocktail menu in that hospital bed, based on what I was learning from Dale DeGroff, Gary Regan, Dave Wondrich, and others (people who would, unbeknownst to me, soon become friends and mentors). 

After I got out of the hospital, I fired a third of my staff (big lesson: bad staff brings bad customers and other problems), switched everything to fresh juicing, and started shopping at the farmer’s market. Then I started sitting at other bars to see what they were doing. That’s when I met Erik Adkins at Slanted Door, Jeff Hollinger and Jonny Raglin at Absinthe, Duggan McDonnell at Frison, and David “Mr. Mojito” Nepove at Enrico’s.

Revenue started going up, and problems started going away. I became the 16th member of the fledgling United States Bartender’s Guild and entered my first cocktail competition. Small, local press hits about my cocktails and marketing programs led to bigger press hits. Great press attracted not only more customers but better job applicants. I was officially in a whole new world, and Elixir was finally making money.

20 Years Later

Elixir is now in its 20th year of business. And I have four other businesses I’m involved in: Elixir To Go beverage catering, Fresh Victor cocktail mixers, Cocktail Ambassadors consulting, and Kokoro Spirits. We’re celebrating by taking the team on the road for pop-ups and bar takeovers. We also just put out our Greatest Hits, Volume 1 menu featuring some of our most successful recipes.

My team loyalty is baffling. Our two general managers, Shea Shawnson and Nick DesEnfants, have been with me for 16 years. Our lead bartender Nick Madden is on six years now. After fighting tooth and nail, we survived the debacle of the Covid-19 shutdown. Several Elixir alumni now own bars and brands and have started families with people they met at Elixir.

The impact the bar has had on me and so many others is incalculable. I truly hope I can keep it all up for another 20 years. 

As told to Caroline Pardilla

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