Talking Business & Booze with Snake Oil Cocktail Company

Talking Business & Booze with Snake Oil Cocktail Company

Back in ye olden days, “snake oil” typically referred to a purported cure-all health remedy peddled by traveling quacks of questionable origins (what, you mean we shouldn’t have trusted the medical advice from these fellas?). But the elixirs being mixed up by Snake Oil Cocktail Company are anything but questionable. This West Coast-based beverage catering company only got its start five years ago, but they’re already booking 400 events a year (not to mention working with prestigious events like the TED Conference, the Sundance Film Festival, and the Concours d’Elegance). Oh, and thanks to their love of fresh produce and seasonal ingredients, they know how to mix up one heck of a beverage—whether it’s an avocado and vodka concoction or a series of drinks inspired by Tom Ford fragrances.

We caught up with Michael Esposito, the company’s cofounder and Director of Business Development, to chat about booze, business, and a few of his favorite summer cocktail fixings.

Hi Michael. What’s Snake Oil Cocktail Company all about?

We’re a cocktail consulting and beverage catering company. Essentially, we design cocktails and beverage experiences for special events, and we consult with bars and restaurants to design their beverage programs and help manage their bars.

And what kind of events have you participated in?

We’ve done cocktails for the TED Conference, which has been really fun. We did a beverage program for Yankee Stadium, we’ve done the Sundance Film Festival, we work with Aston Martin and Rolls Royce for the Concours d’Elegance in Pebble Beach, the biggest classic car show in the world, and we do the Summit Series in Utah. Those are our marquee events, and locally, we also manage all the food and beverage for the San Diego Symphony.

When did you start as a company?

We started in 2010. I founded it with two other partners. We designed the cocktail program for all of Brian Malarkey‘s restaurants, originally. Now we’re doing about 400 events a year.

Wow. So how does your team approach the art of designing a great, custom cocktail?

It’s all about listening to the client and trying to figure out exactly what they’re looking for. Everyone has in their head a concept of what they’re looking for in their event. We look at the beverages as a component of the event experience, and a way that you can express yourself through a cocktail. For a bride and groom, it’s a great way to tell their story through the drink element: they may have met somewhere, like Paris, so they want a Parisian cocktail, or they may come from different ethnicities, so you may be able to tell that story through culturally inspired cocktails. You can also do that through certain things like fresh produce, organic ingredients, and local products. It just depends on what the client is looking for, and their background. That’s how we initially look at it. You also have to consider things like how’s it being served—that’s a huge component. Sometimes the bar environment is very fast-paced; other times, it’s very elegant, or very casual.

And how do you navigate that changing environment?

In beverage catering, it’s very different from restaurants, in that a restaurant or a bar very typically knows their clientele and their age bracket, generally. In terms of beverage catering, and especially what we do at the Symphony, one night we might have Ben Harper as the opening act and his demographic might be a median age of say, 30, and then the very next night we may have a classical performance of Beethoven or Mozart, and in that kind of scenario, the average age might be 70. So for us, it’s kind of incredible; the demographic swing is enormous. What a 70-year-old person is going to drink versus what a 30-year-old person is going to drink, that’s going to be very different. So, on the cocktail side, what bridges that gap is really the fresh produce element.

So you pretty much have to constantly stay on your toes.

Yes, totally. It’s a lot of prep, from that perspective, and the ordering component of it, making sure we’re putting together the correct BEOs, getting all the client information correct, all of that stuff which Gather helps with, is really essential.

What are some of the challenges you encounter on the back-end?

Ordering is the main thing: it’s very important to us to try and order all of the right amounts, especially ordering the right amounts of the more esoteric liquors… that kind of thing can sometimes be a challenge. Also, understanding the demographic, and even the locations themselves. It’s not like a restaurant, where you come in and the restaurant has the same crowd coming in every night and stays in the same location: for us, the whole environment is constantly shifting, so getting that kind of information down is really important.

How do you judge the success of an event?

For me, it’s about people coming away and actually remembering the cocktails, remembering something that was remarkable and memorable. It’s kind of unique because we don’t really have a traditional bar, so people don’t “come back” to our bar, but they recognize us and they recognize the cocktails. And they ask for us. So we’ve gotten a lot of feedback from event producers that reminds us of the quality of our service.

What has some of that feedback been like?

It’s an elevated level of service. And freshness: fresh cocktails, fresh ingredients, with our cocktails being very produce-driven as opposed to classical cocktails. We look at the whole spectrum of craft cocktails and we say, for almost all of our cocktails, you could take the alcohol out of it because alcohol’s just one component of the whole palette of flavor we’re working with. If you took the alcohol out, all of our cocktails would work as mocktails, and I don’t think there are a lot of companies in this space that can do that, since the focus of their cocktails is more on the liquor. Ours is more on the fresh juices and the fresh ingredients, so that’s kind of a differentiating factor with us.

So from an operations perspective, where does Gather fit into all of this?

Gather helps us share information across teams. It helps us get a draft of the events coming up, and more quickly be able to put together proposals. I think that’s the most important part for us; how efficiently and quickly we can put these proposals together and get them out to clients. That’s pretty much the main thing for us.

We’ve heard from a lot of people that getting a quick response time nailed down is pretty important.

Yes. Especially with events. The thing is, people don’t wait. If someone is waiting for a quote for their wedding, they’re going to want it now. If they don’t get it now, they’re going to go with someone else. What we’ve realized is that Gather does a nice job of merging the form and the function. We looked at other kinds of software, but the challenge was, we could get stuff out quickly but it doesn’t look great, and I think Gather does a good job of balancing the two in a really creative way. For a while we were too stuck on how pretty the proposal looked, constantly spending time formatting and making things look good and editing pictures, but now we just realize it’s so much easier to just send a quick proposal out and then send some kind of styled moodboard next to it. Also, the ability to take credit cards immediately is great. In the events world, the hardest thing is collections. You don’t want anything to go into the accounts receivable section when you’re waiting on some client to pay you. Typically when people have events, once the event’s over, you lose all your leverage to get all of your money from the people who owe you money. With Gather, you can pay it up front, and check whether or not it’s paid. 

Last question, which we have to ask: what kind of ingredients are you guys feeling inspired by for the summer?

A lot of focus on berries right now, and a lot of different shrubs. The other one right now is salt. Using different types of gourmet salt in drinks is becoming an interesting thing, so that’s been fun.


Previously Published on Gather

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We host the bar at events across San Diego and beyond, seven days a week. If you haven’t yet tasted the culinary magic, give us a call to find out how to book your next event, Snake Oil style.

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