Forever listicled JBFA 2014 Outstanding Bar Program semifinalist and all-around beloved cocktail bar Cure has changed quite a bit since opening on Freret in 2009, where it established itself as an anchor for not only the street but cocktail culture in New Orleans and all around the world. Flash forward to 2014, and owners Kirk Estopinal and Neal Bodenheimer have grown up a bit: They are both new fathers. They both oversee a growing empire that includes Cane & Table, Bellocq, and another potentially huge project in the works, with a team of young, creative talent and the main goal of seeing Cure survive as a business, an "idea" really, long after they're gone.
Still, the basics at the beloved cocktail lounge remain the same, as Bodenheimer notes: "We want you to like the drink you're drinking. If you don't like it let us know and we'll get you a new one." Here now, Estopinal and Bodenheimer look back at almost six years in business, and what's in store for the future of the ever-growing Cure Collective.
How did Cure start?
NB: It was 2004 or 2005 and I was bartending in New York. I was kind of deciding if I wanted to go to law school or not. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I'd been working with a guy by the name of Eben Klemm, who was one of the first mixologists for a corporate restaurant group, Be Our Guest, I worked for. He was one of the first, kind of, molecular mixologists. He used to run a biology lab at MIT. We were making a lot of stuff you didn't see getting made in the rest of New York. There were lots of Cosmos in that time, Lemon Drops. It was the 'tini time, where everything was a 'tini. We made Manhattans, Old Fashioneds.
I was walking through the village,by this teeny tiny bar, The Red Bench, just kind of wandering and asking myself why can't I do this? Why can't I open a bar? Turns out The Red Bench I'd built in my mind wasn't the same as what it actually was. This cool little French bar had actually been taken over and turned into a disco. But I still put together a business plan with a good friend of mine in New York, and we were going to open a version of this bar [Cure] in New York called Apothecary. We didn't know all the legality of why you can't call something Apothecary. Then Katrina happened, and I really wanted to move back home. I think anybody from New Orleans wanted to be back.
I started working at Delachaise. That was the place that had the best spirits selection in town. I began to work with spirits and get a feel for New Orleans, where I hadn't lived for years. I really enjoyed working there. When Ed and Evan went to do Bar Tonique they asked me to help them. I gave them the basics for Bar Tonique, very very basics. They've taken that and evolved that program the way they should.
KE: He also snaked me on a possible consult with those guys. I'd just met them in Chicago.
NB: I had no choice but to do that.
KE: That's before we knew each other, but I think it's funny because the connection was already starting to make itself.
NB: Our other partner Matt Khonke (he designed Cure, Cane & Table and the good parts of Bellocq) loved Freret. We were two guys with a very small budget. The more we looked, the more Freret became a reality. About six to eight months before we opened, Kirk and I met outside of a Spirited Dinner at Tales of the Cocktail. A Death & Company dinner.
KE: At Stella.
NB: Somebody said, hey you gotta meet this guy. He just moved back down, and I told him I was going to open this bar. He's like, hey, that's what I do. We just hit it off instantly, and kept on talking. As soon as you know, Kirk's my fucking business partner.
KE: That's exactly it.
Freret wasn't really established when you opened Cure. A lot of people probably thought it was risky. What was your own feeling on that?
NB: It was risky. I don't think there was any doubt it was. In the early days, Kirk will tell you, we were like man I hope somebody doesn't get mugged outside.
KE: I thought about it all the time. If somebody gets mugged outside our door, we're in trouble.
NB: In the early days, we really positioned the building knowing there was risk. Even though it was probably cash-flow wise a terrible decision, it was a good decision for us because we knew we could at least get our money back. We bought the building. Put the liquor license in the building's LLC name.
Matt was smart enough to look around the neighborhood and see what was happening. There were a lot of people like Greg Ensslen. He was here before we were here. Michelle Ingram from Zeus' Place. There are people all around this neighborhood that have been here for a while, working. I think we were just the first semi high-profile project that came over here and said hey we spent a lot of money on this street. We think that there's something going. I think that if Adolfo didn't open two restaurants, we'd still be talking about it coming around.
There weren't many craft cocktail bars in New Orleans when you opened, hardly any in fact, so where did you primarily look for inspiration?
KE: Obviously Neal spent some time in New York working with Eben, you know, seeing this sort or burgeoning scene of cocktails out there at that time. There wasn't really much, but there were a few places doing high level stuff. I was in Chicago, working at The Violet Hour. So we'd both been exposed to how deep the rabbit hole can go, basically. I think it kind of starts there. But you know, New Orleans, it's got the history. Obviously you can dig a little bit and find it.
NB: I think that's the thing that defines that time. Everybody was looking and researching during that time. There are a lot more things that are known today that weren't known then. Guys like Chris McMillian and Paul Gustings were great resources. Chris was really, really helpful for us. And when you think about the opening team we put together, it was all people who had different backgrounds. I think that's the real lesson of Cure. It is a collective. I had a style. Kirk had a style. Rhiannon had a style. Ricky and Turk had a style. Danny had his own thing. All of those things came together to create something different .
KE: Most bars at the time kind of had a chief. That person was directly responsible for the creative output of the bar. But Cure has been, from the first menu, a collected group of things. There's no way that menus at Cure could've been done by just me or Neal.
NB: No way.
KE: The lucky part, since we were the first to kind of market on that, is that we actually had an interesting team doing it. The thing that I saw when I moved to New Orleans, you could get good drinks, but it was always one off. You had to go to this bar, on this night, with this bartender. Even just six years ago, if I walked in The French 75 and Hannah wasn't there, I just walked out. Now there's a whole staff of people who know the drinks. Seeing that happen has been pretty cool.
NB: The landscape has changed a lot, and it's only been six years. Things have changed quite a bit. As we look back, it's been a really interesting time for New Orleans and a really interesting time for cocktail culture. There's a lot of places you can go in town and get a really well crafted cocktail.
KE: Even unexpected places. Even like Crown & Anchor. There's a girl that bartends there that makes drinks. The bartenders are taking it upon themselves to up their game.
NB: People are always asking are cocktails a trend? In some ways they are. You can open any magazine and see an article about a cocktail. I think it's probably the same thing that happened in the 70s with food and chefs. There are people who want to embrace it and people who want to do the job. That's not going to go out of style.It might not be as interesting in ten years.
KE: But it'll still be a piece. Just like the people a few years back, running down molecular gastronomy, like whatever it's going to be over in three years. In some ways it is, but there's all these pieces now that are in the lexicon of normal dining that come out of that, and I think cocktails will be the same. It'll get back to what it used to be when my grandparents went out and you can get an Old Fashioned and a Martini made in a proper manner and that's it.
What were the first drinks like?
KE: A lot of classics.
NB: And super close one offs. The Howitzer, which is still on the menu, is essentially a bourbon 75 with peach bitters. We were trying to break vodka culture. It was our enemy here. The vodka soda and vodka tonic. The automatic order. If people came in and said I want a Jack and Coke, we were trying to break that.
KE: At the same time, if we came out the gate at Cure with the menu we have right now...
NB: We would've been out of business.
KE: It would've been too weird. People would've been like WTF? There's a million ingredients I've never heard of. The drinks are complex.
People were upset that they couldn't wear shorts inside. Can they now?
NB: Yeah, they can. You know why we had the whole shorts thing? We had Friar Tucks down the street, so it was a way to keep wasted college kids and frat kids out. That was obviously controversial, even with my very good friends and family.
KE: And with Chefs we knew. The hardest part about that rule was you had to hold it. You can't let your friends in. Nobody. Mario Batali shows up in his orange shorts, he ain't getting in.
NB: There were some heavy hitter cocktail people in for Tales that year, and we wouldn't let them in. We're probably still on their shit list for it. And there's some people who got over it to. It is what it is.
KE: That's the lesson I learned at The Violet Hour. Policy is policy. There are no VIPs.
What's next for Cure Collective?
NB: We just realized we don't even have an LLC. Basically, the future is figuring out the structure for the company, what it looks like as we grow. I don't think we're going to stop growing for a while. We have a lot of talented people working for us, and we have a lot of interest. There's a lot of cool things happening in the city and we want to be a part of it.
KE: I think we're going to do some more restaurant stuff, for sure. I think Cane & Table has shown us that we can operate a restaurant and do it well.
NB: I don't ever see us getting away from the cocktail interpretation of it, but we definitely have been really pleased with Cane & Table, and we're excited to make hybrids.
Both of you are now dads. How has fatherhood changed owning and running your bars?
KE: I got run down for a while. It's really more about changing your priorities. You think about money in a different way.
NB: I do too.
KE: There is a time management part. We really like the work we do, and given the opportunity, if we were single guys, we'd probably work all day. With a child, it's different, you're on a schedule. It's allowed me to enjoy life better, and relinquish some control that I was having some issues with.
After almost six years in business how do you guys stay consistent and relevant?
KE: I think it boils down a lot to our company's culture. And by that I mean the people. You can't install an idea of culture in your business. You can't make that happen. If you do, it's not real and everybody knows it's not real. The stay-relevant thing has a lot to do with new people coming into the company. It's new ideas. If it was just me and Neal, it wouldn't continue to stay relevant because we'd run out of ideas. It's just the reality. At this point, there's like 600 original cocktails produced in our company. I mean, there's no way we could come up with all those that way.
NB: I think Kirk is really hitting on the ethos of our company. We are as good as our people. What we do isn't rocket science. We're not saving lives. But it is creative work, and it takes creative people. We try to surround ourselves by people who we like to be around.
KE: And who are smart. You got to be able to hang with the French new wave film discussion.
Anything you would've done differently?
KE: I mean, a million things but it wouldn't be what it is if we did.
NB: That's exactly it. I think we've had a pretty good run, a pretty good ride. I'm still very excited about our future.
KE: There's little pieces all over the place. Maintenance regrets. We've both had some management stumbles, but we've also remedied those situations personally. I think that's the best you can do.
NB: But if you look at all that stuff, that's the process. In the end, all those things made us better at what we do. If you don't have that moment, if you don't fuck up, you can't learn. But yeah, making Absinthe Suissesse at Atlanta Food & Wine. Worst idea ever. We were counting on the blender and the kitchen needed the blender. It was horrible. There was a lot of cream, slippery shakers.
KE: I hate cream.
What are you most excited about moving forward?
NB: It's weird to say growth, because it sounds corporate-y and weird. But we're both excited by new projects. We're in negotiations to do a new project. It has the potential to be extremely exciting for us. There's also a lot of cool projects that we've passed on of late, so I think we're both really excited for where the city is heading, and to be a part of that.
KE: I'm excited that we can be choosy about what we do at this point. That's a big part of our future. I'm excited about Cane & Table and seeing that grow. Seeing if we maybe add on to that in the future. That is an option, expanding Cane & Table a touch. I think this new project [Neal mentioned] will be really exciting if we end up doing it too.