It has been more than a century since speakeasies first appeared in U.S. culture. Originally, the term was used to describe the bars that secretly and illegally sold alcohol during the Prohibition era. The popularity and profitability of such establishments kept them alive and active despite regular raids and arrests. When Prohibition was repealed, speakeasies no longer had a reason to operate. However, the mystique associated with them kept their spirit alive.
As the 21st century began, the speakeasy experienced a renaissance. Speakeasy-themed bars began to appear, capitalizing on the 1930s style that marked the original variety and striving to keep an air of secrecy about their location and operation. Some credit Angel’s Share, an East Village bar in New York, with kicking off the resurgence in the 1990s. The years that followed proved that speakeasies—despite advertising for the most part through word of mouth only—were the type of bar that could draw a crowd.
For those interested in taking advantage of the trend and opening a speakeasy in 2022, here are some steps that will need to be worked through.
1. Choose a concept
Concepts are important with any brand. They are the tools that allow you to stand out in a sea of similarities. Those thinking of opening a speakeasy may think that having a hidden location is enough of a concept; think again. If patrons don’t find something memorable behind the hidden door, the novelty will quickly wear off.
It’s also important to keep in mind that the concept will drive almost everything that follows. Design will take its cues from the concept, as will the food and cocktail menus. Music or other entertainment, if that is something that will be offered, will likewise flow from the concept.
2. Develop the design
This can be tricky. Interior and exterior design should flow from the concept, but it should also try to preserve the mystique of the speakeasy.
Regarding the interior of the bar, there obviously won’t be a lot of windows looking out on the street, into the public’s view. Anything that gives the impression of keeping the outside world at a distance—things like shutters or curtains—can bring the speakeasy feel.
Regarding the exterior, patrons will appreciate authenticity when it comes to presenting a false front. Bathtub Gin in Manhattan, for example, is located behind an inconspicuous door in the Stone Street Coffee Company. It requires more effort, but having a facade that could stand on its own is one design concept that truly evokes the aura of the speakeasy.
3. Advertise and message
This can be very tricky. Think about it: how do you advertise a bar that you want to keep a secret? On top of that, how do you keep anything a secret in the age of social media?
In many cases, the best advertising for a speakeasy will be word of mouth. Regardless of the setting, patrons that have a great experience always encourage friends to seek out the same experience, so make sure that patrons have a great one each and every time they visit.
Beyond that, there are ways to spread the word that keep the speakeasy theme. One way to do this is to focus on the exclusivity that is central to speakeasies. When posting to social media accounts, give the impression that people are being let in on a secret. Avoid shots that make the speakeasy look busy or crowded. Make people feel like they are part of a small group of insiders.
Furthermore, messaging should lean into the concept as much as possible. Highlight the work that has been done to make the setting, the menu, and the experience unique.
4. Choose your camouflage
To truly nail the speakeasy vibe requires disguising the fact that the bar is a bar. While historians say that Prohibition era speakeasies stayed open more through payoffs to the police than subterfuge, the cultural expectation among speakeasy patrons is that they are experiencing something exclusive. If it doesn’t feel like a secret, it’s not a speakeasy.
At Dirty Laundry in St. Petersburg, Florida, for example, a laundromat is the speakeasy’s camouflage. Step inside during the day and you will find a wall of washing machines, an out-of-order payphone, and a cafe counter offering a coffee, sandwiches, and baked goods. After dark, however, the payphone becomes the key to accessing the hidden bar.
When patrons pick up the payphone, they are given a code. When they enter the code on the keypad, a door concealed behind a fake washer is revealed, providing access to the bar.
Overall, the most important thing to keep in mind when opening a speakeasy is that it is not a normal bar. Those who do not want to develop the concept, celebrate it, and commit to it long-term are better off launching an establishment that does not exist behind a secret door.
Stephen Schrutt is the Founder and CEO of Hunger Thirst Group and an expert in the food and beverage industry with over 30 years of experience. HTG is disrupting the food and entertainment industry with creative dining concepts that combine groundbreaking interior design with crucial hospitality elements to provide an unforgettable experience. HTG is responsible for six unique concepts in the Tampa/St. Pete area.