This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the world meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of the restaurant world's hottest tables.
In September 2011, bartender Adam Frager transitioned from a longtime tenure behind the stick to front-of-house manager at his St. Louis "private dining club" Blood and Sand. According to Frager, who opened the members-only bar and restaurant with partner and fellow bartender T.J. Vytlacil, the private membership concept was fueled not by exclusivity, but the urge to offer totally custom food-and-drink experiences to guests. "That's one of the foundations of our idea," Frager says. "It allows us to foster better relationships with them, get to know them, and that's going to translate into more knowledge and better ways we're going to be able to serve them."
From Blood and Sand's original pre-opening membership of 200 paying regulars, Frager and Vytlacil now manage a social club where more than 1,000 members pay $15 a month simply for access to chef Chris Bork's menu and B&S's now famously experimental cocktail bar (and yes, reservations are required). Eater recently chatted with Frager about membership "impulse buys," the gentlest way to turn away non-members, and how to manage a constantly growing wait list that stretches not hours, but instead four-to-six months.
Let's talk about the membership process. How does one become a member of Blood and Sand?
It's an interesting question that we mulled over for quite a while, because it was nothing that we'd ever experienced, and admittedly there wasn't a whole lot of other places we could use as benchmarks to learn from or see how they did it.? We created a list of "guidelines" (pdf) so to speak, so we could, in essence paint a picture to anybody that didn't know us or what we were trying to create. So it gave [potential members] a sense of what the environment was going to be like? we're trying to create an environment where people can enjoy themselves, enjoy the food, enjoy the cocktails, enjoy wonderful conversation, but this isn't the place that you're going to go and try to hit on girls or try to get loud and crazy. That was the extent, so to speak, of our screening process. We never really had a "screening process." It's pretty easy. You can sign up on our website, we ask them to acknowledge and read the guidelines, and once they've done that, then they're instantaneously a member. We've only had to ever, in our history of one and a half years, revoke somebody's membership [once], and that's a pretty good track record.
What did he do to have that happen?
He was being overly rude and inconsiderate to our bartender and other members around him.
You opened with 200 preexisting members. How long did it take for membership to fill up?
We went on a wait list about. It was eight months after we opened up.
So how do people rotate off the waiting list into full membership?
There's two primary reasons where people cancel their membership. One is that we have a decent amount of members that have signed up and were only living in St. Louis for a short term basis? Moving is one way that the majority of our members leave. And the other one is, for lack of a better term, I'd call it an impulse buy. They come in as a guest of a member and really love it and they want to be a member, but in reality they don't get a chance to go out very often, they maybe have kids or maybe live 45 minutes away. Six months later, they're like, "Okay, I've been in one time in the last six months, it's probably not really worth it." And we don't want them to have ill feelings or negative associations if they're not going to use it. So that's why we make it really easy. There's no sign-up fee, there's no exit fee. If it's not something that's working out for you, your schedule, or your budget, then we totally understand that and that's why we want to make it as easy as possible.
For somebody on the wait list, is there an estimated time for how long it takes to get full membership?
Four to six months is what we're telling people at this point. And that's pretty accurate, that's our best guess. The way we do it, it's not like a nightclub where it's one in, one out. It's really different. It's more organic for us, and it's based on volume?. it's about usage. We just had a wonderful couple [move] and they used to come in three to four times a week. Because they were here so often, when they left, they were on the high end of the frequency usage. So, how many people on the waiting list would that allow us to upgrade [if that particular couple] would come in every Friday and Saturday? [?] It's just a gauging process as we go, to try to determine how many more people we can upgrade. Sometimes we can upgrade ten people for one person that leaves; sometimes it's maybe one or two.
Do people ever wander in off the street not knowing what the membership policy is?
Yeah, we do get that. Most of them are probably from out of town. They do a search, we've got some good reviews, and they show up because it's not immediately apparent. They don't go to our website, they don't really see that it's a private place. One of the more unfortunate things about being private, I hate having to disappoint a lot of people, especially understanding their situation. A lot of times, they just took a cab to get here, and they're excited, and it's up to me to tell them no, we're unable to serve them. [?] We do have a policy, from day one, that anyone who is interested in considering a membership, they're more than welcome to have a one-time trial visit. The caveat is just it needs to be during the weekday, for groups of four or less. That's sort of how we try to let them down easily, say, "I'm sorry, I can't seat you guys now if you randomly show up, but if you're interested in trying us out, just email me, call me, and I'd be happy to make a reservation for you."
What's the best way to gently turn someone away?
I wouldn't say it happens every night, but I've had the conversation many many times over the course of a year and a half. [?] When we do have those instances where they come up to the front desk and they're not members, I understand the situation that they're in and I feel terrible. I do try to take a little extra time, and just explain to them our concept, answer any questions, try to put myself in their shoes and let them know I understand the situation that they're in, and it sucks. I try to see if there's anything I can do, if I can get them reservations at another place, see if I can get them set up, make recommendations, tell them where to go. And of course, be happy to have them come back in the future.
Once someone's a member, what's the hardest time to get a seat at the bar?
The bar tends to always have people. Most of the time, from when we open up, it's always filled. There's rarely a night that there's more than two seats in a row that are open at the bar. We have about 15 to 17 seats at the bar, and it's always packed.? When people come in, the bar is usually always filled, they love being able to interact with our bartenders, and over half of the cocktails being made are based on your palate. It's custom cocktails, it's that dialogue that we're able to have, that we're able to talk to our members. And we keep track and keep notes on what they like, what they don't like, so that we can give them new experiences. So for us, it's like a "Match Game" in the beginning: we're just trying to find out what your palate is, what you're familiar with, and what you're able to enjoy in that moment, so that we can narrow it down make drinks based around your palate.
So members get serious one-on-one time.
In the bar, definitely. [?] We actually do this so often that we've now created a system where we have a rolodex of recipes; we make so many recipes for our members that we don't write down, because it's using, on the spot, our creativity. And if they really like it, we put the impetus on them to name the cocktail, which they love, then we put it into our rolodex. When they come in, it doesn't matter who the person is who originally created the cocktail? we'll be able to execute it as long as we have the instructions and ingredients. So the member can always look forward to having "their" cocktail when they come back.
Obviously everyone here is a regular to some extent, but tell me about some of your favorites. Are there certain people who stick out?
The honest answer is sort of a yes and no. There's always people that come a little bit more, there's always people that you really love and genuinely think are outstanding people. That's the yes part. The no part is because we have so many of them, it's hard to immediately figure out who stands out. I say this in all honesty and sincerity because I've been asked this before, but I tell people that when I'm asked the question, "What's the biggest surprise?" or "What do you enjoy most?" I tell them that the best part of creating Blood and Sand is I get to serve absolutely wonderful people.
We just had a member give us — his company has box seats at the Cardinals games — we were just talking about the Cardinals and saying we were probably going to try to find a Sunday that we could take our employees to [a game] for a little company outing. And he goes, "Let me check and see if I can get you the box seats," and so he gave us 15 tickets to the box seats of the Cardinals game. He's a wonderful person; he and his wife, we absolutely adore them?. It's sort of like an upwards spiral, the relationship we have with our members. The more we get to know them, the more we find out how great they are, we become motivated to serve them, and it pushes us to get better always.
Finally, what's the most important Gatekeeper tool?
I would say, no question about it, it's that you have to enjoy people. You have to enjoy serving people. It begins with that one attribute... I think because of that first component, then the second component is that you really have to enjoy doing what you're doing. [?] We get that comment a lot from a lot of our members, "It looks like you guys are having so much fun, everybody's smiling, everybody's having such a great time here." And it's like, "Why wouldn't we?" We're doing what we love to do; we get to serve wonderful people, we get to eat great food before work, try new dishes, drink great spirits, come up with great cocktails. I think I've got the best job in the world.
Photo courtesy Adam Frager