Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
Sean Kenyon Behind the Bar At Williams & Graham [Photo: Adam Larkey]
Exactly a year ago, Williams & Graham opened its doors in LoHi after anticipation. A collaboration between Todd Colehour and bartender Sean Kenyon, this speakeasy was built to draw in a mixed crowd from the neighborhood, the industry, and beyond. Sean Kenyon sat down with Eater to talk about the opening, evolution, and philosophy behind this popular hangout. Kenyon was outspoken and dished on his approach to hospitality, distain for some cocktail trends, and commitment to always honoring his staff. Part of that commitment includes an eight day company trip to Scotland set for February for the ten staff members that have been at Williams & Graham since day one.
What are you most proud of at Williams & Graham? I am proud that at any time I can walk behind my bar and my bartenders can name every single person at that bar. I can ask them to do a roll call of the bar and they can go — Dan, Joe, Fred — naming each individual that sits there. And not only the names — that can be some corporate mandate — my bartenders can tell you a few things about the people sitting at their bar because they always engage them in a conversation.
Speaking of that conversation, why do you and rest of the staff introduce yourselves to the guests at the bar? We are not a vending machine making cocktails. And they are guests in our establishment — they chose to be there. We are human and want to have a comfortable interaction with our guests. I extend my hand and say — Hi, I'm Sean — and 99 percent of the time, the guest responds with their name. It is conversation — nothing more.— and it can be about sports or art or music or anything else. I want bartenders to remember why we are there. We are there to entertain people and need to have a general knowledge of current events - staying away from religion and politics always cause those are fire-branded- but if someone wants to know if the Nuggets won last night, a bartender should know. It just makes for good conversation.
What was the process of opening Williams & Graham like - what were the hold-ups and delays? We originally planned to open in June of last year but made some mistakes with the liquor license. The neighborhood loved us, but we did not get a lawyer to help us with the liquor license. My business partner thought he could do it on his own, and I love that about him, but it turns out we needed a lawyer. The liquor license board initially turned us down and said we did not carry our burden of showing we were necessary for the neighborhood. The first thing the hearing officer asked us was where our lawyer was. I think he was upset we didn't have one. So, we hired Dill & Dill, pulled our application before it was denied, then reapplied and got approved.
Were there other hang-ups that delayed you? So many things happened. We fired our carpenter. That was a big one. Our bar when we opened was like the movie set version of a bar. It looked good on the outside but had all of this stuff behind it that was not right. Our bookcase door was not in yet, because we fired our carpenter. We fixed things after we opened, but we could not wait any longer. We wanted to open. The lights on opening day were bright because the dimmers were not in yet. It was bright in the bar, overwhelmingly bright but we were ready to serve drinks.
What do you remember from opening day? We got our liquor license the day before and we had to train some staff and stock the bar- a massive bar. Todd, my business partner, called me that morning to ask if we should open that night. I remember telling him— I would bartend on a saw horse right now. Let's just serve people drinks. That day, before 5 o'clock struck, I remember driving around in my car picking up booze. I was picking up beer because it could not be delivered to us in time for opening. I was by Dick's Sporting Goods where the Rapids play and pulled over on the side of the road and said to myself — what the fuck am I doing? I worked my whole life for other people and opening my own place was like standing on the edge of a cliff with no safety net. I believe with all my heart in what we are doing. This is not a concept bar put together by marketing people and idea people but I got terrified that day that it was all going to fall down. I talked myself off the edge that day and got into Williams & Graham where I had to choose between being behind the bar or being on the floor. I started behind the bar, but ended up on the floor. The warmth I felt on the floor that day made all the doubts I had melt away.
Why did you open a speakeasy and how do you reconcile it with the idea of being a neighborhood bar? The speakeasy part was something that my business partner, Todd, had for a while — for a few years before he met me. We met through a mutual friend about two and a half years ago and when we first met, we were both ready to open our own places. We had very distinct ideas of what they would be. He wanted a Gatsby-esk, prohibition-themed speakeasy. I wanted a neighborhood bar. Somewhere in between those two, we met and created Williams & Graham. I always thought you can bring the neighborhood aspect into the cocktail bar atmosphere, so we went with the combination. We are not creating an illusion that this is prohibition, but people like the secret entrance— it makes it fun. There are bartenders and who create menus for critics and other bartenders; we make drinks for the people who sit at our bar, so it isn't just a concept or a gimmick.
What is your team like at Williams & Graham? You know, I travel around the country on business a fair amount and I wouldn't not be able to do that without the staff I have. Courtney Williams and Jason Patz are true believers, not in me, but in what we do. I never question their decision-making. They get it and always call the right shots. On opening night, it was me and Courtney and Jason behind the bar and we are still here. Jason waited for months to work for Williams & Graham and he stuck with me through the delays in the liquor license. He was an amazing discovery - he was a corporate trainer for PF Chang's and I asked him, why are you not somewhere where you can use your creativity? He had the hospitality thing down, he had the creativity down, he is just great all around. Courtney started working for me at Steuben's years ago and we have been together ever since. She was a neighborhood bar bartender. She is like a sister to me and one of my best friends. She is very talented and has so much potential.
What about the food part? The food is awesome and Dave Bumgardner, our chef, rocks. Dave was at Marczyck and Highland Tavern before he joined Williams & Graham. He was a regular at Steuben's and that is how we got to be friends. When we were gearing up to open Williams & Graham, I set Dave up on a meeting with Todd, my business partner. Dave was hired on the spot.
How has the food menu changed? We started with four of each: four appetizers, four entrees, four desserts. What we realized is that what people were eating were mostly the appetizers and there were many requests for sandwiches. We changed it where we have some salad appetizers, shared plates, and also introduced some sandwiches to the menu. We did and still do the egg sandwich after 10 p.m. — that will always be on the menu.
Has the cocktail menu evolved since opening? We have twelve signature cocktails on the menu that evolve with the seasons and what is available. We changed it right around spring-summer, a fall menu, and some winter tweaks. There are drinks that I have been making for years that are hard to take off the menu. The blackberry sage smash is like that. That is like a gateway cocktail and we have not been able to take it off. We will always have a good selection. There will always be vodka cocktails and a selection of accessible to obscure things. We want to demystify the cocktail bar atmosphere and make it accessible to everyone. We are just happy to have them at our bar in front of us.
What does Williams & Graham make for scratch and how do you feel about making everything in your mixing arsenal yourself? We make our ginger beer. We make some tinctures, a chili tincture, a cinnamon tincture. We do not make our own bitters and that is because there are great products out there that are consistent and reliable and high-quality. Making bitters is an intensive process and I appreciate bar that do that, but I did find some of these house-made ones to be inconsistent. I just want my bartenders to have a great selection of products to work with which is why we use a variety of the commercially available bitters.
What about staying local and using Colorado products? I love Colorado spirits. There are great distillers in Colorado - we really are blessed. The distilling industry follows the beer industry here really well. They work from the same base material and it is great. Stranahan's, Leopold's Brothers, Peach Street, Caprock - these are all spirits we have at Williams & Graham and use in many of our drinks. We have forty-six drinks on our menu and many have Colorado spirits in them. I do think it is important to support local spirits but it is not the main goal. Local gets to be too much about marketing, almost a gimmick.
Does Williams & Graham try to keep up with the trends — beer cocktails, low alcohol ones, barrel-aged cocktails, fat-washed spirits? No beer cocktails. I don't believe in them. I believe beer and spirits are things that should remain separate unless you're drinking a shot and a beer. I have never had a beer cocktail that really wowed me. I have tried some but I was never impressed. Low alcohol cocktails I like and we have some — we have some sherry cocktails and vermouth ones. Barrel cocktails are interesting — barrel aging something that has been barrel-aged already. Barrel-aged cocktails makes no sense to me. Say you get orange-flavored vodka and add fresh orange juice to it. It makes no sense. Fat-washing and infusing is a different story. You are actually creating something. The bacon-washed vodka I did years ago at Steuben's was a science experience that turned into a great Bloody Mary. I like that stuff but we have nothing infused at all at Williams & Graham. Bottled cocktails are a cool gimmick but still a gimmick.
How are you celebrating Williams & Graham's first birthday? We are doing an artillery punch. I let Jason pick the punch cause he loves doing it. We are all about our people - our employees and guests. I got Courtney and Jason and Dave presents. And this afternoon, before we open, we'll tell the team that has been with us since the day of opening that we are taking them to Scotland on an eight day company trip in February. There are ten employees that will come on this trip. We are flying into Glasgow and we will do two days in each of the main scotch regions. We want to have an educated staff but we also know this will be very fun. We want to give back to the staff.
Congrats on the first birthday to the whole Williams & Graham team. Cheers to many more.