LGBTQ Venue of the Year: Get to Know The Port Bar

Sean Sullivan of The Port Bar in Oakland
Images courtesy of The Port Bar

Sean Sullivan and The Port Bar accomplish big things at a small bar with a streamlined team. The Port Bar earned our 2020 Nightclub & Bar Award for LGBTQ Venue of the Year.

"Richard and I, our staff, we are all so grateful for this award,” says Sullivan, referencing his Richard Fuentes. “To stand out amongst our peers across the country after such a short time leaves us kind of awestruck!”

The high-volume bar in Oakland, CA, is a 1,900-square-foot establishment that operates successfully with just a 12-person team, meaning they continually punch well above their weight class, an impressive feat.

Running a multiple award-nominated and award-winning venue with what’s justly described as a skeleton crew requires selecting A-plus talent for every role. Crowd-pleasing event and beverage programming are also huge contributors to Port’s success.

Marketing & Promotions

Daily promotions are crucial to Port. Mule Mondays offer Mules on the menu for $5, and 2-4-1 Tuesdays feature a two-for-one cocktail happy hour from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m., examples of just two daily promotions. Other programming is monthly—Big Gay Trivia+Karaoke, GAYmes Drag Queen Bingo—or involves viewing parties for the duration of a TV show’s season, like season 12 of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

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Like many operations, Port once included print ads in their marketing repertoire. However, the reach and analytics of social media marketing has proven more effective. Port uses Main Street Hub/GoDaddy for their social media marketing campaigns, posting twice daily. Sullivan admits it took the platform some time to get the bar’s “voice” down but the benefits—measurable results being among the most important—were worth the small growing pains.

The crowd at The Port Bar in Oakland, CA

Award-worthy Beverage Program

Using Revel for Port’s POS system for venue management—including inventory, payroll and scheduling—the success of the beverage program is also measurable. The Moscow Mule is the bar’s most popular drink. In fact, vodka is the most popular spirit at Port, with Tito’s sitting on the throne as it does in so many bars and restaurants.

Along with seven beers, the Mule is available on tap. Port’s cocktail program has been nominated for awards, and not solely those focused on LGBTQ venues. At Port, all are welcome, and the cocktail program, community support, nominations and awards reflect that value.

"While I have bartending and event experience, we had never opened a bar before, but we had plenty of community organizing background,” says Sullivan.

“And for us, The Port Bar is Oakland's LGBT Community Center...but with alcohol,” says Fuentes.

Of course, community support, success and awards also attract brand support. Like most bars, Port attracts their fair share of brand reps. However, along with a running a streamlined team, Sullivan is focused on streamlining inventory: “I’ve said, ‘No new stuff’ for this year.”

Sullivan has relented on at least one brand: White Claw. Sullivan is committed to controlling costs by avoiding dead stock or snapping up every new product that walks through the door, but he’s also committed to his guests and providing what they want. White Claw, as we all know, is a must-have menu item for many bars and restaurants, and Sullivan added it to Port’s beverage program.

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The seven beers on tap are an extension of Sullivan’s focus on the F&B program and inventory. They’re the beers that sell because they’re the beers his guests want—Port isn’t interested in overloading the back bar with craft selections. “There are beer bars cropping up all over Oakland, offering 50 beers,” says Sullivan. “We let them worry about that. We offer what we offer—we are who we are."

Recruiting Top Talent

It’s who they are that has helped attract the small but mighty Port team. Sullivan says that his recruitment tool of choice is word of mouth. People want to work at Port. Equally as important, the people who recommend potential team members to Port management won’t suggest just anyone. Current staff and other operators in the area make thoughtful recommendations of people who would be good fits for the team.

That doesn’t mean Sullivan hasn’t had to confront problematic team behavior. As Sullivan told Bar & Restaurant, sometimes an owner must have the hard conversations—the good comes with the bad. One of Sullivan’s best bits of managerial advice is for operators to know what employee behavior is unacceptable, and their threshold for dealing with it. In other words, how much will an operator put up with before they let an employee go?

Interestingly, it was a Nightclub & Bar Show 2019 keynote that drove that point home. Sullivan attended the show last year and a keynote speaker inspired him to return to his bar, address unacceptable employee behavior, and take action. By April, he had done exactly that.

Values & Community

So, what makes Port such an attractive employer to hospitality industry professionals? Two key elements of the brand—considered by many patrons to be more nightlife venue than bar—appeal to team members and guests alike: values and community.

“In today's politically charged climate, it's more important than ever to let people know what you stand for,” says Sullivan. However, to Sullivan and co-founder Fuentes, that doesn’t mean operators must necessarily make their political views on every issue known.

Supporting the community Port serves is incredibly important to Sullivan. On one hand, the Port bar was founded to support and serve the LGBTQ community. But Sullivan, Fuentes and Port are also advocates for the local business community.

“Our success comes from our focus on our community,” says Sullivan. “We had focus groups with LGBT Oaklanders before The Port Bar was even designed because while we had the passion, the tools and the capital to get the job done, we wanted our community's shared desire for a space to drive what eventually became The Port Bar.”

Port is located in the Uptown District of Oakland, CA, a community that Sullivan and Fuentes have long supported and helped develop. In fact, Port is part of the “Oakland Renaissance,” an effort to revitalize the area by attracting businesses and people with the energy and money to support them.

“Lots of people have heard bad things about Oakland but there's so much to celebrate. We are proud to be recognized as one of Oakland's positives,” says Sullivan. “We are working hard to celebrate Oakland one gay drink at a time. Come join us next time you're in the Bay Area!”

Drag queen Carnie Asada hosting an event at The Port Bar
Carnie Asada hosting at The Port Bar.

As a direct result of Sullivan’s experience in non-profits, Port makes itself available to causes seeking to raise money for charity. He understands the challenges that non-profits face, so he makes it simple for them to use the bar: the cause or charity provides the cause, Port handles the logistics.

"We have stayed plugged into what our customers want and what our community needs,” explains Sullivan. “ Our Karaoke for a Cause program takes all the event planning logistics off the backs of nonprofits and allows them to focus on donor and volunteer outreach for their cause.”

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“People want to know that you support what they support,” says Sullivan. And that doesn’t always mean a politically charged issue. Operators can show support for their communities by hosting fundraisers for diseases like muscular dystrophy or cancer.

The Port Bar succeeds with a small team and footprint because the team knows who they are, what they do well, who they serve, and delivers on guest expectations. Crucially, the community they serve also knows who they are and wants to support them.

Want more? Anthony Henry, general manager of Annapolis Town Centre, will address increasing exposure, maintaining brand loyalty, and providing an unparalleled guest experience during his Nightclub & Bar Show 2020 session “Developing Partnerships to Create Experiential Activations that Drive Foot Traffic.” The Cocktail Bandits, Johnny Caldwell and Taneka Reaves, are presenting “Inclusivity Increases Profits,” Harold Johnson from House of Blues Las Vegas will host “Let It Go so You can Grow: Your Staff is Your Compass,” a panel of industry pros will share how any restaurant, bar, nightclub or hotel can benefit from going above and beyond to take great care of their staff during “Building a Stronger Team: Exploring the Benefits of Fostering a Safe & Supportive Work Environment,” and 2020 Nightclub & Bar Award winner Eric Cacciatore of Restaurant Unstoppable and Las Vegas nightlife expert Ronn Nicolli are presenting “Lessons Learned in Hiring & Retaining the Finest Staff.” Register today and add these sessions to your schedule!

Resources

The Port Bar website

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