Nickel City in Austin, TX, our 2020 Neighborhood Bar of the Year, takes their responsibility to serve the community seriously.
The bar is open 365 days per year (366 this year) from noon to 2:00 a.m. because, says co-owner Travis Tober, it’s the right way to operate.
“We're a neighborhood bar, so we're there for the neighborhood,” says Tober.
So dedicated is the team to remaining open to serve the community that they asked the team at Bobby Heugel’s Anvil Bar & Refuge to do a guest shift. Anvil agreed and Nickel City was able to have a staff Christmas party. That’s dedication.
It’s also an unassuming bar, at first.
“We didn't want to change the outside at all. We still want it to look kind of crappy. Then you walk in, and it still looks like a dive bar, neighborhood bar-ish,” Tober explains. “Then you start looking around and paying attention to the details, and then the thoughtfulness of, A, the bartenders, and B, the menu, and the crazy stuff that we do. We have Clarified Milk Punch on the menu. It looks like a dive bar. It's kind of wild.”
On their first visit to Nickel City, a guest’s expectations will be circumvented in the best way possible. Tober and his team want to blow guests away with the experience.
“You walk in, you're like, ‘There's a lot of whisky here. I see that,’” says Tober. “But then you can also have a fucking banging Last Word that we do in our own style.”
And that’s just one example of the curve balls Nickel City throws at their guests.
Not Just Beers & Shots
Tober has been in the business for 23 years. He spent a large portion of his career as the global ambassador for Aviation Gin and estimates that he visited 600 bars each year in that role. He noticed something spending time in hundreds of bars around the world: It seemed that wherever he went, industry pros weren’t meeting up at cocktail bars when he was in town.
“We always ended up at a neighborhood dive bar, drinking beers and shots,” says Tober.
He wanted to change that with Nickel City, named for a classic diner in Buffalo, NY, at which he spent a lot of time growing up but has since closed. Tober envisioned a neighborhood bar specializing in whiskey and beer but also cocktails.
Nickel City is “an anybody, anytime bar” that draws tourists, neighborhood locals, and industry pros. The bar regularly makes “Best of” lists not just for their vibe but their cocktail program. Two years ago, Esquire named Nickel City one of the best bars in America.
“We have a classics list in the computer, made the way we make it, 150 drinks,” Tober says. “You can pretty much throw anything at these guys and they know what's in it.”
The cocktail program is more than just a creative outlet for Tober and the Nickel City team—it’s smart business.
“The cocktail thing isn't going away, so you better jump on it and then spin it your own way—which is what we did—and not overthink it,” says Tober.
Syrups are made inhouse and juice is squeezed fresh every day by one of the daytime barbacks who also preps the bar before opening. That prep role is a direct benefit of the bar becoming profitable quickly.
“Luckily now, because we've been slammed busy for the last two years, we're always profitable,” says Tober. “We really cranked it up when Esquire named us one of the best bars in America two years ago. It was just like a light switch switched on. We're blessed.”
The cocktail menu is currently split into four categories: Well Known, Lesser Known, Unknown and Tiki. The first section is a selection of classic cocktails. Tober describes the second section as a curated list of “homie cocktails,” drinks created by well-known bar pros, like Sam Ross’ Penicillin. He says he already knows they’re going to feature a Joaquín Simó cocktail, the Naked & Famous, on next year’s menu.
“Then the Unknown is our classics that we make up in house,” explains Tober. “A lot of them are tongue in cheek.”
As an example, the current menu has a drink made with George Dickel #12 and TYKU Sake called the Dickel in a Box, taking its name from the Loney Island song featuring Justin Timberlake that aired on SNL. The cocktail is served in a sake box and Tober wisely asked George Dickel if they were okay with the name before finalizing the menu.
Tober is a huge tiki fan, so it’s only natural that there should be a section of the menu dedicated to the drinks. Of course, Nickel City has put their spin on these cocktails too.
“Like our Painkiller, we have three different levels of pain. We just adjust the amount of over-proof in it,” explains Tober. “But, we often take the Bacardí rum in it, and we infuse it with matcha tea, so it gives it a whole different little bit of flavor kick, and a little tea kick.”
Tober says Nickel City goes the extra mile with custom tiki glassware. The bar turned esteemed Los Angeles bartender Yael Vengroff into a zombie for the eponymous tiki cocktail.
“My artist matches tattoos, which is crazy,” says Tober. “The zombie looks like a zombie version of Yael with tattoos.”
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Tober’s reverence for Easter eggs—hidden objects, not the candy—is on full display with Nickel City’s Mai Tai glasses. Those interested in figuring out the meanings hidden in this custom glassware, which changes each year, will have to visit the bar to check them out.
Menu flips occur once per year, three times if counting the Halloween and Christmas menus. The process begins April 1 and the new menu is dropped August 1. Bartenders who would like to participate are encouraged to do so.
The first step in Tober’s process is to figure out what the bar wants to do, which includes looking at cocktail and consumer trends. Next is identifying Nickel City’s best brand partners. That step can include months of conversations before a final decision is made and is how the bar finally got their Beam Suntory highball machine.
Data plays a large role in the creation of Nickel City cocktail menus. Tober analyzes the past 12 months of limited time offer cocktails to see which worked. He then introduces P-mix for the entire year, assigning a numerical rank to every drink based on its performance.
This process also helps Tober and his team identify the drinks that aren’t working. That data can inform the decision to not just remove a specific cocktail but also a particular category of cocktail.
“We did a Clarified Milk Punch. To be honest, probably not going to do that again. A, it's a pain in the ass to make, B, it's just lost on people, they just don't quite get it,” says Tober. “Maybe it was how we wrote it on the menu, but we learned the lesson that that's not going to work. Onto the next one.”
Events and promotions match Nickel City’s interior, whiskey selection and cocktail program. In other words, they’re unexpected and wildly imaginative.
Just about every day of the week has programming in place, including two big events each month. Tober and the team try to look at least two months ahead—six or more months for major events like Derby Day. But they’re also adept at planning on the fly, and they’re quick to learn from missteps. If a holiday or bar day promotion doesn’t work, they move on.
“When we plan the managers' meeting, we go over what's going to happen next month,” says Tober. “Is there anything that we need to know about? Is it a cocktail day, or whatever? What's something fun we can do? Let's plug in some holes.”
The bar ran a Scotch Month promotion throughout February. Starting February 1, the bar featured one-ounce pours each day of a different bottle poured at cost. Every week there’s also Whiskey Wednesday: two-ounce pours of any whiskey in the bar are discounted 25 percent.
Another promotion features Nickel City’s food program. The bar owns the Delray Cafe food truck and Mondays are $0.79 wing night. Tober is, after all, from Buffalo, NY. He concedes that a wing night isn’t an original idea but like Nickel City’s interpretation of a neighborhood bar, there’s a unique take on this promotion: every month, a different chef creates a wing sauce to be featured. Last month, Edgar Ulysses Rico of Nixta Taqueria crafted a lacto-fermented sauce for the promotion.
Executing this feature doesn’t seem particularly difficult for Nickel City. Being an industry hang and wildly popular neighborhood bar, chefs are among their guests. This highlights the importance of engaging with guests and developing relationships with them, a point raised by our 2020 Brand Ambassador of the Year, Vance Henderson.
“We find these guys by them hanging out in our bar. I'm like, ‘Hey, do you want to make a wing sauce for us?’ Then we trade them gift cards for the wing sauce,” explains Tober. “It's taking that bar food and just giving it that little culinary edge that we don't necessarily have, but we have those people hang out.”
Nickel City transforms into Moe’s Tavern for Halloween. The venue buys in fully, including very specific Simpsons-themed cocktails. The full embracing of the theme has been well worth the effort and expense: Nickel City became a hot topic on Reddit “for a minute,” says Tober, who also received calls from CNN and Fox. Not the local affiliates, the national networks. Their Christmas promotion, Sippin’ Santa, features a tiki theme, three specialty tiki cocktails, and a shot-and-beer combo.
And then there’s the Frozen Irish Coffee.
Since the bar opened its doors in July of 2017, Tober says Nickel City has sold close to 30,000 FICs, making it their best seller. The drink is popular all year, not just during the hot months. However, when temperatures climb above 99 degrees in the summer, the bar offers FICs for a dollar off. Guests seeking out the deal will walk up to the bar, pull out their phones, open a weather app, and show the bartender to get their discounted drink.
There are more than financial benefits to Nickel City’s nearly immediate success. People not only want to work for Tober and his partners, they want to stay. In two-and-a-half years of operation, Tober estimates that they’ve lost just six to eight bartenders.
For the most part, Nickel City’s turnover is due to team members opening their own venues, accepting a job representing a brand, moving to another city, or moving out of the hospitality industry. There has been a hire or two who couldn’t take the pressure of working at a high-volume, highly trafficked bar, or who didn’t appreciate starting as a barback.
Of course, it’s not always a bad thing to lose staff. A candidate may appear perfect on paper but not be a good fit once hired to fill a role. Tober looks at staffing as an opportunity to elevate the brand.
“Always upgrade the staff. That's my biggest thing,” explains Tober. “If you have one person leave, you need to make sure that the replacement is going to be better and do a better job.”
All bartenders begin their careers at Nickel City as barbacks. One current bartender started at the door but wanted to move to the bar team, so he worked as a barback until he was ready to move up. Hiring the right fit and putting them through a training program is crucial because each team member has an impact on the guest experience.
When a bartender comes into Nickel City for a job, it’s all well and good that they have a great Old Fashioned recipe. That’s not good enough for Tober. To him, the team and their guests, what makes one bartender’s Old Fashioned great is starting to make it when the regular whose drink that is steps through the front doors.
“Your Old Fashioned is the best Old Fashioned because it's literally waiting on the bar top right when I walk in the door,” Tober says. “You know that's what I'm drinking. You're already pre-making it. When I walk in and I sit down, you're giving me an Old Fashioned and a high-five."
That high-five is important to Nickel City.
“’High-fives and handshakes,’” says Tober. “That's always been my motto.”
Tober points to how strange the interaction between team member and guest is when it’s time for the latter to leave.
“That's such a weird thing to do,” he says. “Somebody's been hanging out with you for two, three hours. You're like, ‘Okay, here you go. Pay this and get out of here.’”
So, Nickel City tabs are presented with a high-five or a handshake and, after they’re paid, a genuine “Appreciate it.”
“I think somewhere in the last 10, 15 years, we lost that hospitality a little bit, of just being genuine and thanking people,” says Tober. “To me, that's a neighborhood bar.”
Interestingly, it’s not just guests who are on the receiving end of the unexpected. Sometimes the guests themselves are a surprise to Tober and his team. A great example is when Nickel City was featured on a best bars list curated by a Southern magazine called Garden & Gun.
As Tober explains, the readership tends to be wealthy older people. Launch day of that list was big for Nickel City and drew some readers to the bar. Tober remembers a “really nice 6 Series BMW” pulling up and an older couple getting out of it. They checked the name of the bar, walked inside and took seats at the bar.
In terms of any attempt to identify a Nickel City guest, Tober explains that they cater to people aged 21 to 81. Everyone is welcome and it seems that everyone is exactly who shows up at the bar.
“It's what old Austin used to be,” Tober says. “Old people hang out. Young people, old timers...”
His grandfather visited Nickel City three times…at age 96.
Nickel City did between $2.5 and $3 million last year and after reviewing the P&Ls, Tober and his partners decided to expand. Fort Worth will soon have their own Nickel City outpost. People in Dallas wanted the bar to expand to their city, but Tober made a decision based on numbers and a clear understanding of brand identity.
“Sometimes, you just don't go to New York City, you go to New Jersey. The sales are still there,” Tober explains. “We didn't want to go to Dallas because we just didn't think we belonged in Dallas, but people really wanted us to go there. I'm like, ‘No, let's do Fort Worth.”
After doing some research, Tober found that the average age in Forth Worth is younger than in Dallas. He also found that income is about the same between Dallas and Fort Worth.
“Fort Worth is a very proud city, and they're really opening their arms to us,” says Tober.
The second location will be close to double the size of the original. There’s a plan in place for a walk-in tequila and mezcal bar. Should a third Nickel City be in the cards—a strong possibility given the fact that the brand works well and is expandable—Tober says he’d like to include a walk-in tiki bar. Done, of course, in the Nickel City way.
We’re excited to see what Nickel City does in Fort Worth and how their expansion into tequila and mezcal plays out. And should Tober and his partners ever open a third location, we expect great things from the main concept and the walk-in tiki bar. No doubt there will be high fives, handshakes, and Easter eggs galore.