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- DANIEL HILL
- Open Concept’s pay-by-the-hour structure attracted national attention, but can the model hold up to a systematic stress test?
I visited Open Concept on a Wednesday, arriving with a Riverfront Times editor/designated driver at 4:14 p.m. to begin my three-hour block of drinking. The bar, brightly lit by the afternoon sun, was fairly empty at such an early hour, with only one other pair of customers in attendance. Projectors and flat-screen TVs lined the walls, soundlessly playing the likes of Bad Boys II, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie and Real Housewives of Somewhere or Other while Erykah Badu's 1997 hit "On & On" oozed through the bar's speakers. A smoke detector with a low battery chirped overhead.
When I showed up, I was first asked to show my ID and to fill out a short profile on an iPad with my name and phone number, which are both integral to the bar's point-of-sale system. I'd purchased my time in advance, so all they had to do was pull up my order. After receiving a text message from the bar announcing that my time had begun, I was free to imbibe to my heart's content.
Open Concept's menu is split into two sections, one for $10-an-hour drinkers — comprising large-batch proprietary drinks with names such as "Lou Juice," "Mango Bliss" and "Rum Punch" as well as wine, beer and several traditional cocktails — and one for those willing to pony up $20 per hour, mostly made up of straight shots of higher-end liquor. At the end of the bar, a small cocktail station with several mixers and varieties of fruit afford those in the latter camp the ability to create their own drinks. (As thriftiness is paramount for this experiment, I obviously chose the former.)
After looking over the menu, I announced that I believed I could consume all twenty drinks on the $10 side before my time was up. I was greeted with skepticism.
"The good news is we have Pedialyte for the end," one bartender quipped.
I started at the top of the menu — the section filled with proprietary mixed drinks. A Lou Juice came first, and was fruity and sweet and tasty, followed by a Raspberry Bliss, which also leaned heavy on sugar and fruit elements and also tasted fine, and then a Mango Bliss, which I did not enjoy.
In the interest of expediency, I'll just rank the specialty drinks from best to worst: 1. Rum Punch 2. Lou Juice 3. Raspberry Bliss 4. Mango Bliss 5. Strawberry Wine Punch. (The bar was out of the sixth and final specialty drink, Vess and Vodka, so I was unable to rank it, but I presume it tastes a bit like a mixture of clear liquor and generic soda. Just a hunch.) I moved on from that portion of the menu and onto the traditional cocktails, beginning that section with a vodka and club soda, which went down easily enough.
At this point, I was six drinks in, and only about a half-hour had passed since my arrival, setting me up for an average of twelve drinks per hour. So far, so good. Amused with myself, I logged onto social media and posted a picture of the bar, along with a message:
"I've been here for 30 minutes and I've already had six drinks. There is so far no sign of concern from staff RE my health or well-being."
This would prove to be an ill-advised, catastrophic error. But more on that later.
As I moved on to my seventh drink, a vodka and cranberry, I began to hit a wall, consuming it much more slowly than the previous six. Midway through my beverage I removed my glasses and put my head in my hands while rubbing my eyes, according to my designated driver. Minutes later, a member of staff — LaKeySha Bosley, interestingly enough, a state representative in Missouri's 79th House district — approached the table and set a small cup filled with Pedialyte in front of me. It was 5:36 p.m. and I had officially been cut off. I was told I would not be served any more drinks until I was no longer "visibly intoxicated."
I tried to advocate for myself, insisting that I was a special breed of drunk who could safely consume twenty total drinks over the course of three hours. "Look at me, I'm enormous," I said.
But Bosley was unmoved. "We don't body shame here, so I'm gonna walk away," she replied.
As I twiddled my thumbs and waited to no longer be drunk enough to set off alarm bells for staff, something unexpected happened: Michael Butler himself, owner of the bar, recorder of deeds, strode in through the front door dressed in a blue suit. After speaking briefly with staff he turned and approached our table directly and addressed me by name, asking me if I was working on a story. Reader, I had been made.
It would seem that my posting on social media had come back to bite me in the ass. I'd later find that a mutual internet friend tagged Butler under my status. Presumably, Butler saw my post and headed up to the bar to make sure my health and well-being would be a priority going forward.
A fair amount of time had passed since I'd been cut off, and I was allowed to order the next drink on the menu, a whiskey and Coke, while Butler was there. Afforded the opportunity to talk with him on the record about his business, I hit start on a recorder and asked if he was concerned about over-serving guests.
"Absolutely. We take it very seriously," Butler replied. "That's why our bartenders are always watching. We make it a point of, the $20 option, the shots, we let people get two shots in a row but nothing more than that. We will generally tell people that they can have one shot and then one drink, almost back to back, but if you get two shots or one shot and then a drink we don't let you come back to the bar for some time. Our bartenders will tell that person, 'You're moving too fast.'"
"So I had six drinks in the first half hour," I replied.
"That's not normal," Butler said. "I will tell you something, you have been a very good customer to us if you bought three hours — and it sounds like you got your money's worth with six drinks."
I explained to Butler that my plan had been to consume the entire $10 menu over that three hours but his kindly staff's insistence that I cease drinking had thrown a wrench in the gears. He registered his disbelief that anyone would be able to physically complete such a task, to which I insisted that I'm a pro but conceded that it was probably wise to cut me off before I could do so.
"We're required to do that," Butler said. "She mentioned that at some point you became visibly intoxicated, and we're required by law to shut you off. That's how we do it. I'm glad the system is working."
I finished my whiskey and Coke — my eighth overall alcoholic beverage of the night — and tried mightily to talk my way into a ninth, but Butler would not be moved. As he left the building he waved his hand across his neck, giving the signal to staff that I was done for the night. I departed shortly after.
Later that evening, I peeked at social media and noticed that Butler had since shared my status from earlier in the night, with a message of his own:
"Our Open Bar Concept is not a challenge and should not be treated as such. Our experienced bartenders shut Mr. Hill off after he became visibly intoxicated. He was in our space with friends and had a designated driver. We applaud you Mr. Hill for thinking ahead about your safety."