“We went out on a limb and tried something,” says Kate Gerwin. “It’s been very successful; it’s put us in a position to hope others follow.” She’s referring to the business model behind the bar in Albuquerque, New Mexico, she co-owns with Blaze Montana. The two met in 2009 when Montana came to work at Gerwin’s restaurant in nearby Corrales. After it closed, they spent a dozen years consulting around the country, and then in 2021, they decided to open their own place. They named it after the term that television painter Bob Ross used to refer to mistakes: Happy Accidents.
“We opened many bars for lots of people and saw mistakes we didn’t want to make,” says Gerwin. Chief among them was the typical financial structure. “New Mexico liquor licenses are like $400,000. Starting with that debt and figuring out how to pay staff, we didn’t want to do the same thing everyone else was doing because no one was thriving. I was talking to our broker, and she said, ‘It’s too bad you can’t distill because you could just open a distillery.’”
As it turned out, they could distill. New Mexico is among the states that allow craft distillers to serve cocktails. “But where they focus on actual distilling, we focus on our cocktails,” says Gerwin. “We distill and then purchase our own spirits for the bar, which allows us to operate in a different world,” and one with far better margins.
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights. Sign up for our award-winning SevenFifty Daily Dispatch newsletter—delivered to your inbox every week.
Acquiring that license was essential, but more important was the reason the partners did it: for their workers. “During the pandemic, watching bars close and friends pivot was heartbreaking. We were trying to figure out how we could operate at more of a sustainable level and be more accountable to staff,” says Gerwin.
Happy Accidents employees start off at more than three times New Mexico’s tipped minimum wage (which is just $3 per hour). Tips are pooled to make earnings more equitable. The owners fully subsidize employees’ healthcare and provide family leave. There are opportunities for advancement all the way up to partner, and loads of staff development. “We want our bartenders to learn and grow,” says Montana. “There’s no holding them back and nothing we don’t want them to take part in.”
Manager Tammy Bouma can attest to that. She ticks off skills she’s acquired at Happy Accidents: “Using nonstandard equipment such as centrifuge, but also a still, a plate filter, cartridge filter; the particulars of running a huge draft system; spirits training; basic electrical, plumbing; IT,” she says. Bartenders also get help to create their own spirits, like the winter-spiced amaro Bouma dreamed up—an “awesome” perk, she says. “Staff always comes first.”
That ethos has made Happy Accidents wildly popular. “When they find out your employees are paid a fair wage and being taken care of, people want to come and drop their money in your bucket,” says Amanda Gunderson, the cofounder of the hospitality industry nonprofit Another Round Another Rally. “That’s what happened to Happy Accidents. They’re running one of the best ships in the business,” and with a well-compensated crew.
With the bar garnering so much positive attention, including a 2022 Best New American Bar win at Tales of the Cocktail and Gerwin’s appearance on the television show Drink Masters, tips far exceed elsewhere in town—one of many reasons staff retention is high.
As Gerwin and Montana make plans to parlay their success into a new distillery and a line of ready-to-drink cocktails, they have advice for other bar owners. “Make health insurance non-negotiable. Build it into your business plan. If you say it’s a fixed cost, just like the rent or water bill, you adjust your prices and everything else to make it work,” says Gerwin. “Prioritize your people and set boundaries that are healthy. Owners expect staff to give and give to the point of compromising the integrity of being human. But in order to receive hospitality, you have to recognize the humanity of people serving you. Hospitality is a two-way street.”
Sign up for our award-winning newsletter
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights—delivered to your inbox every week.