A funny thing happened in the midst of the pandemic. Karl Franz Williams, one of the world’s top mixologists (point blank) and his businesses began thriving in ways that that they hadn’t before. One could call it a case of the three R’s. Not reading, writing, and arithmetic (Williams received his undergraduate degree from Yale—so, that’s covered). But, rather, Recuperation; Renewal; and Recognition. These three R’s ushered in a plethora of growth and opportunity for Williams in a world that, for most—and particularly restaurateurs—remains mired in uncertainty.
Williams first recovered literally—after contracting COVID-19 in the spring. Like Isaac Newton, Frida Kahlo, and Matisse—who had inventive breakthroughs during forced bed rest or quarantine—Williams used his convalescence productively. “Once I got COVID, I basically became a researcher,” he says. “That was my job—just doing tons of research when I wasn’t sleeping.” This positioned him to pivot once he recovered.
Like most people, and businesses, at the start of the pandemic he was in survival mode. Williams owns two restaurants: the lauded cocktail bar, 67 Orange Street, in Harlem, New York and, the iconic, Prohibition-era, vintage-celebrity favorite, the Anchor Spa, in New Haven, Connecticut.
He and his team kept both afloat through cocktail kits; takeout and delivery; and collaborations. He notes: “Collaboration is key for survival.”
Since his last full-time role in branding and beverage innovation at PepsiCo, Williams has launched four businesses (starting with Society Coffee, 2005, as well as Solomon & Kuff Rum Hall (S&K) in 2015—both Manhattan locations now shuttered). Beyond startup seed, he notes, “The one thing I’ve never had is the amount of capital I needed.”
Then came CARES Act relief: The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). As Williams puts it, though some found it challenging: “Loans that anybody could get.”
Along with receiving an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL), he elaborates, “One of the reasons why I’ve been able to do as well as I have during the pandemic and to be in a solid place right now is because the pandemic provided some of the most democratic and easy access to capital, certainly at any point in my lifetime and my business lifetime.”
He’d already been recalibrating his businesses pre-pandemic, closing S&K (“the best decision”) and using a “playbook” he’d mastered (helping 67 Orange Street survive its opening, just as the 2008 financial crisis hit), in order to stabilize and rebuild Anchor, “brick by brick.”
Loans in hand, he says, “We were able to quickly level up to the level we were heading to—but that we hadn’t gotten to yet.”
Twelve years in, he says of 67 Orange Street, “We’re one of the oldest [new-guard] cocktail bars, but we have not been recognized the way that some of the other bars that have been here that long have.”
He notes that 67 Orange Street has “never even been nominated” at Tales of the Cocktail, one of the spirits industry’s preeminent conferences.
This despite Williams being a graduate of The Bar, a rigorous five-day course and exam, “similar to becoming a sommelier of cocktails and spirits,” that “just a few hundred people” have graduated from—"a handful” of them Black.
“I feel like there is very poor recognition of Black folks and places—and what they are doing,” he says, “particularly in craft cocktails.”
Yet, once more, 2020’s grey clouds have a silver lining: “I would argue that one of the great things about the pandemic and this BLM thing,” he says, “is a lot more people want to hear from me than ever before, and they want to talk about me and write about me.”
After reading an interview with Williams in the spirits-industry publication, SevenFifty Daily, where he also spoke about imbalances in recognition and rewards for Black mixologists and hospitality owners, David Kaplan, co-owner of cocktail-bar competitor, Death & Co, reached out. Williams and Kaplan did a charitable event in November, where each bar’s bartenders swapped places for two nights to highlight diversity and collaboration.
"It was really genuine and cool,” says Williams.
Perhaps there should be a fourth “R”…Reset. In the wake of the economic and racial inequities that 2020 further amplified, the hospitality industry can’t continue doing business as usual—and needs to reboot.
"I don’t make a habit or an effort about griping. And about saying: Oh, I don’t get my shine because I’m Black,” says Williams. He continues, “The restaurant business is tough—and it’s tough for everybody. That doesn’t mean there aren’t people who deserve to get more recognition and opportunity—and, given the same amount of cash, can do as much or better."
Citing the usual litany of reasons trotted out for why Black hospitality establishments are not doing well (e.g., service or professionalism), Williams says, “I’m calling bullshit on that. You need capital to be successful. And you need exposure.”
He continues, "We, as Black entrepreneurs, are extremely talented. We can do things. We’ve got that hustle. We’ve got that drive. We know how to make things happen."
When it comes to capital and exposure, Williams says of his own 2020:
“Right now, what’s happening? I’m getting both. I’ve got capital. I’ve got access. And we’re getting recognized. And the results are showing in our numbers and what we’re doing.”
The irony isn’t lost on him that “finally after all these years,” it all came together for him “with the help of a pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.”
What’s next? For Williams, greater diversification: a delicious, premium, bottled ginger beer—out early 2021; a semi-autobiographical, Harlem-focused cocktail book (only one other cocktail book written by a black author has been published in the last 100 years); more real estate investments; and putting his “money, and experience, and direction behind smart folks who have great ideas.”
Says Williams, “If we never win a plate at Tales [of the Cocktail] for anything that I do—OK.” Shrugging, he adds, “But there are a lot of great bars with [trophy] plates from Tales of the Cocktail that are no longer open.”
His final word on recognition: “I’m not the person who walks around looking for handouts. I don’t need people to necessarily validate me.” He adds, “The greatest validation is having people walk into my places and be extremely happy, enjoying themselves. That—and seeing the register ring.”