Chappell on Community: interview with Minibar's John Dalton
Thu. December 13, 2012 by Terrence Chappell
Minibar is reflective because I like to dress up, go out, and have a nice cocktail.
Similar to other fresh college graduates Dalton hit the ground running at his first job as an analyst for a consulting company. One Internet company buyout, an Internet business crash, and 40,000 lay offs later; Dalton flirted with the idea of working in the nightlife industry and thus decided to apply to Roscoe's. It was at Roscoe's where Dalton learned the ins and outs of the nightlife industry. The industry can be a fast one with easy money and late nights, but from the start Dalton had a plan. When the opportunity arose to open up a place that is now Minibar, Dalton embarked on his business venture – his calling.
Seven years, two businesses, and a marriage later, Dalton has branded Minibar and D.S. Tequila as mainstays that rival the bars and clubs Downtown. He has created successful promotions that keep a loyal following, added to Boystown's commerce development while staying open in questionable economic times, and overall has raised standards for Halsted Street. Dalton opens up about some of his initial challenges of opening Minibar, his marriage, accusations of racial discrimination at Minibar, and more.
TC: (Terrence Chappell) Are you from Chicago?
JD: (John Dalton) I went to Northwestern University but I'm from Houston, TX – born and raised. I came up here because I fell in love with Chicago when I was touring schools and just stayed.
TC: What was it about Chicago that made you stay?
JD: Well first of all Northwestern's campus is gorgeous. It's just right when you see it you fall in love with it. I mean any visitor that comes to this city is just blown away.
TC: Were you out during college?
JD: I was not out during school. I actually came out right after college. It was fine I guess. I had a pretty normal experience. Telling your parents is hard. Telling your friends is easier and being in Chicago helped and was a very supportive place. Working at gay bars was really interesting. (Laughs)
TC: What did you do after you graduated from Northwestern?
JD: I was hired as an analyst for a consulting company. I worked there for about a year. They then got brought out by a big Internet company called U.S. Web, then the Internet companies crashed. Everybody lost their jobs – about 40,000 people. They were based in Chicago. I was previously on a job for Jim Beam. I was pitching to Jim Beam on how to analyze their transportation services and what they do at bars and restaurants. I was working on that for about six months. I thought maybe I'd like to work in this industry and that's when I applied to Roscoe's.
TC: How was it working at Roscoe's?
JD: I just really worked my way up. I ended up being an operations manager for maybe 3 ½ years. I bartended twice a week there and I did a Sunday promotion there for four years.
TC: You really started off at the ground floor in the nightlife industry. How was it like to be a recent college grad, out in a big city, and working in a popular gay bar?
JD: It was exciting. I did find it interesting to work in a bar and to have your work be a part of your play. I was here to take it pretty seriously because I knew from the get go that I wanted this to be a career move not something to get me by at the moment. It's a tough industry. So, I had a plan.
TC: And now you currently own two places on Halsted Street.
JD: Yes. Minibar has been open seven years. When the previous place closed down, I approached a friend of mine of opening up a small bar in its place when the opportunity presented itself. It was just a small bar in the beginning.
TC: What was your original concept behind Minibar?
JD: The vision wasn't to make Minibar so big because the opportunity wasn't there at the time. There was no high-end cocktail lounge in the area at the time. There wasn't really any place for the gay community to feel special, to dress up, to go out to, and to still have that safety net of Boystown. We were in a niche market of not only being gay but also being a dressier place to go. So, we created the café portion of Minibar to fill that space and create dinner options.
TC: So, Minibar is no longer mini and hasn't been for quite some time since your most recent expansion a few years ago.
JD: Yes! Once we expanded, it became harder because we became more of a mass market with almost 300 people as its occupancy. With the back expansion, we had to make it a little bit more dance friendly, open and kick up prices. So, Minibar has changed a little bit from its inception, but that's just the nature of business to change with the times and the economy.
TC: How did your previous experience at Roscoe's help you with developing Minibar?
JD: Roscoe's was already an established location when I started and they had a great promotional program going on at the time. Their management system during the day was good. Everyone knew what they were suppose to do. I have a lot of respect for Roscoe's. I learned a lot.
TC: How was it going from working for a business to now being a business owner?
JD: If anything I didn't know anything about running a business, which I still didn't know when I started Minibar because I wasn't a part of running the business at Roscoe's: paying the taxes, writing the checks, paying employees, or anything like that. That was definitely a learning curve for me. Even little things like restocking the coolers and learning how to assign tasks.
TC: Sort of like a fish out of water?
JD: I was thrown into the fire!
TC: You also have a very good business partner as well. How did you and Stu connect?
JD: Stu use to throw these dinner parties at his house once a week for a good number of years. His dinner parties gained a lot of attention from people around town and magazines even started writing about it. He was before the idea of underground dining. He would invite 15 people to his house. It would be a five-course meal and everyone would have to participate in the meals. My only nights off from Roscoe's were Wednesday nights and so I'd go. I was assigned with bringing parings for the dinner. I had a lot of fun and we just became friends doing it. Stu was definitely at the top of my list of people to work with for when I wanted to open Minibar.
TC: What were some early challenges of being a new business owner?
JD: I feel like it's actually more challenging now. When I first opened Minibar, it was literally me bartending and managing the place with maybe three other bartenders who were my friends. So, it wasn't that complicated. Of course learning about paying taxes and getting payroll done was a little rough. But it wasn't so intense as it is now with so many employees. There is so much more responsibility now especially with expanding three times within four years.
TC: What were the reasons behind expanding so many times in such a short period of time?
JD: Actually a space became available immediate next door but the catch with getting that space was that we also had to eventually move into a space that is now the back bar of Minibar. So, it wasn't something we originally had a business plan for but it was something that we had to do if we wanted the smaller space next door. The expansion changed our entire business plan.
TC: How do Minibar and your most recent bar D.S. Tequila reflect your personality?
JD: Minibar is reflective because I like to dress up, go out, and have a nice cocktail. I like the music aspect and the whole flashiness of Minibar. I love Vegas. I love D.S. Tequila because I have a relaxed side of my personality too and I like the different challenge. Minibar has its own thing. I wanted to try something new with D.S. Tequila.
TC: D.S. Tequila is arguably a sports bar. Are you a sports fan?
JD: I more so like what sports does for people and the environment it creates. I'm a really big atmosphere person.
TC: How would you sum up the Minibar brand?
JD: We bring Downtown to Boystown while D.S. Tequila is much more relaxed and a place to hang out.
TC: Last spring, Minibar came under fire in a Huffington Post article by Nico Lang that accused the business of racial discrimination. How do you respond to that accusation?
JD: I definitely in no way, shape, or form do I have any policy that excludes anyone from the bar except people who aren't customers. I just thought it was a very outlandish comment that the writer had written and very blinded in saying without specifics that we exclude people. We have one of the only black gay pride events on Halsted Street in the city. He had no facts to back it up and people were just jumping on his bang wagon. It's a bigger issue that the writer is talking about that will not be solved easily. I was infuriated by his comment. If someone ever has a problem, write me, John@minibar.com.
TC: How did you get involved with gay black pride?
JD: My good friend James Bradford approached me with the idea of hosting an event at Minibar around gay black pride and raising money for charity. I love doing it and we would like to continue the event.
TC: What are some other charities and organizations you support?
JD: I like to support any organizations that have people who are really passionate. Nothing inspires me more than people who are passionate. If one of the bartenders has an idea for a charity and wants to run with it I'm game. If Lambda Legal comes up and they're really passionate about their cause, I'm here to help, that's what I do. I'm passionate for anyone's cause.
TC: Earlier you mentioned some initial challenges. What are some current challenges seven years after opening up your first club?
JD: Finding free time. Anyone who owns a business will tell you that having a personal life is that hardest part.
TC: Okay, so you're off for the weekend. What do you do? Where do you go?
JD: It's fun to be on a boat in the summer. However, I just like to relax. No cell phones. No contact is really nice. I just really like Chicago, being around Downtown, summer festivals, and the park. I tend to buckle down in the wintertime.
TC: Where are some of your favorite places to hang out in Chicago?
JD: I love what Lettuce Entertain You does for the city. I love all of their concepts. In college I even studied Richard Melman. I've been to RPM twice now. I love Poor House in Old Town.
TC: You're also married.
JD: We've been together ten years now. Our parents never met. So, we wanted an occasion where they would meet each other. Also, when the marriage law was passed in New York, my husband's father, who is a judge in New York, officiated the ceremony. We've been married for a year now.
TC: As a business owner, where would you like to see LGBT nightlife go?
JD: I would like LGBT nightlife to recapture its LGBT clientele. Like I said my competition is different now than it was in the past. I compete more with Downtown's bars and clubs than with bars just on Halsted Street. I have to refocus on how I'm going to make it exciting again for people to come Minibar for the Boystown experience instead of just the Downtown experience. For D.S. Tequila, we have to figure out how to make it a go-to place in Boystown for dining. Why would they come here as opposed to any other place in the city?
TC: What advice would you give aspiring business owners?
JD: Make sure you have real experience with tight budgets, with overseeing people, with time management, and with knowing the bottom line and your brand's concept.
TC: What do you want your legacy to be?
JD: I never really thought about it. To be honest, I really don't care about legacies.
Interviewed by Terrence Chappell
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