L’Antiquario founder puts ‘context before content’ in Maybe Masterclass

Alex Frezza, owner and founder of L’Antiquario in Naples, was the first speaker at Sunday’s Maybe Masterclasses – a day of addresses by hospitality leaders from around the world.

The sessions were held in Carriageworks and formed part of the Maybe Cocktail Festival. Alex’s talk was titled ‘How The Hell Did I Get Here? 10 Things I Learned From Opening My First Bar’, and he provided candid business lessons from his time in hospitality.

Prior to opening the bar, Alex had worked for a catering company and tried his hand at a school for bartenders. But it was the independence of working for himself that attracted him to first establishing the venue.

“In 2015, I opened L’Antiquario with my partners, because I had enough of doing things for other people and I wanted something for myself,” Alex explained.

Find your dream

Alex says that prior to establishing a venue – you need to find a reason why.

“First of all, you need to dream,” the L’Antiquario founder said.

“If you ever want to open up a bar, the first thing you have to find is a dream, a visual concept of where you want to go.”

Alex gave the example of Attaboy and Milk & Honey in New York as one of the venues that first inspired him when devising L’Antiquario.

“Milk & Honey was one of the bars that revolutionised cocktails in the 2000s… I fell in love with their cocktails – it was a cocktail bar with no menu, the bartenders would ask you want you wanted, the people on the floor were the same people making cocktails, and they only made classic cocktails. Very easy, and you’re always happy there,” Alex continued.

Context comes before content

Image credit: DS Oficina.

Of course, it was not as simple as merely applying what had been successful for Milk & Honey in New York, to a brand-new bar in Naples.

“My thing was, if I want to be good at making cocktails in a city like Naples, I have to do just cocktails. I have to do a format that makes me do just cocktails,” Alex said.

“One really important thing for any business you do is that context comes before content. No matter what your dream is, you mustn’t forget the context you’re in that shapes the kind of thing you can do in your bar.

“Don’t force things that can’t go in your context.”

Explaining further, Alex spoke openly about the myth of personal representation of within his own bar.

“People see the bar L’Antiquario and say: ‘Alex, this bar is perfectly suited for you. This bar is a representation of who you are.’

“That’s not true. And I make them think that because they like it more. But L’Antiquario is just a bar I thought would work very well in a city where cocktails weren’t that common.”

Alex also emphasised the importance of knowing your market when establishing a venue.

“Naples is the third city in Italy for population. This is important when you open up a bar. Statistics are very important, to know how many potential clients you have. [In Naples] it’s 1.2m people.”

Invest in things your customers see, photograph and touch

Alex largely self-funded his bar when he opened it, and he stressed the importance of knowing what to invest in.

“When you have your own money, and you don’t have some investor’s money that you can spend without thinking about it, you have to be very careful where to spend your money, because if you lose it, you’re not getting it back,” he said.

Alex said that when he established the bar he wanted to avoid short term trends that would lose their appeal after a few years.

“So I invested in something that is classic and that everybody likes, which is red velvet and wallpaper.”

Nevertheless, he does confess that he would do things differently if he was opening the bar today.

“If I had to invest again today, I would spend less money on material things in my bar, and more in glassware. Today probably the best marketing tool for a bar is glassware. Why? Because everybody uses Remy Savage’s glasses today. All the cocktails look the same. And what do people market, the first thing about their bar? The picture of their cocktail.

“Intelligent people make their own glasses, and making glasses costs a lot of money.”

Alex showed an example that was close to home for many in the audience: the glasses at the Maybe Group’s El Primo Sanchez.

Image credit: El Primo Sanchez Instagram page.

“Invest in things that your clients can touch. I invested not enough money on the bar, and after eight years, I had to change it because people touch it a lot,” Alex continued.

“Bars are one of the things that get used the most, like public toilets in a train station. People destroy everything. The next bar I do, the toilets will be built like nuclear submarines.”

Whether they will cost $368bn remains to be seen.

Remember – bars are businesses

Throughout his presentation, Alex stressed the continual need to assess the profit-making aspect of every element of the bar, and shared simple ways he has found to eke out a few more dollars.

“A bartender is a businessman,” Alex stated.

“You have to consider yourself a businessman, not someone who makes drinks. You’re a marketing person, and you’re a businessman. Everything you do has to make money. If you’re not making money, you’re wasting time.

“The first thing you can do is sell your service – that is the first thing that is perceived by clients. If you don’t have money for design, or you’re not good at making cocktails – you serve it well, people will pay more money for it.”

Imitation and inspiration

Alex said some of the bars he admired most in the world were those who were famous for one or two drinks, which they were able to produce consistently, at great volume and charge a premium for. He gave the examples of: Harry’s Bar Paris with the Bellini and the Bloody Mary; the Bella Vista San Francisco with Irish Coffees and Ramos Gin Fizzes; Camparino with the Campari Soda; Dukes in London with Martinis.

“When you see a bar that makes four or five cocktails at a time, that means that it makes a lot of money. It’s better for business to make 2000 times the same thing, rather than making 2000 times something different. You make much more money like this.”

What bartenders can do, and should not be afraid of, is copying drinks and concepts.

“No shame in copying cocktails as long as you do it well,” Alex said.

He gave the example of different shades of Negronis served in Nic and Nora glasses, a practice that Bar Termini in London became famed for.

“I copied it and sold a few shades of Negroni… People paid 14 euros for it, but I wanted to charge more. So I called Martini, and I said: ‘Why don’t you sponsor me, and I’ll do a perfect serve.’ I had a 3D-printed little Carousel that moves. Same Negronis, 20 euros.”

The Negroni Carousel at L’Antiquario. Image credit: L’Antiquario Instagram page.

Clearly, Alex’s methods are effective. Eight years after foundation, his venue is thriving, and has revived (or even, established) a cocktail drinking culture in Naples. In 2022, L’Antiquario was ranked at number 46 in the World’s 50 Best Bars list.

L’Antiquario held an event with Drink Kong at Maybe Sammy on 13 April.
The Maybe Cocktail festival concludes today, with events from Bar Termini at Oxford House, and Nutmeg & Clove at Maybe Sammy.
Header image credit: DS Oficina.

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