Hay Merchant, the craft beer bar helmed by Anvil co-owner Kevin Floyd, celebrates it's first birthday today with a huge party that includes tapping 30 rare kegs. The bar combines a smart, constantly evolving list of craft beer with an accessible, well-priced menu. Where some might have found Anvil's early stance against vodka to be intimidating to those just entering the cocktail scene, Hay Merchant is designed to be welcoming to craft beer newbies who want to move on from Shiner Bock and Shock Top to something a little more specialized without committing to diving head first into the world of stouts or sours.
In the interview below, Kevin Floyd and executive chef Antoine Ware discuss the successes and challenges of Hay Merchant's first year and whether craft beer is a fad. At the end, Kevin shares his coolest beer nerd moment.
When did you know you wanted to open a craft beer bar with food?
Kevin: We opened up Anvil. Anvil was really all the Bobby show. It was a lot of his concept. I love cocktails and spirits and all that kind of stuff, but it's not a huge passion for me. If Bobby told me you made a Manhattan by standing on your head, I wouldn't have argued with him and made it. So, the deal we had before we opened up Anvil was, let's do this cocktail bar thing, because we think it's a really cool idea and something we can get into right off the bat. The craft beer thing was something I wanted to do, but I knew the business was all about relationships. And so we had to have time to build the relationships.
I used Anvil to build relationships with distributors and suppliers, to learn the way the market works in Houston, and to hone my skills on that level. It was pretty much from the very, very beginning.
After Anvil had been open for about a year and a half, it got to the point where it didn't require Bobby and me to be there 24 hours a day. We began to think about our second concept. We started looking for property. We were looking for something in the 3,000 to 3,500 square foot range to do a craft beer bar. The food program was going to be dictated by the square footage we found. If the building was big enough to put in a kitchen, we would.
We found this building that was significantly larger than the 3,500sq ft we were looking for. That gave us enough space to put in a full kitchen. It kind of went from there.
What's the guiding principle in terms of how you pick the beers?
Kevin: I pick stuff that I like. I also pick stuff to try to give a balanced approach. We've got 80 taps. The number one principle behind Hay Merchant is the education of as many people as we possibly can. The conversion of people from macro beer drinkers to craft beer drinkers. We build a beer list, which doesn't have any easy off-ramps, there's no Shiner Bock, there's no Shock Top. It's all a little bit challenging, but there's entry level beer. There's Bombshell, there's Fireman's, there's Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I want to have a nice, well-rounded list that offers something for everybody. Things that I really like. Interesting and unique things.
Antoine, let me turn to you. When did you get involved?
Antoine: Chris's last week at Catalan, he asked me did I want to come on board. I didn't know what it was going to be. I said yeah. I trust him. I think I made a great decision.
Were you hired explicitly for Hay Merchant, or were you going to work at Underbelly?
Antoine: Initially, I thought I was going to be at Underbelly.
Kevin: Initially, the conversation was that he was going to come on as Chris's sous, which is the same capacity he had at Catalan, but we decided that would have just been a lateral move. We put him in as the executive chef at Hay Merchant. That opened several different challenges. Chris had the challenge of trying to find a good sous. Antoine was put in the challenge of having to be an executive chef.
Antoine: Not an easy task.
What's been the hardest thing you didn't anticipate about being an executive chef?
Kevin: The paperwork
Antoine: (Laughs). The paperwork and losing pretty good employees. As a sous chef, you get detached from it. As a chef, you're attached, because they're like family. I didn't anticipate that or the load of paperwork Mr. Floyd asks me to do on a daily basis.
How do you feel about the crew you have now?
Antoine: We've finally got a stable dish crew and finally got a stable lien crew. It's just quite a task to find somebody to put out what you want in a timely fashion and (make food that's) pretty good.
How did you create the menu? It's pretty eclectic.
Kevin: The menu's an interesting combination of Antoine's creativity and my administrative demands. The Hay Merchant menu needs to be approachable. It needs to be a lower price point. It needs to be good. It needs to use good ingredients. It's these three things that sound pretty interesting but are very hard (to combine). Those 20 items have to meet these price point needs at these food costs. Oh, and you can't phone the shit in. It's got to be good, too, and you can't just buy frozen stuff. The whole combination is I gave him these rules. Inside the rules, you can do whatever you want to do, but you have to have this many items at these prices. You have to have this cost percentage and blah, blah, blah.
How has the menu changed over time? Is there a dish you thought was going to be really great that never found an audience?
Antoine: There's a couple of them that fell by the wayside. Recently, there was mirliton. In Texas, they call it chayote. It's a squash. I grew up eating them. Some of the guys I work with did, too. No one here knows what mirliton are. Tried it, but that didn't work, so we had to try something else.
Kevin: It's constant. You put stuff out there. You see how it rolls, what the response and execution is.
Because the pig's ears have been a hit from day one.
Kevin: Phenomenal. I thought the JH dog was going to be more popular. The big hot dog we did. I thought that was going to be more popular. What else did we have on the opening menu that we got rid of pretty quick?
Do you still do the queso?
Kevin: The queso flamedo depends on when we can get pig's blood. You can always get frozen pig's blood from Chinatown. You can't get good, fresh pig's blood. That items comes and goes as the blood comes and goes. That's a great item. We'd keep it on all the time if we could get blood all the time.
Would you say the food's gotten better over the year? More consistent?
Kevin: No, I'd say the food's always been good .... Overall, the menu is really great now. The individual food items have always been good, but sometimes you go back and look at our early menus, the philosophy is kind of muddled.
Is there a sentence or two that defines that philosophy?
Kevin: I've always said that our food philosophy is really good, really approachable, New Orleans-inspired bar food.
Do you consider this a beer bar that serves food or a restaurant with a really great beer list?
Kevin: A beer bar that serves food. That's always driven the direction?
Kevin: Correct. It's a beer bar first. The food is a supporting character. I would never describe us a gastropub, because that word is used significantly and incorrectly in this market in a lot of ways. You can't have a gastropub in the U.S., because a gastropub is an evolution of a pub, and we don't have a pub culture. The gastropub movement in the U.K. was unique to the U.K. I think what you see in Hay Merchant is kind of what an English pub is. It's a community-driven location where people can come out and spend time with their neighbors in a public forum. It's a place to get refreshment. It's a place to eat.
Let me ask you about the steak night. How did that get started, and does it still sell out every week?
Kevin: We buy whole animal. We have a full butcher shop in the back. The primals and A-cuts go to Underbelly. The B-cuts go to Hay Merchant, generally in the form of burger grind. At the beginning, we were having an issue with some of the whole muscle cuts, like shoulders and legs, that wouldn't go to Underbelly but were too good to use as burger grind. We had a surplus building up. This is one of the fun things about doing this. You run into unique problems because of how vertically integrated we are with the whole animal butchery stuff. How do we get rid of them? We run a steak night. These cuts are perfect for steak cuts.
The (new) problem becomes the steak night's super popular. We were getting into the better cuts or the worse cuts that should have been used for burger grind. We finally found the solution. We just buy more cow. Instead of buying a whole every two weeks, we buy one every week. Sometimes, in the busy season, it's one and a half per week.
We cut 70 to 90 steaks a week. Our cut count is dependent on our beef situation that week. If we get 90, it's because we had a big cow. We cut as many as we can cut and we sell them. We generally run out between 8:00 and 8:30 p.m.
How many half barrels of beer do you sell?
Kevin: On a good week, I'll empty 50 half-barrels, which is a full size keg, 15.5 gallons. Anywhere between 30 and 50.
Are you still drinking Texas out of casks, or has that stabilized?
Kevin: We increased our cooperage inventory. Now I own 125 of my own firkins. We are basically 100% on our cooperage. We opened up with 25. I instantly bought 25 more. Then I bought 25 more. I figured out I could get a discount if I bought 50, so I bought 50 more. When those 50 turned and started coming back in about two months ago, that's when we finally got over that problem. It took increasing the number of casks we owned by 500% to get caught up.
Can I ask you about the friendly rivalry with Petrol Station?
Kevin: It's not even a rivalry. Ben (Fullelove) and I go back. Petrol Station's been around for about five years. I go out and I hang out. Before we opened Anvil, I would go drink at Petrol Station. Ben and I have a mutual respect for each other as operators. We are completely different individuals in almost every single way. He's a family man we three kids. He's very into recreational ... time. He's that tall, kind of hippy guy, and I'm very different from that. But we're friends.
It's interesting because, out of all the beer bars in Houston, me, Petrol Station and the guys from Liberty Station and Cottonwood for the most part. We're the only straight up independent owner/operators. Everyone else that's running a beer program works for some owner or is, like, a general manager in a corporate chain. Those of are that are independent owner/operators have this shared experience, because we have to do things like sweat payroll, pay the rent and make decisions about electricity providers. On top of running beer programs and doing beer events and all that kind of stuff. Me and Charles and Ben will hang out every now and then.
It's a little different when I hang out with Jake (Rainey) from The Flying Saucer. Jake and I have the general manager thing in common and the beer buying thing in common, but Jake's not worried about trying to find real estate for his bar or pay his rent or any of that kind of stuff. Ben and I have this shared respect for each other. We're one of a few people that deal with that kind of stuff everyday.
It's fun to poke fun at each other. I'm an asshole. I give all my employees a hard time. People will tell you I'm a sarcastic son of a bitch. Ben is the same way. It's just natural that we do it towards each other.
A lot of craft beer places have opened since you have: Mongoose, Cottonwood, Moon Tower remodeled and expanded, the dedicated growler places. Do you worry that it's a fad? That you were at the beginning of a trend?
Kevin: I think there's a bubble. Craft beer bars and craft beer in Texas is going through a bubble expansion right now. There's going to be a lot of people that get involved because they think it's a good business model. When the bubble pops, those of us who are good operators, run good programs, and actually care about craft beer are all going to survive and probably not even notice the bubble popped.
Those people who got in just because they think it's a good business decision, don't really understand craft beer, don't really care about the market, they'll close. That's just the reality of it.
The bubble will pop on the producer side, too. There's a ton of new breweries coming to Texas. There are some phenomenal one. Karbach hit the scene ridiculously well. I really like what the guys from Deep Ellum are doing. There's a lot of other breweries that suck and have no right to be brewing beer. They will not survive. The good ones will.
What's the two or three coolest beers you thought you were going to get in? What's the coolest beer geek moment you've had?
Kevin: I'm really liking the barrel aged stuff we're getting. Either the ones we're barrel-aging in house, which I think is unique within the market, no one else is doing that. The collaboration stuff we're doing is really cool. Because of my relationships with Anvil and Underbelly, we touch the liquor industry and the wine industry. We can use those relationships to procure barrels that generally would not find their way into the beer business. I get these barrels and partner with breweries. The first one we did was a collaboration with Southern Star three years ago with a Buffalo Trace barrel. The very last keg of that will go on tap for the anniversary party. You yield some really interesting beers from me being the middle man between a winery and a brewer. I guarantee the brewery I'll buy 100% of that barrel content whether it's good or not.
The Karbach bourbon barrel aged Rodeo Clown we did was the inspiration for their first anniversary beer Bodacious. That first whiskey barrel we did with Southern Star has inspired them to take on a whole barrel-aging program, and they'll be putting out a lot more barrel-aged stuff. That's really exciting for me as a craft beer nerd. To know that I was the person who helped make it possible for these beers to become more widely produced.