From the beginning, restaurateur Shawn Bermudez knew that he wanted his next bar to be focused on one thing: having fun. The proprietor of multiple Houston favorites, including Stone’s Throw and the Burger Joint, Bermudez has developed a keen sense of what Houstonians want.
But that didn’t stop him from obsessively considering every single detail that went into Present Company, his wildly popular Montrose watering hole that Eater Houston named bar of the year in 2018. Even though Bermudez and his team worked really hard to create a place that was entirely focused on fun, the vibe here feels surprisingly natural. With cheeky decor and Instagram-worthy cocktails served in La Croix cans, the bar became an instant hit.
That success is due in large part to Present Company’s aesthetic, too. “There was a period of time here everyone was trying to build bars and restaurants that, for lack of a better term, looked like a Restoration Hardware,” Bermudez says. “Everyone wanted a Prohibition-style place with exposed brick and steel elements, and we were just such a departure from that so we stood out.”
In Houston’s increasingly crowded bar scene, where it’s hard to throw a rocks glass without hitting a top-quality cocktail den, being different was half the battle. “There are so many bars opening in Houston, it’s just insane to me,” he says. “I think we have to keep changing. Instead of going out and opening up yet another bar, I try to think of how I can change things up, whether it’s furniture or cocktails or art.”
In the first couple of months, Present Company had to change to survive. When the bar opened, the team quickly realized that its space didn’t have enough room for storage, which meant that Bermudez had to bring in contractors to remodel the space during the weekdays. “Our management team and myself pretty much just didn’t sleep for those first few months,” he says. “Our biggest phase of trial and error was trying to figure out how to streamline things, how to staff better behind the bar with the limited space we have, and I think my staff really did a good job of getting that accomplished in a hurry.
Even though it’s been open nearly a year, Bermudez continues to tweak. He switches up the bar’s living plant wall every six weeks or so, replacing dying plants with more seasonally-appropriate greenery. He’s currently mulling over painting the building an entirely different color, and planning a new Alice in Wonderland themed neon art installation for the space that will debut just in time for Present Company’s first birthday party.
And then, of course, there are the cocktails, which required an even more obsessive commitment to tweaking until each drink was just right. Bermudez enlisted Stone’s Throw bar manager Rex Nielsen to develop the cocktail menu, and the team spent hours figuring out how to make each drink work. They tried at least 30 different milk-based cocktails before finally landing on the Don’t Tell The Butcher, a mix of spiced rum, banana cognac, and coconut milk that’s served in a milk bottle.
After fiddling with the idea of serving cocktails in Capri Sun juice pouches for about three months, the team finally had to give up. “I didn’t want to use a pouch that wasn’t a Capri Sun, because that ruins the fun out of the whole deal,” Bermudez says. “We just could not figure out how to use the little straw and have a cocktail that stayed cold and maintained the presentation of a Capri Sun.”
Then Nielsen suggested LaCroix, the ubiquitous fizzy water, as a different option, and the rest is history. Even that clearly brilliant idea needed refining, though — in the beginning, Nielsen and the rest of the bar staff were making each LaCroix cocktail to order, which quickly proved unsustainable. “It was a nightmare,” Bermudez says. “We started pre-batching them for the most part, and now they’re one of the easier cocktails on the menu.” Now, Present Company serves roughly 1500 cocktails like the Stranger Danger, a mix of watermelon vodka, lime juice, honeysuckle liqueur, and watermelon-kiwi LaCroix, every week straight from the can.
Despite Present Company’s runaway success, and the fact that he’s been presented with multiple offers outside of Houston, Bermudez doesn’t have any plans to open any future locations of the bar. “I’ve never opened a bar with the idea of opening another one that is exactly the same,” he says. “That just never crossed my mind. I don’t want to say I would never open another one, but it’s pretty close to that. I just don’t see myself doing the same bar over and over again.”
This is the latest in a series of features on Eater Houston’s 2018 Eater Awards Winners. Stay tuned for the next, and final, installment.