Pandemic pivot: Richmond startup brings cocktails to your living room

Bar Chef Cocktail Kits is a startup cocktail kit company that launched during the coronavirus pandemic. (Bar Chef Cocktail Kits)

Thirsting for revenue after the coronavirus pandemic dried up business at his local bartending school, Mike Love got creative.

He recently launched Bar Chef Cocktail Kits, a biweekly subscription service that delivers everything one needs to make a cocktail except the alcohol. The kits then are packaged with virtual happy hour events, in which professional bartenders instruct subscribers on how to make drinks and share the stories behind them.

Love, who owns The Professional Bartending Academy near Willow Lawn, eased into the new venture by offering virtual happy hours in the spring when the pandemic put a temporary stop to the academy’s operations, which consist of bartending education and event staffing.

“Like pretty much every other restaurant, I had to close my doors,” Love said. “I was between a rock and a hard place.”

He thought of ways to do it better after he realized people didn’t have ingredients or the right equipment to participate in the happy hours.

Love said it’s yet another example of a business pivoting in the face of the pandemic.

“The pandemic has opened up more avenues for businesses to explore other revenue=generating opportunities,” he said.

While there are other cocktail kit companies out there, Love said the virtual happy hour element helps set his company apart, providing an engaging way for customers to learn how to correctly make the cocktails and learn about them. Current and former Professional Bartending Academy instructors run the happy hour sessions.

While the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control loosened restrictions on distilleries’ ability to do local delivery, shipping and curbside sales in response to the pandemic, Love said it wouldn’t fly for him to include alcohol in his kits based on current rules. But he hoped the ABC will change its thinking so he can make alcohol delivery part of his operation.

“There’s no ABC license available for companies like mine,” he said. “With the evolution of COVID and the ABC’s reaction to it, it seems they are opening the door a little more.”

The kits come with the ingredients, garnishes, equipment and recipes needed for several cocktails. The weekly virtual happy hours are themed (upcoming themes include “Vodka Week” on July 15, “Aperitif Week” on July 22 and “Whiskey Week” on July 29). Kits run from $44 to $70 depending on portion size and whether bar equipment is included. Bar Chef sells the kits on its website.

Love declined to share his investment in Bar Chef, but did say he’s put up his own money to run it. Bar Chef operates out of the kitchen in Brunch…, a restaurant on Main Street in the Fan. He plans to run both Bar Chef and The Professional Bartending Academy after the pandemic subsides.

Love also now finds himself competing with restaurants, which for the time being are allowed to sell cocktails for delivery or takeout. But he said he’s banking on the niche of selling the experience of creating a cocktail.

“There’s a certain consumer who wants that instant satisfaction,” Love said. “Others want to learn the how and the why.”

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