Defying all Odds

Amongst some of the biggest names in the industry, trendy five-star hotel bars and trend-setting venues was the name of our little Mexican bar nestled deep in the heart of Saint Petersburg. Coming in at No. 39 after we opened only three years ago is a massive achievement in itself, but the story behind El Copitas Bar makes it nothing short of incredible. The fact, also, that we have made the top 100 list every year since opening makes this tale near unbelievable. 

And many did question how a year of work could convince experts from all over the world to remember and name El Copitas again and again. Many people are convinced that we have invented a lot of the story, just to make some noise. But it is all true. A car was indeed stolen, I really slept on the table for two months, and we indeed borrowed chairs from other bars, as we had no seating on our launch night, and sold back to our first guests the alcohol they had gifted us for the opening – it all happened.

It doesn’t matter where you live and where you work, you must believe in something. Besides, people have always loved fairy tales, and here everything happened for real. In some way, it was a utopia. But one way or another, in 2016, a year after an opening that cost us one million roubles ($21,500AUD), a Saint Petersburg basement bar appeared 76th, then 70th and finally 39th on the World’s 50 Best Bars list. 

Who/What is El Copitas?

It’s getting more and more hyped up. Sometimes, it actually feels a little too uncontrolled. There are a lot of wannabe best bars with no concept or knowledge of what they are actually doing. It’s likely because starting a bar business here is a lot more affordable than anywhere else in the world, so a lot of bartenders who have dreamt about becoming an entrepreneur can try their luck in Saint Petersburg. 

When bartenders travel more, they are exposed to new ideas that they can bring back to Russia to inspire others. We try to help the industry experience such exposure, and so we recently launched a bar school called Bartender’s FAQtory to share the knowledge and experience of the world’s bartending community. 

We’ve been called before ambassadors of Saint Petersburg and its bar culture. I’m not sure how true that is, but we are certainly trying to promote the city, its hospitality and its heritage.

Why did you choose Saint Petersburg?

To understand exactly why you need to consider the history of alcohol distribution in Saint Petersburg. (Insert my teacher diploma here..)

19th Century – The Beginning of the 20th Century

During this period, Saint Petersburg was the capital of the Russian Empire and the official residence of the numerous royal family members. So, the most luxurious and fancy establishments were founded here. This was the true era of imperial hospitality, with a seemingly endless amount of fashionable, A-class restaurants employing the best hospitality professionals from around the world. Many of the best restaurants in the city had American style bars attached, and the most skilled bartenders and managers were invited from all over the world to host the nobles. The influence of European culture and the European mindset was stronger than ever.

The Revolution of 1917 and the Whole of the 20th Century

Russian representatives and Soviet Union intelligence officers attended dive bar-like drinking dens such as Ryumochnue. These communal canteens could be found everywhere. For the most powerful and respected people of society, there were the exclusive ‘special places of joy and endless fun...’

There was also a large number of bars for international tourists (Intourist Bars) where cocktails, punches and all styles of mixed drinks were being served, even during the Soviet years.

The Beginning of the 21st Century Until Now

Now, Saint Petersburg is once again the cultural capital of the biggest country in the world and the most visited Russian city by tourists. The globalisation era and influence of Instagram has spread trends across the globe at the touch of a button. 

There are a lot of migrants moving to Russia from Europe and the USA, and a lot of new international hotels, restaurants and enterprises popping up.  From this cultural exchange, there is a new cultural phenomenon for the Russian HoReCe industry called bar hopping or bar crawling. 

After the sanctions from the USA and the EU saw an import ban of quite a few essential products for the bar business and the collapse of the rouble in the autumn of 2014, there was a rise in the use of products utilising national ingredients, such as different liqueurs, ratafias, tinctures and bitters.   

At the same time, with our passion still strong for the industry, we realised that the young and welcoming Saint Petersburg bar scene was a space of opportunity (due to the comparatively lower rents than Moscow, the softer laws and the more grateful guests).  We could also see that our city was much more desirable for the brands, events and different bar shows that other Russian cities. 

If we compare Saint Petersburg to Moscow, Moscow is extremely expensive and, as a result, venues are not focused on following a concept but rather on trying to make a profit. Bars and restaurants fight for every penny and to win over the majority of the audience by any means possible. To do this, you need to appeal to everyone: the provincial girl hopping from a restaurant to a bar just to get the Instagram picture; the 90-year-old money-bags who wants everything to appear respectable and classy, and the ultra-fashionable hipster with no clear preferences. Of course, not every place is like this, but Moscow is mostly about margin and not about the concept.

Whereas Saint Petersburg is truly a northern Venice, built by an Italian and sung by the Russian classics. It is a hotpot of insanity, creativity and idle self-indulgence. You can feel the history of titanic labour and slavery pulsating beneath the beautiful facades. It is the embodiment of all forces in this world, created for beauty and greatness.  

All these circumstances have united to give bartenders the opportunity to start their own ventures with strong feelings of optimism and hope.

What difficulties/ challenges did you face, from concept phase through to the actual bricks and mortar?

Igor Zernov, Nikolav and I are unique and have entirely different personalities. In saying that, we are from the same generation and we knew each other pretty well before working together. It was difficult at first, starting your lifelong dream with two others that you’ve never even worked a shift with. We promised each other to open our doors on the 1st of January 2015.  The import ban from the USA and EU was three months before trade and we were without access to the best-imported products. Simultaneously, I, (Artem) got divorced, Nikolay got fired, and Igor’s car had been stolen. 

We realised we’d come to only a month before the opening and we had nothing. We scavenged every coin we could. We’d promised each other to open those doors, and we were staring down the barrel at one of the most incredible challenges of our lives.

We created the hashtag #onemonthonemillionroublesonebar on Instagram, and we set about the task. I’m not going to lie, it was unbearable, but we made it.

This was at the peak of the economic crisis; we had no idea what to do, no stuff and absolutely no money. Half of the stores around us were closed because of the skyrocketing prices and terrible currency rate. One day out before opening, the bar had only a small supply of under-the-table tequila and mezcal; a table (that I was sleeping on at the time); a simple, homemade tablecloth; and no chairs. Why have a big table if you cannot physically sit down at it?  We had no money and, as a consequence, no chairs.

This is where the generosity of Saint Petersburg’s bar scene came to light. Honestly, this story still shocks me when I tell it today. We simply went from one bar to another and begged them pitifully to let us borrow at least one chair for the opening. It was incredibly awkward and embarrassing, but almost everyone gave us a chair without  any questions asked. We didn’t expect this level of hospitality, and every time we’d step into a new place, we were wondering if we’d leave with another chair. Of course, initially, they all laughed and thought it was a silly joke, but the fact remains that every time we left with a chair. 

This proves one major thing: the entire Saint Petersburg bartender community is a family. There are no isolated establishments. All the existing and emerging venues are part of one greater community. We are immensely grateful to those bar owners and managers that believed in us at that moment and helped us out or just wished us luck. Gestures like that showed Igor, Nikolai and I, that people sincerely believe in El Copitas Bar and it has, since, given us the strength to see this through, not to let down not only each other but all those who contributed. 

So, on January 1st 2015, El Copitas Bar opened. How did it go?

It was an absolute victory. The number of visitors far exceeded our expectations: friends, colleagues and acquaintances all wanted to personally congratulate us on the fact that, despite everything, we had not given up. Of course, it was hard. At some point, we were even selling our friends the alcohol they had given us for the opening. You can’t get any lower than that…

Even though a lot of our guests were literally sitting in their own chairs, drinking their own tequila, everyone was very understanding. It was a clear expression of the loyal spirit of Saint Petersburg.

The concept of El Copitas was also something that proved a challenge from the very beginning. Due to the sanctions, any mezcal or agave spirit was entirely banned and, almost, unreachable. We were the first 100 per cent illegal bar, with an illegal spirit collection brought to us in parcels and boxes by our guests. No one else had even thought about bringing alcohol into the city. Sometimes we were so scared that we couldn’t even open our door for a new guest if we didn’t know them by name or face. Being afraid the police could close our venue at any minute, we realised the importance to learn all of our guests by heart – their habits, names, friends and preferences.

But we’ve survived and managed to persuade importers to bring mezcal into Russia. We’ve now secured around 10 brands within 3.5 years. The spirits issue is not the result of prohibition or the literal banning of any spirits. It is a matter of the little profit and the tax rate attached to importing a product. Often, you can’t find beverages that are readily available to get in ANY grocery store in Europe or Australia. While the product is common for the Southern European market, for example, it still can be unknown in Russia. So the importers are not going to risk putting their bets on bringing in risky spirits unknown to the market. Nobody would ever buy it. 

That was the situation with mezcal. Distance is an issue. Russian’s don’t know or aren’t educated on mezcal so, as a result, there was no demand. But after two years of struggling, persuading our friends, family and acquaintances to bring bottles in their luggage, we are reaching (I hope) the certain level of accessibility of these exotic products.  

Another of our biggest challenges was sourcing raw ingredients and fresh products. Saint Petersburg is the most northern city in the world, with the population well above one million people. You just can’t get a robust avocado here 365 days of the year, like Australia. So, we ended up resolving this issue by launching a new cocktail menu every other week.

This method ensured better flavours and made sense, cost and logistics wise. And the idea worked. We recently had our 196th ‘Menu of the Week’. It keeps our guests intrigued and presents a small, exciting challenge for us.  

Is El Copitas a members bar, or how does it work regarding clientele?

We are open only Thursday, Friday and Saturday and you must call before coming in. That’s rule number one. You can book for a maximum of six people, and you need to arrive right on time. You will then be greeted at the gate by one of our staff, with your copita in hand, who will escort you inside and host you as best they can.

In the middle of the venue, we have a large concrete table- the centerpiece of our bar. This is not something Russians are used to, as practically all the guests sitting around that table are forced to look at each other and engage in conversation. 

You could say that no matter in which of the 33 seats in the venue you’re sitting, you just cannot avoid looking at someone. For Saint Petersburg, this is very uncomfortable. Locals believe there is nothing more terrible for their melancholic and closed mentalities than to start talking to each other. The city is a landscape of granite, marble and, most importantly, leaden clouds that know no end. This altogether creates a certain melancholic streak in its inhabitants that inspires solitary meditations. That’s why people in Saint Petersburg sometimes go to a bar not just to drink, but also to present something, either to the world or to themselves. Our bar promotes a non-standard approach – to come, chat, drink and leave. With the set up of the table and a bar station at one end, with an active and chatty bartender, you have to communicate at El Copitas Bar. 

For us, it was a bit of an experiment: will all these thoughtful and complex people sit opposite each other? In fact, many did not want to. But we made them do it with the reckless hope that sooner or later interaction and contact would begin. 

We have adopted some things for the Russian consumers, like the traditional Mexican food we offer. We serve tacos, burritos, quesadillas, meatballs, a whole variety of soups and nachos. 

We also have no managers, hostesses or waitresses. We have only bartenders that are flexible in their roles every night. Everyone does everything.

What was it like being the first venue from Russia to speak at Tales Of The Cocktail 2018?

That was an extraordinary experience! 
To be a young, immature bar representing a huge market and a great culture on an international level is humbling. What else could we dream of? It gets more exciting each day, if you keep in mind that our place is still only semi-legal and someone could already be knocking on our door to shut us down while we’re showing off on the stage!

What does the future look like for El Copitas?

Hopefully, El Copitas family booming in Australia!

(Editor's note - article written for Barfly Australia magazine)