Photo by RDP3 Photography

A Bar for All

In Eat, February 2020 by Tracy Jones1 Comment

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No matter if you’re a teetotaler or you like a tipple, Killjoy will offer a totally unique drinking experience.

There’s never been a better time to be a consumer: whether we’re talking build-your-own burrito bowls or luxury cars, custom-designed sneakers or vacation packages, these days, we’re placing a premium on purchasing exactly what we want.

So, why should our cocktails be any different? 

This spring, Zack Thomas and Josh Gagne, longtime fixtures in Raleigh’s bar and hospitality scene, will open Killjoy, a bar designed to custom tailor a cocktail experience for each individual guest who walks through the door. Located in the building at 116 North West Street across from Clouds Brewing—a space seasoned Raleighites will remember as the erstwhile Blue Martini—Thomas and Gagne say the concept, for the Raleigh market, is one of a kind. 

“We will initiate a conversation with each guest to figure out their particular tastes and guide them through our drink building process,” Thomas explains. If a guest can’t speak with a bartender directly, he says, they can fill out an order pad with options for spirit, style and complexity. “This will ensure that the guest receives the same amount of attention on a busy Saturday night as they would on a slow Tuesday afternoon.”

Another selling point? Guests who don’t want to imbibe have the option to buy a delicious drink that’s completely spirit-free. 

Zack Thomas | RDP3 Photography
Zack Thomas | RDP3 Photography

For Thomas, that point is personal. Though he’s worked behind bars all over downtown Raleigh, and with Chapel Hill’s Crunkleton and as a brand ambassador for Durham Distillery, Thomas has been practicing sobriety for two years. Thomas says his path to sobriety wasn’t easy, given his past and choice of career, but that it was a decision he had to make for his health and to achieve balance in his life. 

“If you want to be completely dedicated, recognize what’s working for you and what’s not working for you,” Thomas says. “It’s intimidating.”

A Raleigh native, Thomas grew up on Hillsborough Street, in and out of bars including Pantana Bob’s, Players Retreat, Crowley’s and East Village where his dad worked as a bartender. 

“My daycare as a kid would be going to bars, helping him set up, and my mom would pick me up after working at NC State,” Thomas says. “I have a unique perspective.”

It’s a perspective that served him well as he decided to enter the family business, landing at Foundation where he honed his craft building creative cocktails using only American spirits and, later, as the bar manager at Crawford and Son. But when Thomas’s son was born four years ago, Thomas says he started to think about making some changes. 

RDP3 Photography
RDP3 Photography

“I felt the only answer to being a good father was to get a 9 to 5 job,” Thomas says. So he took a position at the City of Raleigh Museum and enrolled in school full-time. “That only lasted a semester because I missed being behind a bar so much.”

Eventually, Thomas decided to give sobriety a try. He joined Ben’s Friends, a food and beverage industry support group for professionals struggling with substance abuse and addiction. Thomas got to know Scott Crawford, the co-founder of Ben’s Friends and founder of the Raleigh chapter, and he connected with others in the local industry facing similar daily struggles.

“I was pretty alone in being a bartender,” Thomas says. “What do you do if someone offers you a shot?”

But he persisted, taking the view that, for him, alcohol functioned as a food allergy.

“I felt I had some anxiety associated with my job and alcohol was getting in the way of being able to address it,” Thomas says, “Also, I’ve lost 50 pounds. I have so much more money now and I have mental clarity.”

Guarav “G.” Patel, the owner of Eschelon Hospitality and another longtime fixture in Raleigh’s bar and hospitality scene, says he’s seen a rising interest in practicing sobriety among young people. Patel, who himself has been practicing sobriety for nine months now, has served as a consultant to Thomas and Gagne on the Killjoy concept. 

“It’s about a balance,” Patel says. “It’s about having the right balance, practicing wellness and having the option. That’s really it, not just having to say, ‘I’ll have a soda water with cranberry juice on the side.’”

RDP3 Photography
RDP3 Photography

Along with design-your-own cocktails and spirit-free drinks, Killjoy will offer a selection of traditionally prepared, frozen, draft and bottled original cocktails featuring in house specialty ingredients. A list of quick classics will be posted up behind the bar for convenience and the owners will maintain a database to help bartenders decide how to create drinks based on customers’ stated preferences, “allowing them the freedom of creative expression,” in Thomas’ words. 

Patel compares the Killjoy experience to dining in a high-end restaurant where you can describe exactly what kind of dish you’d like and the chef will prepare it for you according to your tastes.

“It is very much a new concept for Raleigh, for North Carolina,” Patel says. “This is about being hospitable to anybody, and everybody, filling a void we believe is here in the market and enhancing Raleigh.”

For non-drinkers like Thomas, Killjoy will be a welcome addition to the city’s bar scene. 

“I don’t hate alcohol whatsoever,” Thomas says. “Sobriety doesn’t have much to do with being a bartender, it isn’t as hairy as people make it out to be. It all boils down to whether you trust yourself or you don’t. There are the same problems I had when I was drinking. But now, I don’t have the ability to drink them away and forget about them.”

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