Matthew Landan is preparing to finish and present his dissertation for a master’s in English in the fall, but the owner of Haymarket Whiskey Bar should be standing instead for his MBA.
The founder of Derby City Espresso, a coffee shop at located 329 E. Market, Landan burned out working as the operator and sole barista at the quaint shop. Never achieving the sales he needed to survive, his cash flow also turned to ashes, so he converted that space into what became a highly regarded bourbon geek and alternative music bar.
He’s smartly continued to tweak the lineup of live music acts, added hard-to-find spirits to his voluminous collection, brought in throwback pinball machines, and taken other measures to steer the quirky-cool operation into smooth and profitable seas.
Its well-regarded status as a premier Urban Bourbon Trail stop with more than 200 whiskies available has set the crowd mix at Haymarket at 70 percent tourists and 30 percent locals. Its location near hotels helps that, to be sure.
The overall struggle to make the business a viable entity, said the affable and loquacious Landan, taught him to look for entrepreneurial opportunities, one that includes his dream of owning a Chicago-influenced Jewish delicatessen in the open space next door at 327 E. Market.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think something like a deli would be part of my business,” said Landan, a Chicago native. “But that’s part of the dream now, something that’s a bit down the road, but in serious discussion with the landlord.”
Landan’s latest clever twist to his business is the addition of package liquor sales, an update made in June. If that doesn’t sound dramatic consider this: After 7 p.m., when nearby liquor and wine shops close, drinkers can’t get a good bottle of booze on the hoof without venturing out as far as the Highlands, 15th and Broadway or Old Louisville.
“So if you’re a traveler who either wants a bottle to take back to your room—or a really special bottle to take back home—where are you going to go that’s right outside of your downtown hotel?” Landan said. “What we’ve got here takes care of that. This is about convenience.”
The package liquor sales license cost Landan $5,000, which is renewed annually for the same amount. His other liquor-centered licenses are renewed annually as well, running his total to $12,000. (So the next time you think bars are charging a fortune for a drink, factor those numbers into your calculus. Gubment do take a bite, don’t she?)
“No, I don’t like the cost either, but it’s an investment in the business that I think will generate a good return once more people know about it,” he said. “And here’s the way I look at it: I buy cases of liquor for the bar, and I don’t put them all on the bar. Some bottles can go in the (package) cabinets, and I get a chance to sell them that way.”
Once inside Haymaket, one sees the cases immediately to the right. Shelves are lined mostly with great bourbon—including Haymarket’s own Four Roses single barrel pick ($60 per bottle)—some rye and Scotch, and a bottle or two of gin and tequila.
Landan’s ideal package customer would come to the bar, choose a drink from an opened bottle before committing to a full one. He said he prefers to take customers through an exploration of spirits so they can find what’s interesting to them.
“I’ll sell them whatever they want, of course, but I’d like to sell them something they’re familiar with,” he said. “Now, however, I get to tell customers stories about bourbon and whiskies and Scotch and get them excited about it. They can now leave with a bottle and with a story.”
If all goes well, they also could be leaving with some Chicago Jewish deli food as well.
Landan is in discussions with building owner Gene Rosenstein to lease 3,000 square feet next door to Haymarket. The deli would open at 6 a.m. for coffee and light breakfast, and then begin serving classics like matzo ball soup, pastrami sandwiches—“that you can’t fit into your mouth for one bite,” he said—sliced tongue, brisket, Vienna beef Chicago-style hot dogs—“Yeah, I love the neon-green relish on mine; I’m from Chicago after all!”—Italian beef sandwiches au jus, sweet and sour cabbage soup, “and a perfect Ruben. There’s nothing like that around here. I mean, we have three synagogues in this city and there’s no Jewish deli? Come on!”
While talking, Landan pulled up the trailer to the upcoming movie, “Deliman,” which “is something that really says what I’m trying to do better than I can say it myself.”
Well, that said, here’s the trailer: vimeo.com/53381762
He’ll rely on Landan family recipes, a mélange of four Jewish families’ unique backgrounds living in Belgium, Germany, Poland and Russia. If he can get favorable terms to operate the deli, he’ll start construction in the fall.
“The landlord is really excited about this, which is a good sign,” said Landan. Pointing toward a nearly finished eight-story office building across the street from Haymarket, and mentioning other nearby construction, he’s confident there will be plenty of hungry workers who will want his food and package booze. “If all goes as planned, we’ll start looking for a chef who can help us make the food that will come out of the kitchen.
“If it were up to me, I’d say we’d open early next year. The landlord would like to see it sooner.”
But given his upcoming dissertation, he’s going to be busy.
“I don’t have a lot of time available right now to add another project. I’ve got to get this dissertation finished,” Landan said. When he stands before the panel at the University of Louisville’s English department, he’ll be defending his thesis put forth in a series of short, nonfiction stories tied to his personal past, including the creation of his businesses. The discussion will center on his unwitting transformation from a journalist into a visionary entrepreneur.
“I’m going to bring some bourbon and hope that we’ll all get to share a drink and just talk it over,” said Landan, smiling.
And if you’re asking yourself why he feels compelled to finish a master’s he’ll never use, the answer is he used his student loan money to finance Haymarket.
“I’ve got to finish what I started and, let’s be honest, do you think I want to tell my mother I didn’t finish my master’s?” he said. “I never dreamed of it all working out this way, but it’s all working out.”