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Shaking Up Suburbia: Craft Cocktails Take Root Outside Big Cities

After a decade living and operating bars in New Orleans, in summer 2020, during the thick of pandemic lockdowns, Nick Detrich loaded up a truck and relocated to Bloomington, Indiana, to be closer to family.

In January 2022, he opened Small Favors, a petite bar and restaurant serving wine-based cocktails and small plates. Situated across the street from a strip mall with a grocery store, law office and pottery studio, it’s a long way from the funk and frenzy of NOLA’s French Quarter.

But high-end cocktail bars are no longer just for citydwellers. Growing numbers of upscale bars are opening in the burbs. Although the wave started well before 2020, the pandemic accelerated the flight of young professionals from city centers—and great cocktails at bars and restaurants have followed.

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“I’m seeing a lot of people moving back to Bloomington,”—so-called Bloomerangs—“and with that there’s increased demand for more of the offerings you get in a big city,” Detrich explains.

Compared to urban counterparts, these bars may look a little different—like Skaalvenn’s Japanese-themed bar in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, located in an office park in an otherwise industrial area; The Farm & Fisherman Tavern, in a South Jersey strip mall, noted for foraging in New Jersey and Pennsylvania for its “slow drinks”; the Bamboo Room, a Westlake Village craft cocktail lounge that seeks to entice those in the exurbs of L.A. to “say goodbye to long drives into the city for a fun night out.”

These are still serious bar programs that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Consider the one built by former New Yorker and “Liquid Chef” Junior Merino, at M Cantina in Dearborn, Michigan—a 15-minute drive from downtown Detroit. Lured by the promise of more space and a garden, Merino opened the restaurant in 2017, focusing on high-end Mexican dishes inspired by his heritage in Puebla. Innovative cocktails are a big part of the draw, and he’s built a deep list of more than 800 tequilas and 500 whiskeys, with wines on offer from Mexico and Michigan.

There’s less competition out here for the customers looking for something better than TGI Fridays.

Tyson Schnitker

It’s been an adjustment, Merino notes. For example, nonalcoholic cocktails have proven to be big business in an area where car culture rules. And finding and keeping qualified employees has proven to be a challenge—a sentiment echoed by everyone interviewed for this story, underscoring the ongoing labor shortage across the nation.

The trade-off: lower rent prices, meaning more latitude to take risks and less pressure to do high volume. And the best part? “Life is not as rushed,” Merino says.

For some, that slower tempo has required tweaking business models. Accustomed to the night owls of NOLA, Detrich initially set similar late hours for Small Favors before realizing business in Bloomington tended to wrap up by 9 p.m. Similarly, Tyson Schnitker, who opened his Japanese-style cocktail lounge in October 2020 alongside Skaalvenn Distillery, where he’s owner-distiller, has found it difficult to draw traffic on Thursdays (the bar is open only Thursday through Saturday).

“Running a nice cocktail program in suburbia has its quirks,” Schnitker acknowledges. “I do still love having my business in the burbs though. Rent is far cheaper, which allows us to do things others can’t. There’s less competition out here for the customers looking for something better than TGI Fridays, and most of them really appreciate having something cool close to home, where they don’t have to struggle to park, and they are fiercely dedicated to supporting us.”

It’s time to realize that major metro areas don’t have a monopoly on great drinks, Schnitker concludes. After all, everyone’s seen daiquiris shaken to an icy sheen on social media—and realized it should be obtainable no matter where you live: “Cool clothes, cool cocktails—just because someone lives out in suburbia and has a lawn and some trees, it doesn’t mean they don’t want those things.”

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!