Three years ago a guy with zero restaurant experience decided to open a bar in a habitually vacant building a half mile from civilization. To say the odds were stacked against him is an understatement of grand proportions. But that bar — Porco Lounge & Tiki Room — is approaching a million dollars in annual sales, a testament to the vision, passion and dedication of owner Stefan Was.
"I was confident that it could be something, but my biggest insecurity laid in not knowing the business," Was recalls. "But we had a passion for tiki and we wanted to help spread what we loved about the quality and lifestyle of having an awesome experience. People will get it, if you give it."
At a time when craft cocktail bars — lounges — were popping up across town, Was went down a connected but divergent path. His bar would serve craft cocktails every bit as complex as those mixed in posh clubs but, unlike most of those haunts, Porco would be a blast.
"We take the pretention out of it — not just the cocktails but the whole experience," says Was. "Our bartenders are wearing Hawaiian shirts, we're listening to fun music, we're having fun. If anybody is having more fun at work than we do, I want that job."
But don't mistake Was for the ditzy social director of the S.S. Tiki. Step inside the fantastical world of Porco and you'd be hard-pressed to identify the owner, who either is in the kitchen making tacos, bussing tables in an apron, or otherwise supporting his staff in any way possible. Was is the anti-celebrity owner, a trait that makes him the best kind of owner.
"I don't like to be an interesting guy; this whole thing is very uncomfortable for me," he says of being selected for inclusion in this issue. "I'm humbled and I'm happy, but I don't like celebrity and recognition. When you start swinging your owner dick around, the business and the experience becomes about you and not the guest."
When Team Porco was invited down to the South Beach Wine and Food Festival to compete in the Art of Tiki Cocktail Showdown, Was did the unthinkable: He shut down Porco for an entire weekend and brought the whole crew with him, paying the way of 18 staffers as a thank you for hard work.
"My philosophy has always been: my staff, my customers and my products all go before me. If I do all of those things right, the rest just falls into place."
When money does roll in — Was calls Porco "the house that Painkillers built" — it doesn't go to fine threads and fancy rims; it goes right back into the business. Every visit to Porco reveals some physical improvement, whether it's the towering backbar, the picturesque urban patio, or the colorful new hand-drawn menu. But even those decisions are not solely management's to make.
"We do everything by committee here," he says. "I gear the money to the staff and around their opinions. I don't say this lightly, but we have the best in the business. With their talent, these guys could be making way more money in a nightclub. What they get to keep here is their soul."
So how is all of this success weighing on the shoulders of the reluctant big wheel?
"I've literally been proud with tears," he says. "When it stops being like that I'll look at myself and ask what am I doing wrong."