61 Local: the Profits of Virtue
18 May, 2012 - Brian Watkins
The buzz of Brooklyn’s BoCoCa neighborhood is a cacophonous mix of old-meets-new. Throw-back butchers, all-the-rage restaurants, inviting art spaces, all- too- proud Brooklyn bars, art installation converted dumpsters, yarn stores that serve alcohol, educational centers, community gardens, and the list goes on. Each establishment possesses its own characteristic quirk. But one spot is a little harder to nail down. That spot is 61 Local, a community center/public house/bar/restaurant/art space/community garden/think tank/beer hall.
All those slashes might seem to indicate a place that’s trying too hard to be everything for everyone. Thankfully, that’s certainly not the case. Their multi-functional mix works. Moreover, it thrives. 61 Local is a privately owned public square, where creativity, community, and collaboration collide.
Dave Liatti is the owner and mastermind behind 61 Local, which he opened in 2010. A former Sixpoint Brewery engineer, acclaimed foodie and designer, and one of the entrepreneurial icons behind Brooklyn’s locavore movement, Liatti’s vision for 61 Local is more than just another bar. “61 Local is a meeting place for friends, a watering hole, a house party, a creative space and an inclusive environment that fosters collaboration and the positive exchange of ideas,” Liatti and Kris de la Torre, his manager, told me.
The one defining characteristic you can pin on the place is its theme. Everything at 61 Local – from the beer you drink, to the cheese on your sandwich, to the stool you sit on – is locally sourced. The cavernous interior is repurposed from its roots as a sprawling town house and garage, marked by a large map on the wall to indicate the exact origin of each item you’re consuming. Here, locavorism reigns. But Liatti’s aim goes deeper than just practicing ethical eating and buying habits; his reason for sourcing locally is that it creates stronger relationships. At 61 Local, the aim is to bridge the gap between the care and creativity of the craftsmen and the customer who enjoys their products.
“The relationships we have with our vendors is one of the greatest pleasures of working at 61 Local. In almost every case we have met face to face with the individual or collaborative that’s behind the product,” de la Torre says. “We strive to understand their process, their inspiration and their needs as a small, independent business. Opportunities are arranged every month for our staff – and sometimes customers – to meet with different vendors, volunteer with them and establish a personal connection that many bars do not prioritize the same as a public house would.”
But what does all of that mean for the customer? More ambitious than sourcing locally is maintaining a profitable business that exists to serve its community. 61 Local is a community center. Literally. “The community center component of 61 is really evident as you watch the slew of patrons through the course of a single day. In one afternoon you could easily see artists from Invisible Dog Art Center next door co-mingling with professional and home brewers meeting to swap some brew, creative professionals who work from their new home office at 61, babies and neighborhood moms, three generations of a family celebrating an anniversary, urban farmers delivering flowers for the tables or selling us some greens, neighbors gathering to pick up their CSA share, actors prepping for an audition on our mezzanine, or any number of friends who know that coming into 61 probably means running into a good friend or beer buddy,” says de la Torre. “It’s great to feel this sort of buzz.”
And there’s quite a buzz. Shortly after its opening, the blog “Brooklyn Based” said that Liatti has “turned 61 Local into a creative hub for neighborhood artists and foodies looking for a place to kick back and collaborate.” TimeOut New York said, “With its single-minded focus on hyperlocal purveyors, Dave Liatti’s sprawling beer hall doubles as an unofficial clubhouse for Brooklyn’s DIY artisans.” New York Times’ food critics said of the establishment, “Never has hanging out at a bar seemed so virtuous.”
Any New Yorker will tell you that it’s hard to find a true ‘third place’ that achieves community building free from the trappings of profit-mongering. This raises the question: is localism a kind of temperance to avarice?
I once heard a customer come up to the bar at 61 Local and try to order a Coke. In a fascinating exchange, the bartender kindly explained that they don’t carry those kinds of goods. “Most customers are really excited and appreciative to forgo the typical bar selection for something a little closer to home. Who knows? That soda they just got served might have been made by the couple sitting next to them at the bar. There’s something extra enticing about that.”
What’s different about 61 Local is the intention behind their entrepreneurship. “At 61 we really strive to make connections. Taking the time to meet and understand who is behind each of these events has allowed us to bring together some wonderful, ambitious and creative individuals. What makes this successful is that often times new projects are born from the connections first established at 61 and we are more than happy to provide the context for realizing these projects.”
How Liatti’s vision was actualized is as much a product of his surroundings – he’s lived in DUMBO since before it was called DUMBO – as of his own brilliance. “The creative, DIY nature of what is happening in Brooklyn right now has absolutely shaped 61 Local. The public house was born as a resource for just that sort of effort. This is also why we carry such a large number of products ‘Made in Brooklyn’ and much of our programming is geared towards spotlighting local projects. The spirit of 61 is very much a reflection of present day Brooklyn.” And as for how they want 61 Local to grow: “It would be great if the reach of 61 Local continued to expand and we became more widely acknowledged as an advocate for local projects and community building. If more bars could act as a resource for their community that would be a positive step.”
Part of 61 Local’s neighborhood is negatively affected by the environmental dangers of the Gowanus Canal, a south Brooklyn sewage gross-out that recently received superfund status. With the addition of a new NBA arena nearby – the hotly debated Atlantic Yards – sewage overflow is likely to increase, sending the Department of Environmental Protection into a tizzy. Last year, 61 Local received a DEP green infrastructure grant to build a roof garden that will absorb rainwater, which will help prevent the run-offs that cause sewage overflow and serve as a rooftop garden to grow herbs and vegetables to use in the restaurant.
This is just one example of how 61 Local is experimenting to see how privately owned ‘third spaces’ can be defined by the goal of caring for the community it serves. It might be idealistic to say that locavorism can completely transform communities and the way we think of free markets. Cultural homogeneity is still a wolf at the door of those dining at the local-only table. But perhaps it’s not too far-fetched to wonder if, in locavorism, we’re seeing a mode of capitalism that’s fueled by collaboration as much as competition. Of the customer it asks: can we consume more virtuously? Of the vendor it asks: how can we create deeper value from this good? From both these questions, 61 Local is finding positive and profitable results. Lets see who follows suit.
Want to check out what’s happening this summer at 61 Local?
“Summer at 61 Local is going to be HUGE! We are currently developing a free bike tour to Red Hook every first Saturday. Riders will get to meet some of our friends making delicious things down in that ‘hood and end the journey with lunch and a beer at 61. We’re also hosting new lecture series on local ecology and the watershed, spending lots of time at various urban gardens in Brooklyn and will offer plenty of opportunities for customers to tag along. We also have a great line-up of seasonal brews coming out on tap and a growing selection of exceptional wines on tap as more wineries jump on board with the keg program.” – Kris de la Torre