Paul Campbell | Mr. Bartender, Master Mixologist, Entrepreneur
Five Minutes with Paul Campbell, Mr. Bartender, cocktail artist, and entrepreneur:
“Before you even see it in that glass, so much energy and passion has gone into that. My goal is to grow the brand because I love it. I want to create a mobile bartending service that is replicable, that appeals to investors and people in the industry. “
PCF: How did your business make it through the pandemic – with lock downs and restrictions on gathering – because what you do is quintessentially social?
Paul: We had 26 events cancel at the same time, in March 2019, because of the pandemic. My business had gotten to the point where I was planning 3-6 months ahead, which was where I wanted to be, phasing out of W-2 income and becoming a full-time small business owner. I was right at the point where it was safe to take that risk. And then COVID hit, and what it really did was solidify the need to build a business that is pandemic-proof.
There were a lot of events that still needed to happen, like fundraisers. We adjusted our pricing and counted on the strong relationships that we had already built with both clients and vendors.
During that time, no one was gathering. But they were doing it digitally, via Zoom, so we did some “cocktail kits” and tried to help people have that experience at home, even though we were not live-and-in-person. That was a real pivot. Not a permanent one, but we did what we needed to survive.
It’s now two years later, and I’ve had to deal with losing about half of my regular team because life happened, people moved, and people adjusted. Everyone is dealing with that. There were so many things that happened that could have impacted me badly, but I figured out what would give me the competitive edge.
PCF: What was that edge?
Paul: I’ve put energy into looking at ways I could offer more value to my clients as a mobile bartender, through connecting catering and event planning services as well.
I’ve concentrated on my target market: those people looking for more than a “bar experience,” who want something on a different level. Throughout the pandemic, people still wanted to connect through hosting unique events, they just had to think about them differently, and we have been able to do planning and organizing via Zoom.
I can confidently say that I have a small business that can execute a client’s vision, without them having to go find quality staff and all of the ingredients that go into creating a truly unique experience. My team love to take care of guests. We are passionate about that so we work in the environment that we have.
PCF: Pandemic aside, do you think that the Cape Fear area is a good place to start a business?
Paul: Well, I can answer that two ways. First, yes. I look at the long-term. I look at demographics and the growth in the area. In building up Wilmington, I see more corporate events, and more venues opening after the pandemic for private functions. Brides are booked out for a year in some places. There is definitely a pent-up demand for something truly special.
We are a small beach town with metro-area type tastes. People here appreciate a high-end experience, and they are willing to pay for the value. We have lots of breweries, and cider houses, and dive bars. There is a place for something more here, too.
A big part of our energy goes into the cocktails, because we believe that beautiful drinks and trendy displays – colors, textures, themes – my creative brain works with my team to make everything customizable. That’s why we don’t have a drink menu.
I call my team our “guest experience specialists,” not bartenders. That is only one of the boxes that we check, but we offer so much more. We are looking for people who have creative thinking and want to use that side of the brain.
The other hand, the “no,” of building a hospitality business that serves alcohol in this area is dealing with the red tape of North Carolina state-wide regulations. There’s always time on the phone, making sure that we are doing things by the book. I’m retired military, so I pride myself on complying with every single regulation. At the same time, I want 100% to provide a fun experience and cover any liabilities.
PCF: Have you observed that there is an influx of people who were able to move, because of the new remote nature of their jobs, and who have brought with them a desire for a sophisticated “big city” aesthetic in their entertaining?
Paul: It’s funny you asked that. I’m in that age group, and I moved here from New York City, and I can identify with that demographic. We love our beach bars, but we also look for something special. I feel that people here are more and more willing to pay for value.
I’m data-driven, and I love my spreadsheets – I worked in the financial world for years after I left the Air Force – and I am always sensitive to price point tolerance. That goes back to building relationships. Fifty percent of my clients are repeat business – they have called me back to create another custom experience for them and their guests.
PCF: Your events just say glam. Everything that you do is special.
Paul: Thank you for saying that. What my clients see as the finished product is the easiest part. I set each event up for success with hours and hours of sourcing product, hand-picking every single lemon and lime, squeezing fresh juices, and searching out celery that has the perfect bushel on top for the natural, organic look. It takes a month to plan an event, three days to shop, and hours to prepare the ingredients.
PCF: Do you really still love bartending?
Paul: Absolutely, 100%. I wake up thinking about it. I go to bed thinking about it. If I have time in between, I’m working to get better at it. I believe that if you have a high end brand, you have to work toward that every day by experiencing and educating yourself, and I love that. I’m fortunate that I have bartending as a safety net, and it really helped get me through the challenges of the pandemic.
PCF: What’s a really good week for you?
Paul: Booking events to set Mr. Bartender up for future success, and managing the balancing act that I’m in to support my family with the work I love. I execute the vision and strive to over-deliver. My clients are allowed to be clueless about what it takes to make their requests a reality, because that’s my job. I educate about what it takes to create an exceptional bar experience, and teach how to appreciate the value in it.
It’s good to be busy. Busy for me means that my weekends are always booked up. And that the rest of the week is setting up my calendar for those gigs and having time to be creative. Also having time for networking.
PCF: You talked about creating a brand that can be duplicated. What does the future look like for Mr. Bartender. Has your dream changed?
Paul: I’ve got the mobile experience always ready, poised for clients to call. It’s literally like moving a bar or restaurant into their space, whether it’s a private home, yacht, or an event venue. We can do a mixology experience for eight people in a vacation rental, or a wedding for hundreds. My passion is to have people in front of me, and to entertain them. I’m a service-driven person.
February, March, April… those were great months for me. I’m ready to get all of my business back.
On the other hand, my dream as a kid was to be a pilot. I still have that dream, and I have part of it covered by my time in the Air Force. I’m too old for that now, but I want to have my own plane, my own captain, my own charter company. I don’t want to sit behind a desk. My wife keeps me grounded, though.
I love being able to hire people, create jobs, support the local community, and donate to charities. And I love having my family involved too. My daughter, Alexie does calligraphy chalkboards for me, and she is working with some local caterers now too. I love to be part of the creative force in the area.
PCF: What’s your favorite drink right now?
Paul: I have a simple drink that is my go-to, the Dark and Stormy. I like ginger, I like spice flavors. The stronger the ginger – I grew up in the Caribbean – I’m not afraid of it. It has to be dark rum. I love that. Mules are easy and perfect for the summer. Bourbons and dark rums have always been something that I like, and I enjoy a simple drink. I appreciate an aged, expensive, beverage that I can sip.
Photos courtesy of Mr. Bartender on Instagram at @misterbartenderpc