How a New York City Actor-Waiter-Bartender Turned into a Budding Entrepreneur
NEW YORK CITY — Presidents issue pardons, tennis tournaments hand out wildcards, restaurants hold tables for VIPs … so call this the blogger equivalent: On this, my birthday, I’m invoking personal privilege and profiling an honorary family member who, though he’s been intermittently involved in the restaurant trade, isn’t a chef.
Tobin Ludwig, one of the trio of young entrepreneurs behind the relatively new brand Hella Bitters, is something of an adopted son, or at least baby brother, to me and my wife, Caitlin, here in New York City. Tobin’s mother Josette, was a dear friend to my late mother in-law, Joan, and when he came to New York to spend a year here before college, we worked our network to help him secure a job, landing him a gig as a barista at The Harrison, which was about to open in Tribeca.
The timing of Tobin’s arrival seems comical now, but wasn’t at the time: September 9, 2001.
Two days later, on September 11, he was woken by his roommate at the 92nd Street Y. The guy’s girlfriend had called from Israel, alarmed about the attack on the city that was in progress. Tobin shuffled out onto Lexington Avenue and saw the smoldering towers way down south.
Many of the exchange students and other residents of the Y packed up and left town within the next 36 hours, but Tobin never thought about decamping. “It made me feel like I was a New Yorker immediately,” he recalls. “I shared a traumatic experience with nine million people. I thought this was an important place to be.”
Tobin stuck it out here for a year, and periodically, we’d meet him for lunch or dinner, or get reports on his life in the city from our friends at The Harrison. His mother will probably hate me for sharing this, but a year after his arrival, after hours at The Harrison, on a $500 dare, he stripped down to his birthday suit, did a lap of the dining room, then–still in the buff–stood up on the bar and gave a speech. The next morning, he blew the cash on Diesel jeans and split for college. On hearing the tale, I couldn’t have been more proud of the boy, and knew it was only a matter of time before he’d be back for more.
Tobin graduated Ithaca College, earning a BA in Cultural Anthropology, then returned to New York in 2006 to pursue an acting career. (At the time, we compared him to Shia LaBeouf, but he’s manned up nicely since then, and now boasts a shaved dome and enviable thick black beard.) Back in the Big Apple, he worked for a time as a maitre d’ at The Little Owl, then waited tables at The Red Cat. We had a funny moment one night when I wandered in late for a drink, then found myself leaving at the same time he was. On hearing he was headed for the subway, thoughts of his mom back in Amherst filled my head and I declared, “Not on my watch,” and insisted on driving him home.
Eventually Tobin settled in for a long stint as a bartender at Fedora, which he just recently left, continuing to act for several years.
“Every day I was confronted by the cliche of being an actor-waiter-bartender,” he said to me over coffee at Upright Brew House on a rainy Friday the 13th a few weeks back. “I did a few good off-off Broadway shows but never got a paycheck out of it. I was humbled by the challenges of the business.”
Around 2010, caught up in the hand-crafted cocktail craze, Tobin and old friend Eduardo Simeon became fascinated with bitters. From his Harlem domicile, they began making their own. They named the product Hella Bitters (“hella” is Northern California slang for “really” or “very”) and launched a Kickstarter campaign with the modest ambition of pre-selling bottles.
The campaign exceeded expectations: They had set a goal of $900 and raised $2,300.
“We just wanted to sell to friends and family, not start a business.” Tobin says. “But we got some buzz from the campaign. With the surplus, we made two batches, one aromatic and one citrus.” They ordered bottles online, fashioned their own labels, and began selling the bottles to specialty shops. (They subsequently undertook another Kickstarter campaign, to produce a soda cart.)
Tobin’s partners in Hella Bitters are Simeon, nicknamed Mission Control, who is a digital project manager by trade and handles project management and digital strategy, and Jomaree Pinkard, who came on board a little later, initially as a consultant and then a full partner. Armed with a Wharton MBA and more experience (at 37, he’s a few years older than Tobin and Eduardo), he goes by the handle Coach. Tobin’s Hella pseudonym is Tastemaster and he’s charged with the recipes, research and development, and production.
From that humble beginning, Hella Bitters has grown into a full-fledged business. It’s available at Crate and Barrell, Sur La Table, and regionally at Whole Foods. The guys realized early on that they didn’t have the time or manpower to go bar to bar to sell the bitters that way, but they do show up here and there, such as at Broken Shaker in Miami, Florida, and at Fedora and other Little Wisco establishments. (They’re distributed to that end by Gotham Artisanal in New York and others around the country.)
The guys have kept it simple, relative to rival brands, producing just two types of bitters, Aromatic and Citrus (their variation on the classic orange bitters). “That’s our point of differentiation in the artisanal bitters category,” says Tobin. “We only make two bitters. We offer ‘the salt and pepper of the bar,’ the ones that most cocktail recipes call for.” That said, they are starting to develop additional flavors.
Tobin gradually let go of his acting ambitions, but the bitters brought him success in that realm as well when he and his partners were chosen to be a part of a two-year Tanqueray gin ad campaign that featured them in 30- and 60-second spots. “Ironically, I had way more show business success as an entrepreneur than I did as an actor,” Tobin says.
Just a few hours ago, at midnight, Hella Bitters launched its third Kickstarter campaign, to create a Craft Your Own Bitters Kit.
“It’s our first non-bitters product,” says Tobin. “We’d been mulling it over for a few years, wondering how we could make a kit that would ensure good bitters at home but still give people room to experiment. The solution was to create spice blends and let people add whatever spirit they want, and additional ingredients on top.”
This Kickstarter campaign is more ambitious than their first for the simple reason that the kits are far more expensive to produce than a batch of bitters. They’re trying to raise $50,000. The first 250 people to order a kit, get one for the discounted price of $45. After that, it’s $50, which ain’t bad at all considering the world-class design. There are also, as is customary on Kickstarter, packages featuring a kit plus various swag. I’d humbly suggest that if you are into handcrafting cocktails at home, or have a friend or relative who is, then this would be a cool addition to your/their arsenal. Check it out:
It’s an exciting time for Tobin: In addition to letting go of his bartending gig, and launching this initiative, he was recently engaged to Jourdan Lawlor, who works at The Daily Meal. The two live in the West Village and over the July 4th weekend, we’ll be attending a party in their honor in Amherst, Massachusetts. His mom is an avid cook and former caterer, so I know the food will be spectacular. And the drinks, I’m guessing, will be memorable as well. Should be a hella good time.