Friday, August 19, 2022

Tired of ‘uptight, overpriced’ cocktail bars, three friends opened their own in downtown Wilmington

(Video: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot co-owners Joe Senna and Abigail Ovbey make a ‘cotton candy martini.’ Meanwhile, fellow co-owner Ivan ‘Chip’ Moore talks shop with a beer rep.)

WILMINGTON – A new cocktail bar is opening downtown, one that aims to embody the best of modern mixology while shedding the snobbery – and high cost – that sometimes accompanies such establishments.

From left: Ivan Moore, Joe Senna and Abigail Ovbey; the three are friends, industry veterans, co-owners and bartenders at Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
From left: Ivan Moore, Joe Senna and Abigail Ovbey; the three are friends, industry veterans, co-owners and bartenders at Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. (Port City Daily photo/BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

“There are some great cocktail bars, but – not to be harsh – but some places can be kind of uptight. And they can be overpriced, too. We were thinking upscale cocktails at dive bar prices,” co-owner Joe Senna said, before fellow co-owner of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Ivan “Chip” Moore, chimed in.

Moore added, “well, not dive bar. Let’s say a classy bar with accessible prices. We don’t want to replace anyone’s dive bar – that’s their bar. But we do want have some of that relaxed attitude, you can come here and get great drinks, but you can be yourself here.”

One of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot's more non-traditional offerings: a 'margarita boba.' It's an edible tapioca bubble containing a proper margarita inside. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
One of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s more non-traditional offerings: a ‘margarita boba.’ It’s an edible tapioca bubble containing a proper margarita inside. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

According to Senna, the bar will focus on “everything good about mixology,” from creative cocktails, inspired by molecular gastronomy, to classic drinks. The bar’s three owners, Moore, Senna and Abigal Ovbey, are industry lifers who made it a point to avoid corporate involvement with the bar, leaving them free to do things their own way. By way of example, Senna said the three owners had come up with the idea to do a “margarita boba,” an edible bubble containing tequila, sour mix, cilantro and salt.

“This is all us,” Senna said. “It’s our money, our blood and sweat. It’ll be us behind the bar. We wanted to be able to stay creative, to do spur of the moment things, to serve the drinks we want to serve. If Abby wants to try something new, like the boba, or a cotton candy martini, we want to be able to do it. That’s why we want to do it ourselves.”

Moore, Ovbey and Senna took over construction themselves, including cutting away half of the second floor to create a loft and grinding down and polishing the foundation floor. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
Moore, Ovbey and Senna took over construction themselves, including cutting away half of the second floor to create a loft and grinding down and polishing the foundation floor. (Port City Daily photo/BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

The three owners share a DIY ethic that extends to just about everything, Senna said. For example, the bar has a number of craft beers on tap, but Senna is planning on brewing beer on the bar’s second floor. And, when it came to constructing that second floor, the three ended up getting even more involved than they had originally planned.

“We were originally going to call it Whiskey Business,” Ovbey said. “But as our renovations went along, we ended up replacing, well, everything. That phrase – Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – got used a lot.”

Moore added, “it probably came out of my mouth the most. Every time I turned around, there was something else we had to replace.”

According to Senna, the three initially contracted a construction team for the renovations but things fell through.

When construction workers failed to come through, the owners got to work themselves; this wall was Abigail Ovbey's idea, meant to convey the portholes in a sailing ship. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
When construction workers failed to come through, the owners got to work themselves; this wall was Abigail Ovbey’s idea, meant to convey the portholes in a sailing ship. (Port City Daily photo/BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

“I’m not sure if we fired them or if they just stop showing up,” Senna said. “But in any case, we took over. Grinding the floor, rewiring the whole place. We couldn’t find furniture we really liked, so we ended up building that ourselves, too.”

The three have an easy, playful banter, the result of spending seven years working together; that’s a lifetime in an industry where the average club shutters in six months, and more than half of bars and restaurants don’t survive their first year (a statistic that gets thrown around a lot, but is rooted in a research paper from the University of Ohio).

“We’re not going to be that bar,” Senna said. “We’ve got the experience, we know what we’re doing. We’ve put a lot of time, and money and thought into this. This is what we love to do.”

Moore added, “people say you shouldn’t go into business with your friends. But our friendship came out of working together. We’ve learned what works. I think we’ve only had to go to a vote once.”

Ovbey and Senna figured out the logistics of the 'Margarita boba.' Senna said, "we come up with stuff, we figure it out. We'll always have surprises for people.' (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
Ovbey and Senna figured out the logistics of the ‘Margarita boba.’ Senna said, “we come up with stuff, we figure it out. We’ll always have surprises for people.’ (Port City Daily photo/BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

Each of the three owners brings a specialty to the bar, whether it’s Moore’s deep knowledge of whiskeys – including the 30 single malts available – or Ovbey’s experimental approach to cocktails, Senna said. But what the three all hope the bar will provide is what Ovbey called “a real bar experience” for customers.

“Like (Senna) said, we love what we do,” Ovbey said. “We don’t just want to sling drinks as fast as possible. We’ve done volume, but we love to talk, we love to show people new things. If you’ve never paired a cigar with a scotch, let me pick pair them for you. If you’ve never heard about the Kentucky trail, let me tell you about it.”

Senna added, “there’s plenty of room to relax here, to have some privacy – it was important for us not to overcrowd the place. But, at the same time, we love conversation. We think that’s part of good bar service, part of what makes a classic bar.”

Senna said the bar has already started booking live music acts for their official opening this Friday and Saturday, May 19 and 20. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is located at 111 Grace Street, in downtown Wilmington. More information is available online.

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