Given the last few years of apocalyptic bumps in the road, the idea of taking on a new business, especially in the service industry, is not for the faint of heart.
Given the current state of things, to open a bar or restaurant now is to take on the headaches of staffing shortages and higher prices on literally everything, not to mention the increasing expectations of patrons outside of quarantine. You must love the service industry and believe in your product to take the risk and put your life behind projects like owning a bar.
With all that in mind, two of Reno’s most congenial and talented bar managers, Sean Stitt and Kyle Aiton, decided to go from running the bars they loved to owning them.
Chapel Tavern and Reno Public House have been staples of the Reno bar scene since they opened their doors more than a decade ago. Both bars have been neighborhood havens, setting a high standard of product and service that still exists today. Earlier this year, Duncan Mitchell, who owned Chapel Tavern, and Chris Costa, the previous owner of Reno Public House, decided to sell their bars to their respective managers. Costa and Mitchell are primarily responsible for the tone and style that make up the Midtown cocktail movement and have passed the torch to the people they knew could continue that legacy. I sat down with Stitt and Aiton to discuss what it takes to love a business so much that you go from running it—to owning it.
“The pandemic was an affirmation for me to do this. To hell with the forces that are against it; I’ve given too much of myself to this to give up,” Stitt said. “There is a sense of pride in knowing you have helped build something. If I’ve taken the time and effort to perfect a craft I’m this passionate about, I want to keep going with it. I wanted to phase into that next challenge where I could take that creativity and expertise, and use it to make this product better.”
And better, it is: Earlier this year, the James Beard Foundation named Chapel Tavern a finalist in the Outstanding Bar Program category, making it the first cocktail bar in Reno to be mentioned on the James Beard list. Accolades aside, Stitt has led the bar team at Chapel into a new era of delicious and ambitious cocktails.
Aiton reflected on his 12 years at the bar at Reno Public House.
“I never really left,” Aiton said. “What better education can you get in running a business than working in it for a decade?”
Aiton’s business degree and spirit of generosity make him a natural leader. The perfect blend of neighborhood clubhouse and quality products makes Reno Public House stand out in our local bar scene.
“Our staff makes our bar, and our staff makes our community. They are cultivating this atmosphere and feeling that people feel at home, no matter what they drink,” he said.
Being stewards of long-running bars, Aiton and Stitt know they have a decade-plus of regulars and expectations.
“I have been in bars for 22 years and have learned a lot, mostly from Duncan,” Stitt said. “I feel a certain pride and ownership in keeping his vision going. I can’t, nor would I want, to change that completely.”
Aiton feels a similar allegiance to his concept: “I don’t think I would have worked for Costa for as long as I did without believing in the idea. So many people asked me what I would change, and my answer was nothing. We are going to keep the same direction we were on.”
Aiton and Stitt have been around Midtown since the beginning and know it’s not easy without friends.
“I hope everyone who reads this knows that it’s not just our two bars; it’s our neighborhood,” Stitt said. “All the bars around us are friends and care about each other’s success. The idea that the success of one is the success of all is something we look to continue and grow.”
Said Aiton: “I think what has grown this neighborhood on a grassroots level is that there has always been a core group of bars built on each other’s success. It comes down to the product we serve, and we all sell a quality product we can be proud of.”
When I asked the two new bar owners what advice they had for future bartenders looking to own their bar one day, they said, in near unison, “Save your money.” But the real lesson from these two is that if you work hard and care enough about that work that a whole town notices, the world is your martini to sip.