"After working for years in the hotel industry and hating her jobs, Kristen Voisey decided to turn her passion for vintage collecting and at-home bartending into a career. She took a business-planning course through EI, got a loan and opened BYOB in April, 2011. She even lived in the back of her store for the first eight months in order to have enough money to expand her product lines and worked seven days a week for years.
The shop has since evolved to the point where it now carries the most kinds of cocktail bitters than any other store in Canada and is the only retail store in North America with Japanese cocktail gear. If you’ve ever been to either BYOB Cocktail Emporium or 1/2 Ounce Emporium on the weekend, you know they’re crazy busy. We chatted with Voisey about what it’s like to run your own biz, and how she gets it all done without going nuts.
Walk us through a day in your life.
One thing I must say about owning your own business is that NO day is the same as the last, except maybe having a coffee in the morning and a cocktail at the end of the day. For me, each day requires wearing many different hats. One day could be spent driving products between stores or receiving large shipments that have to be inventoried and stocked. The next day I might have to spend importing goods into Canada, stuck at the customs office, or on the floor merchandising. I spend most of my time in my office making orders and communicating with suppliers, researching new products, sending info and images to press, taking care of our wholesale accounts, managing inventory, banking, co-ordinating shipments etc.
One thing I don’t get to do as often as I would like is vintage sourcing. I bring in every piece of vintage glassware and behind each piece is hours of driving, scouring and transporting. There’s never a dull moment (or any spare moments at all, tbh) when you run two stores and a heavily trafficked e-commerce site. My days require a lot of communication and co-ordination between myself and my two managers to keep everything running smoothly. In summary, work is on my mind from the minute I wake up until I go to bed.
How did you shift from working in the hotel industry to being the founder of Cocktail Emporium?
I graduated from Ryerson’s Hospitality and Tourism Bachelor of Commerce program way back in 2003. After that, I had a lot of different hospitality jobs in hotels and on cruise ships and a few contracts with TIFF. I always knew I wanted to have my own business and be my own boss, but it wasn’t until I visited LA and happened upon a store called Bar Keeper in Silver Lake that I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
Bar Keeper sold bar tools and vintage glassware (along with booze – come on, Canada. Let’s make that happen here!) and it inspired me to open BYOB Cocktail Emporium in 2011. At the beginning, I was really obsessed with vintage glassware and thought that a cocktail store would be a great addition to Toronto, where vintage had a big market. I was unemployed at the time so it was an easy decision for me. I found a space, got a loan and it all came together very nicely with the help of friends and family.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve encountered throughout this process?
The biggest challenge about making the shift from working a “regular” job to owning my store is caring too much – about my business, about my customers and staff, about my relationships with suppliers – all of it! It made me realize how insignificant/uninspiring my previous jobs were in comparison.
Owning a business is a job but it’s also like having a baby that takes up all your time and attention and you put your whole heart into it. Every single aspect of my stores is chosen by me – from the exterior paint job to the website design to every product we carry – so I take everything very personally and sometimes that can be exhausting. Also a big challenge was not knowing anything about retail or running my own business. I learned everything on the fly, so I made lots of mistakes along the way, but nothing that didn’t make me, or the business, stronger.
Can you describe the cocktail scene in Toronto?
BYOB and Cocktail Emporium fall into two industries: retail and hospitality. We tend to a lot of bartenders and bar owners so it’s a business-to-business relationship, but we are also in the retail industry that caters to the general public. The cocktail scene in Toronto is amazing. Everyone has been very supportive of what we have brought to the city, and the industry in general is incredibly supportive of each other.
We have definitely become a class-A cocktail city. There are so many delicious, unique, fun places to drink here! Because of that, the industry definitely keeps us on our toes and we have to constantly be on top of what’s new with ingredients, tools and glassware. What’s also great about the cocktail scene in Toronto is its large female presence. Women are running the scene, which I think makes it even more exceptional. Booze writers, bartenders, bar owners, brand ambassadors, master brewers, etc. – there are so many talented women who are killing it!
What are some of your favourite items currently in stock?
I love our ever-changing selection of vintage glassware. It’s a labour of love and I often get sad when some items sell. The staff know my favourite items and have to break the news gently to me when they get sold. I recently sold a vintage hand-painted red and white Japanese set to Raiza Costa (a famous food blogger and Jamie Oliver Food Tuber) and I fear I will never get over it. I was assured it was going to a good home so it made the split a little easier. It’s my favourite when people love and buy my vintage pieces. It is so nice to know all the hard work that went into sourcing them and getting them on the shelf is appreciated.
For ingredients, I love our selection of tonic syrups. We have over fifteen flavours of all-natural tonic syrups that are so much better than the synthetic sugar-filled stuff you buy at the grocery store. Our best seller is the Jack Rudy tonic syrup.
We also have over two hundred flavours of cocktail bitters and a few of my favourites are Ms. Better’s Bitters Pineapple, Woodford Reserve Bourbon Barrel-Aged Spiced Cherry and Bittermens Mole. I also love putting Scrappy’s Cardamom in my gin and tonics.
My very favourite section in the store is our Japanese bar tool section. The Japanese are the best bartenders in the world and they make the highest quality bar tools in the world as well. I am obsessed with the rose gold line. We have the largest selection of Japanese-made bar tools in North America and people from all over the world purchase them from us. We import them directly from where they are made in Tokyo. They are just stunning.
What cocktail trends are you loving right now?
The trends in Toronto that I love are how bars are really paying attention to the details. They are making beautiful garnishes and every cocktail has its own unique glass, like a gold pineapple or a custom-made medicine bottle. Cocktail presentation is such a great addition to sitting at a bar. When so much work goes into creating beautiful spaces and unique delicious drinks, it’s so great to see it as a piece of art. Bars are really putting in the effort to making the whole experience beautiful and I think it’s really appreciated.
Best piece of advice you’ve gotten?
“Nobody cares as much as you do.” It’s easy to see everything through a pinhole and get overwhelmed when things don’t go perfectly, but the truth is that everyone is more concerned with themselves than they are with you. Nobody notices or cares about your mistakes, so don’t let what others think stop you from trying. Another big one is, “Don’t take it all so personally.” It’s not personal, it’s just business."