Tim Haughinberry has worked his way up from busboy to the youngest manager in history at Southern Wine & Spirits, to now founder and CEO of BACK BAR USA, a unique marketing, events and consulting firm with clients across the country.
BACK BAR USA works with MGM Resorts International, Landry’s Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino, Diageo, Pernod Ricard, Bacardi and E&J Gallo, among many others, and recently partnered with Tales of the Cocktail for 2016. Here’s what this lifelong beer, wine and spirits enthusiast who has had a hand in every aspect of the industry told Chilled about current trends, the liquor business and his spirited partnerships.
Tell us a bit about your background in the industry.
I always knew that I wanted to work in hospitality, and my first goal was to run a hotel. With that dream in mind, I moved to Las Vegas in 1987 to attend the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV).
Like most of us in the workplace, I started at the bottom – my first job in college was at TGI Fridays, which led into the bar, then worked as a busboy at Mirage and nearly every chain restaurant through the mid-‘90s as a bar manager or trainer. In the late ‘90s, I started working for Southern Wine & Spirits (SWS) and stayed there for a six-year run, working my way up to the youngest manager in history as a cigar manager. I had the opportunity to be the on-site spirits representative during the biggest hotel boom in Las Vegas history, with six major Strip casino-hotels opening within a three-year window (Monte Carlo, New York-New York, Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, The Venetian and Paris Las Vegas).
In my time at SWS I extensively studied wine and spirits from the cast of master sommeliers and experts around me, including Steve Geddes, Ron Mumford and Kevin Voigt, among others. Eventually I earned the opportunity to travel the country with Evan Goldstein, teaching about cigars and spirits.
I left SWS in 2000 to work for Consolidated Cigar Corporation (CCC). In my role as vice president of on-premise distribution, I opened in 44 states and managed roughly 1,000 accounts around the country, contributing largely to the cigar boom in the early 2000s. While at CCC, I learned a lot about nationwide distribution networks and made many great contacts; but most importantly, I learned about the power of branding.
I left CCC with an agreement to own the trademark ‘Montecristo’ for the creation of a rum. In 2001, I launched Montecristo 12-Year Rum with Josh Wand and investors, and it turned out to be the experience of a lifetime. It was such a rollercoaster ride of success, emotions and learning, and I gained invaluable knowledge about the liquor business, liquor distribution and everything that comes with it. Montecristo Rum earned a lot of positive feedback from consumers and from within the industry, with many awards and ratings, features in The Wall Street Journal and others, and five double-gold medals from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
It was a great ride and it ended with industry consolidation, funding and trademark growth internationally.
Tell us about Back Bar USA.
I started BACK BAR USA as just a consultant, working on beverage menus, then some openings, then more into beverage programs for nightlife operators and eventually climbed the ladder to working with casinos – and to where we are today. What started off with me as a consultant – doing all the work myself – to now 26 full-time employees and 300+ part-time employees. The business grew by working closely with worldwide suppliers to build and strengthen their brands and awareness internationally.
BACK BAR is a full-service marketing, consulting and design firm, which specializes in corporate and national account beverage programs with an emphasis on gaming, resorts, nightlife and fine dining. We provide services ranging from special events, to menu development, to ground-up venue concept, design and execution.
Talk to us about some of the events you create for brands.
BACK BAR has created events such as Las Vegas Invades Tales of the Cocktail, Shake the Vine with Chateau St. Michelle, Las Vegas Beer and Barrel Project at Mandalay Bay and For The Love of Cocktails, which is now in its fourth year. For the Love of Cocktails raises money and awareness for the Helen David Relief Fund, which benefits bartenders affected by breast cancer. The foundation was started by my friend and famed mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim for his cousin, Helen. Tony and I are good friends and go back to my days working with the Bellagio, where he was the property mixologist at the time.
What types of events are popular with millennials these days?
My company is made up of millennials, and we’ve learned that the best events are the ones where people can be social in multiple spaces. They like variety, keeping it fresh, moving around and something new. Even though it seems like they’re always on their phones, young event-goers interact more than people often give them credit for. We try to make our events a time to put down the phone and give real-life conversations a shot.
Where do you think craft cocktail culture is headed in the future?
I remember when I first launched Montecristo Rum, we started as the premium aged rum for cocktails and visited every single bar in New York City to test different drinks, leading to being featured in Mojitos. This was at the start of mixology – the word was barely used at the time. Francesco Lafranconi [executive director of mixology and spirits for SWS] had just moved to the U.S., he lived in my house and barely spoke English! The passion for cocktails has always been out there, but the internet – along with guys like Francesco, Tony, and others – took it to the next level.
I think the craft cocktail culture will continue to grow five-fold due to the passion behind it and the power of the internet and social media. My Facebook feed is always filled with recipes and ideas from mixologists around the world, competitions and brands educating bartenders and consumers. I see craft cocktails becoming the norm, not just found at destination bars.
What do you predict is the next big thing in this business?
Marijuana distribution at the national liquor distributor level, and the boom of marijuana worldwide. It will get absorbed by the spirits industry, as it’s a natural fit and the industry has billions of dollars to lobby the government.
Where do you get your inspiration for marketing directives/experiences showcasing liquor brands?
I get inspiration from conversation, travel, design and personalities in the industry, that give me the motivation to stay in this business and stay creative. I am also fortunate enough to be based in Las Vegas, an over-the-top city with amazing budgets and publicity. Being here gives us the opportunity to think big and market to the masses of 44 million annual visitors. If we can make people happy with a brand or experience in Las Vegas, we hope that they’ll take that with them to result in a purchase in Miami, New York, Iceland or wherever they’re from.
What else can you tell us about BACK BAR and where the firm is headed?
BACK BAR is strengthening our infrastructure and growing at a nice pace. The first few years were difficult, as I had to put in place an infrastructure, office, systems, qualified staff, etc. We are now a nationwide company operating in over 12 states where casinos are located. We plan to continue to grow nationwide and also expand into marijuana marketing with a different business, CANNABIS USA [www.cannabisusa.com], which will be a brand building and marketing company for the emerging industry.
We hear you are partnered with Tales – Tell us about BACK BAR and Tales this year?
Ann Tuennerman, founder of Tales of the Cocktail, and I have been working on events over the years and this year we’re partnering up to create a stronger national account platform in New Orleans. The idea is to get industry executives to network and learn from all of the passionate people and creative minds gathered at the event.
With so many options and amenities, Tales can be daunting. We will create customized itineraries for executives to make the most out of the trip, providing a variety of valuable experiences including opportunities to network with other industry influencers, brand ambassadors, beverage consultants and bartenders, as well as to learn about new and current trends, how to market brands to untapped client bases and consumer needs and habits. Instead of following trends, they can learn to create the trends.
Talk to us about your charity work.
Charity is very important to me personally and through BACK BAR. Our top charities are the Helen David Relief Fund and Aid for AIDS of Nevada (AFAN). I am a former board member of AFAN and BACK BAR is a gay-owned business recognized by the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC). We also work closely with UNLV and sponsor the BACK BAR USA Scholarship for students interested in the hospitality fields.