Conversations: Justin Owens

Justin Owens has been General Manager of downtown Montgomery’s 23 Court Cigar & Whiskey Bar for a little over a year, but he’s been in the food and beverage sector of the hospitality industry for two decades. His policies to build the brand, including efforts to be more inviting to everyone through the door, have boosted sales.

Owens stresses the increase is proof the key to a successful bar or restaurant isn’t found in the kitchen or on the wine and cocktail list: It’s in his industry’s name. “It’s warm hospitality; it’s really about developing relationships, with staff and with customers, and that just happens to be my favorite part of the job,” he said. 

“I enjoy the concept of treating people like guests, not just customers, so I love creating that welcoming environment and exceeding guest expectations.”

How did you start in the food and beverage business?

Working in bars in college. I loved the work hours and the people I worked with and met. Plus, the aspects of the business side were interesting to me. After college, I left bartending for a more career-oriented path that led to developing bar programs and getting into operations. 

What does your day-to-day running 23 Court look like?

It’s different every day, but it’s developing events, handling the finances, staying on top of orders and deliveries, meeting with vendors and making sure the bar is stocked with all we need to meet guests’ needs. Some days I still bar tend, and those are long days, but I love what I do. 

What is the biggest challenge you and the business have faced in the last year?

We opened at the tail end of COVID-19 restrictions, so there was a hurdle to get people back out in the world. Supply chain issues were problematic in the beginning too, and we’re still dealing with some of that even now. 

How would you rate Montgomery’s current culinary and bar scene?

As a whole, the scene is good, but there is potential for it to be even better. We have to get people in Montgomery to realize that it is not this giant city; you can go from out east to downtown and vice versa, and to see the city grow, we need to support the whole city. Right now, downtown has a great mix of restaurants and bars with lots of options. We’re not all trying to be or do the same thing, and that’s great for customers.

What do you find the most fulfilling about your work?

I like being around people, and I love meeting new people. I enjoy the concept of treating people like guests, not just customers, so I love creating that welcoming environment and exceeding guest expectations. That’s how you get repeat guests and increase sales in this business, but you also end up with friendships and people who will really support you and your business. I’ve also trained many other bartenders around town, and it’s nice to see them excelling. 

When you’re hiring bartenders, what are you looking for?

First, temperament. You can teach anyone to make and pour a drink, but you can’t teach the ability to open up and easily talk to strangers, the “gift of gab.” Next, experience. We are offering a luxury experience, so we need that higher level of knowledge and appreciation of the high-end products we are dealing with. We have bottles on our wall that cost thousands of dollars. Finally, work ethic. I want them to see themselves not as just a server but as a salesperson too. They are selling the brand and building that guest engagement.

Personal Matters

  • Best Bit of Biz Advice: “To be early is to be on time.” 
  • Pour Pick: William Larue Weller is my favorite whiskey. 
  • Point of Pride: We recently started doing private barrel selections for the whiskeys we serve; we’re one of the only bars doing it in our area. We actually go to the distillery, or they come to us, and we taste and hand-select a barrel and then buy it. Each barrel is different, so you can’t get this exact bourbon or whiskey anywhere else. We’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from guests, and I’m really proud of the program.

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