Travis Owens, Founder of Bygone Curio, Joins Wolf’s Ridge as Beverage Director
Three years after shuttering his beloved cocktail establishment, Owens is behind the bar again to refresh the Wolf’s Ridge cocktail offerings.
One of the city’s best bartenders is getting back in the game.
In a coup for Wolf’s Ridge Brewing, Travis Owens, the creator of what was arguably Columbus’ best cocktail bar for a time, has joined the award-winning restaurant as its beverage director. The former Curio frontman will also oversee the bar program at the brewery’s forthcoming venture, Understory, in the Old North. Last week was his first in the new gig.
Owens first opened Curio, his intimate, 30-seat cocktail bar, in 2012 next to Chris Crader’s Harvest Pizzeria in German Village. Owens’ goal at the time was the create the best cocktail bar in the city. Owens closed the bar on June 30, 2018, and there has been much anticipation about when and where the bartender would land next. Owens says he has had many opportunities to open his own bar since closing Curio, but none of them felt right.
“I’ve been looking for the right location. I’m pretty picky, almost to a point of obsessive ... and it’s taken a lot longer than I thought,” Owens said Wednesday during an interview via Zoom. “There were numerous things that I could have pursued pretty quickly after Curio, but they just didn’t feel 100 percent. … I look back on it and I count my blessings that I didn’t pull the trigger at that point in time.”
Instead, Owens launched his own cocktail consulting and ice business, Behind the Glass. He’s consulted on bar programs for Antiques on High and The Getaway Brewing Co., among others. Meanwhile, his artisan ice business sold transparent, highly sought-after ice cubes (some of them branded at $1.50 a cube) to cocktail bars such as Vaso and Watershed Kitchen & Bar. Owens says he was just weeks away from signing a lease on a property specifically to house his booming cocktail ice business when the pandemic hit.
“Everything in my world, I put on hold,” Owens says, adding that he opted to hunker down with his kids for about a year. “I definitely realized that bartending and cocktail culture became second nature to me, but I had to really, really dig in to learn how to be a stay-at-home dad. That was not in my blood,” he says. “It’s nice right now to get back to some semblance of what I used to do during the day. … It’s helping my mental state to be back out there in the world."
About a month ago, Wolf’s Ridge’s general manager, Corey Schlosser, asked Owens if he knew anybody who might be interested in running the bar program. Owens raised his hand: “Maybe it would be me.”
Owens already had a rapport with Wolf’s Ridge co-owner Bob Szuter (Owens says he and his family were Curio regulars), but more important was the impression Wolf’s Ridge made on Owens since its early days.
“If I’m in Columbus and I can walk into an establishment such as Wolf’s Ridge and feel like I’m anywhere in the country … with the hospitality, the food and the drink, then that’s a win. I felt that way from second one when I walked in the door at Wolf’s Ridge ... the first year when they opened,” he says. “I’ve never had an experience there [as a patron] when I didn’t leave with a big smile on my face."
Owens says he doesn’t plan to tweak too much at the Downtown bar, just infuse his creative, editorial style and work closely with the kitchen on reducing food waste. “I was handed the baton pretty much at the head of the pack,” he says. “The bones and the structure are in a really good spot."
Understory, located in a historic building along the Olentangy Trail, will have a cocktail identity all its own (though with some crossover). “I think there’s going to be a bit different demographic, so I think we’ll be playing to that a bit with lower ABV cocktails, some NA [non-alcoholic] cocktails,” Owens says. “I think it makes sense with the transient nature of the location.”
As Owens prepares to dust off the bartending cobwebs, he admits that he’s changed a bit from his days leading Curio when the driving force was to create the best bar in the city. The unique, hard-to-find ingredients and advanced cocktail techniques will still be there, he says. But he’s learned to work more efficiently, to “work cleaner” and to place hospitality above all else.
“I’ve learned how to edit and remove ourselves from the equation, and just get people what they want and what they like and what’s going to excite them," he says.
Wolf’s Ridge to Combine Dining Room and Taproom Menus
In other Wolf’s Ridge news, the Downtown establishment announced this week that it would no longer be serving separate menus at its taproom and adjoining fine-dining restaurant. According to a press release, the decision to consolidate the menus came after co-owner Bob Szuter worked together with staff on ways “to preserve staff members and minimize burnout” as the restaurant/brewery grapples with the nationwide labor shortage. The consolidation will help to streamline staffing, training and operations. Check out the new menu here.