Saturday, May 18, 2024

NC Trend: Old-fashioned success

Hundreds of bottles tower shelf upon shelf behind the wood counter where bartenders in pale blue shirts and bow ties concoct elaborate drinks. It’s a Saturday night, and the amber colors of candlelight and bourbon fill The Crunkleton, a 99-seat craft cocktail bar on Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street that Gary Crunkleton opened in 2008. It is decorated with Mission oak furniture from 1908 and funky modern American folk art — no Tar Heel flags or TVs tuned to basketball. “I’m a heavyset guy, I cuss a lot, I like chicken wings, and I’m a man’s man,” Crunkleton says. “I think people thought I would have opened a sports bar, but that’s not really what I’m about.”

The bar has received praise from culture stalwarts such as Southern Living, which in February named it one of the three best bars in the South, and national food critics. If you didn’t look out the bay window onto Franklin Street, you’d think you were in New York or New Orleans.

Crunkleton, 50, came back to Chapel Hill to attend graduate school after working for four years as a teacher in Charlotte. He had tended bar as an undergrad at Carolina, where he earned a B.A. in philosophy and political science, and picked up a similar gig again. “At first, I didn’t know I was a good bartender. It was just a way to make money while I was in school.” Eventually, he began to think about opening his own bar. Just missing the cut for UNC’s law school was the nudge he needed to open The Crunkleton, aided by $350,000 from an angel investor in Florida.

“I really looked in the mirror,” he says, “and asked ‘What would I want?’ I wanted a place for adults without food.” By sticking to drinks, The Crunkleton operates as a private club open to anyone with $5 for a membership. For $150, you get your name engraved on a copper plate affixed to the back of a barstool for a year. More than 7,000 names are on the rolls, including university professors, MBA students and young professionals. The bartender’s code prohibits him from naming names. Some undergraduates show up, though competing bars may offer more beer for the buck. “We’re not anti-student,” he says. “I love when they come in, when they appreciate things that are sophisticated.” Crunkleton says his bar is profitable, with revenue growing 15% annually.

On a recent night, the crowd included two 20-somethings in button-down shirts and V-neck sweaters sipping The Crunkleton’s Post-Prohibition Old Fashioned ($10) with muddled orange and cherry. It, along with the Elderflower Sour, a gin-based cocktail that costs $12, are the bar’s most popular drinks. But serious cocktail enthusiasts come for the vast selection of whiskey. There are 100 bottles of bourbon or rye and another hundred of Scotch, plus hard-to-find malt whiskey from as far away as Taiwan and New Zealand.

Crunkleton, who now employs 11 people, plans to add locations in Nashville, Tenn., this year, Atlanta next year and Charlotte in 2018. “The plan,” he says with a laugh, “is to build a lot.”

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