Oakland Art Novelty Company Stirs Up Bar Business


FERNDALE — In just over two years, the Ferndale speakeasy that revived the craft cocktail concept and inspired drink menus across metro Detroit has followed an unusual road to success.

The Oakland Art Novelty Co., owned by Sandy Levine, opened its doors along Nine Mile Road in July 2011 without obvious signage or fanfare. The focus was — and remains — on “cutting edge drinks that taste incredible,” according to Levine.  But an unconventional formula proved to be its ultimate recipe for success.

“When we opened, I wanted to have a safe contingency plan, so I made our inventory double what I thought we’d need so that if bills mounted up, we could deplete it without spending additional money,” Levine said. “In the 2-1/2 years since we opened, that oversized opening inventory has increased by 625 percent. We started with one rack of spirits in a storeroom. Now that rack houses our ultra-rare spirits, and we have three more oversized racks in the basement, along with an entire area dedicated to full cases.”

To the outside eye, bar hasn’t changed very much. The elegant craft cocktail lounge still offers friendly service, sets industry trends with a constantly-changing menu and places its guests’ comfort above all else. But its operations are faster. An added service bar within the kitchen and new five-hour prep shifts made it possible to create drinks faster than ever. Syrups, infusions, juices and sodas could be made ahead of time. “This way the bartenders who are responsible for taking care of the guests have more time to spend with them,” said Levine.

That’s important to him, and his staff. He attributes much of The Oakland’s success to his talented staff, and credits each bartender who created a drink by name under each menu item on the constantly changing list of offerings.

That’s not the only unusual characteristic you’ll find at The Oakland. Casting aside tradition was a conscious choice, and has been a lucrative one. “Many of the things we do are things that people told me would kill my business,” Levine said. “Before we opened, very few people in this area had heard the term craft cocktails. Not having flavored vodkas was crazy to a lot of people. Not having a sign meant nobody would know we were here. Having a waitlist once the seats were full meant our bar wouldn’t ever be crowded, which people thought was a death sentence. While technically all of these things may cause us to make less money in the short term, I’d seen this concept in other cities and knew that if we executed it properly, our bar could offer something really special, and I think it has.”

Whenever they experiment — with ghost pepper drinks, vinegar, raw eggs, or bitter cocktails, for example — guests have embraced it.

Levine might know why: “While we take the drinks seriously, we certainly don’t take ourselves seriously. We don’t believe in places that portray their bartenders as wizards whose guests sit at an altar of mixology. Drinking should be fun, and our bartenders try to make sure that it is when they serve drinks in our bar.”