Flipping the Austin Bar Scene with Bridget Dunlap
We get it, Austin is cool. But a few years ago, before Rainey Street was the social district it is today, there was only a charming house set to be demolished and an ambitious woman who saw something no one else did. Bridget Dunlap, an entrepreneur with Houston roots, set a transformation in motion when she opened her first bar, Lustre Pearl, on the once dilapidated Rainey Street in 2009. Five years and four more openings later, that renaissance is well on its way. Bridget took some time to talk with us about how she creates successful bars that help revitalize local neighborhoods and the magnetic force that she distills into all of her work.
Zipcar: Could you tell us about how you got your start?
Bridget: I was working as a Pilates instructor, a technical writer and taking jobs as a waitress or bartender when a friend asked me to help develop a business plan for a bar. I had been in the bar and restaurant industry long enough that I understood what a place needed to be successful—from the aesthetics to the labor costs. After that project, I realized I could do it myself.
What has made you successful?
Fortitude. Grit. A survivor mechanism. When I was young, I traveled and hitchhiked and worked all over the world. I did everything. I had chosen that life and I didn’t mind it, but when I decided to have my child, I wanted to raise him the best I could. He was the catalyst.
That was right when my friend asked me for help with his business plan. This wasn’t the industry I loved, but it’s what I knew. What I’ve learned in these years is that you’re supposed to do what you know.
What did you see in Rainey Street that other people didn’t?
To me it was obvious. The proximity to the city and the potential were there, it just needed to be revitalized. It was going to happen whether I did it or not. But I’m glad I got the start on it.
How do you turn a concept for a new bar into reality?
Creating a bar or a restaurant takes a lot of gut intuition. If I’m not feeling it, I’m not going to push it. For me, trying to keep the integrity of the space is really important. The fun part is establishing the aesthetics, creating that certain feeling when people walk in. I also pick the names that are meaningful to me, each has a little of my personality. Lustre Pearl has been my alter ego since I was 16. Clive Bar was always Lustre’s boyfriend. Mettle is about strength and tenacity and not giving up. With the latest ones, I was a little less creative and more direct; Bar 96 is the address and Container Bar, well I knew everyone was going to call it that anyway.
What challenges do you face when you open a new place? What keeps you going?
People think looking from the outside in that the restaurant industry is glamorous, but it’s really not. It’s not for the weak of heart.
It’s a constant roller coaster of stress, especially financially, but when I decide to do something, there’s no turning back, it’s like an animal instinct.
People might talk shit or tell me I can’t do it, but it inspires me more when people expect me to fail. For example, Container Bar took five years and two million dollars. Up until the opening, people were actually threatening to sue me if it didn’t open in time for the parties they booked for SXSW. I’m so grateful to have it open. Finally.
Do you have a mentor?
I’m kind of a loner so I don’t really have a lot of those relationships. The one thing I do strive to have is more grace. It’s such a beautiful quality to have. And maybe a little more diplomacy, although I don’t think my strong opinions are ever going away [she laughs]. People call me a lot of things because of it, but this business is for a certain kind of human. You need to have resilience.
Any other cities in your sights?
I thought about bringing Lustre and Clive to another city, but I always wanted to get here, to Austin. It’s beautiful. There’s lots to do and I love the culture here. There are some good museums, a great park, and the music of course. It’s just fun, I love it.