How It Started: Portland Hunt + Alpine Club

Ten years ago, Briana and Andrew Volk brought new life to Portland, Maine’s bar and restaurant scene when they debuted Portland Hunt + Alpine Club on September 5, 2013. With the club now celebrating its 10th anniversary, Briana shares what she and Andrew originally envisioned as they planned for the grand opening, what they learned after opening their doors, and how Hunt + Alpine has evolved over the past decade.

BRIANA VOLK: Andrew and I met in Portland, Oregon, when he was behind the bar at Clyde Common with Jeff Morgenthaler. We had both lived in Portland long enough that we’d watched the genesis of it go from a beer town to a really foodie town and then cocktails. I mean, we lived it firsthand, watching it happen. 

I worked in advertising at the time, and we moved to Maine for a job for me. Andrew’s originally from Vermont, so he wanted to get back to New England anyway. And we were in Portland, Maine, and looking at this town going, “There’s great beer here, there’s excellent food here, but there are no cocktails yet.” Having seen that evolution before, we’re like, “Oh, we know what this next evolution is. And we want a place that reminds us of Clyde or of places that we love to go to.”

It was during a blizzard at this really divey bar that doesn’t exist anymore, and way too many shots of Jim Beam together. And I threw the idea at him, “Why don’t you do it? If you don’t do it, someone else is going to do it. And it won’t be as cool as what you could do.” And we kind of laughed about it, then the next day he started working on a business plan. 

The plan was for things we knew and loved, and what we wanted to see. The Scandinavian influence is from my family. I’m Finnish and grew up with a grandmother who made traditional Finnish food. And it’s great food to drink with because most of it’s like hearty, and very seasonal. So that went into both our design and food choices. And then Andrew’s really great at putting a cocktail program together. So he shaped it around not only classics and things we love, but also pushing the bar into creating things that are maybe a little bit outside of someone’s comfort zone. So once they try it, it opens up their world to other new things, which is really fun. 

Some people loved it. And some people were really suspicious of our motives because we were newish to the community and doing this thing that hadn’t really happened before. And there are great bartenders in this town. They were always there, but at restaurant bars, so their programs were tied to the food as opposed to us creating a full cocktail program. So it was a huge mix. 

From Day One, we’ve had amazing regulars. We actually have one regular. When they first started coming in, their son was 11 and would bring him with them. And he just turned 21, and his first legal drink in Maine was at our bar. So we’ve had people like that from Day One, and lots of first dates, and wedding receptions, and watching people then bring their kids in, which is really cool. I was three months pregnant when we opened Hunt. So it’s always been like it’s a cocktail bar. But also I want kids to be able to be in there. I want families to be able to be in there, because you should be able to go have a good cocktail and not feel like you’re somewhere where a kid shouldn’t be. 

“One of the things we both went into being pretty clear-eyed on was the fact that once you open the doors, it’s not your space anymore.”

One of the things we both went into being pretty clear-eyed on was the fact that once you open the doors, it’s not your space anymore. Your guests are going to make it what they envision, and how they want to see it. We were both pretty understanding that the space was going to evolve, and it needs to evolve constantly. Any restaurant or bar needs to continually evolve in some ways, just to survive out there. I think more people maybe thought it was going to be a little more high-end than we actually are, or were. That’s just clean Scandinavian design, with Eames chairs and Nelson saucers in a place. Our feel was, ‘It’s supposed to feel like that, but be comfortable.’ And also you can get a Miller High Life and a shot of Fernet, and no one’s going to blink twice. 

So much has changed in 10 years. It’s always been an evolution of paying attention to what’s going on around the country, and what our peers are doing, to create interesting cocktails and stay up to date with everything. We have lots of people coming from New York and Boston and major cities. And we want to be on par with those places, and be there for them.

Portland Hunt + Alpine Club Saffron Sour
The bar’s Saffron Sour. | Photo by Meredith Perdue

And one of the things we found early on, and then started leaning into, was that women feel really comfortable coming into the bar by themselves, and coming on first dates. And we still see a lot of that. So we’ve really, really leaned into trying to create a safe space that is comfortable, especially for any solo diner, but for women to come in and feel really comfortable. Which was a really pleasant surprise and something we hadn’t had in our heads. But to watch it happen was one of those things that we felt really good about. 

Covid shook up everything. So what Hunt is now and what it would’ve been without Covid, I can’t tell you. We definitely changed our style of service. We were able to add a patio outside, which is really nice and lovely, especially in the summertime. And we rethought how we hire and who we want to be working with us. It’s much more about, “Do they have those small touches already inherently in them?” because other stuff, we can train. And we worked on in-depth training programs, and if people want to move up in their careers, promoting from within. 

“We just signed a 10-year lease, so I think there’ll be another 10 years hopefully. As far as what’s next, I don’t know.”

We just signed a 10-year lease, so I think there’ll be another 10 years hopefully. As far as what’s next, I don’t know. It’s one of the things I love about this business, and I know Andrew loves about this business: You don’t know day-to-day what you’re walking into when you’re dealing with guests. And as far as trends and things like that, we’ve always paid attention. But, really, we’ve wanted to stay classically good, and have a solid base without trying to rush and find the next big trend. We’re not that space, and I don’t think we’ll ever be that space. 

We’ll continue to be what Hunt + Alpine is. Having watched some of my favorite places turn 10 over the past few years, and evolve and grow, one of the things we’re going to try is to keep the heart and energy of Hunt alive while still trying to make things better and better. We’re constantly adapting to what guests need and want, and deciding what sort of service we want to provide to people, so the guests are going to be comfortable and have the most fun in our space. 

Andrew Volk
Andrew Volk behind the bar. | Photo by Meredith Perdue

And we’re still in there daily—Andrew’s behind the bar right now. It’s been cool to be here for 10 years and watch the community grow. We started as the only cocktail bar here, and now there are a dozen maybe. It’s so cool to see, and I love watching everything grow and get better and better. Alex Day and his whole crew opened a place last year up here [The Danforth]. And it’s nice to see friends come up and do that. And also people within the community.

I know a bunch of people who were bartenders years ago when we opened Hunt, and now have opened their own places, which is nice to see. I don’t think you get that in a lot of cities anymore, that ability to be able to create your own space. And so watching that happen over the last decade has been really cool. 

As told to Paul Clarke

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