The new restaurant owners are introducing Watershed to a whole new clientele, and were wise enough to find talented people who understand the distillery's ethos.
Why They're Tastemakers
Have a seat at any bar or restaurant in Columbus and odds are you'll spy Watershed Distillery products on the shelves. Owners Greg Lehman and Dave Rigo have grown their portfolio deliberately from vodka, gin and bourbon to specialized spirits like the Nocino black walnut liqueur and bottled Old-Fashioned (with an apple brandy on the way). And last year, when state legislative changes began permitting distilleries to serve spirits directly to customers, they quickly made a bold move into the restaurant world.
From Distillery to Bar and Restaurant
Lehman and Rigo can tell you the exact date Ohio legislation went into effect allowing them to operate bars and restaurants—Sept. 28, 2016. The actual legislation was signed in June. “That's when we said, ‘Let's do this,'” Lehman says. “The logical side said, ‘Don't start a restaurant because they're scary.' The passionate side said we had to do it.” Thus began the transformation from a distillery with a small bottle shop to full-fledged restaurant and bar. Their goal was to make space for guests to enjoy cocktails and become fans of the brand. “We'd give a tour,” Lehman says, “and people wanted to hang out in the front room, have a drink, have some food. But [before the new laws passed] they could only buy a bottle to take home.”
As they launched Watershed Kitchen & Bar, Lehman and Rigo were wise enough to find talented people who understand the distillery's ethos. To that end, they hired Jack Moore as executive chef and Alex Chien as bar manager. “They understand what the distillery's about,” Lehman says. “We love to educate a bit, challenge a bit, mostly make sure people are enjoying themselves.” Rigo adds that he and Lehman didn't fully commit to the restaurant until they found Moore, a veteran of top-notch Cleveland eateries like The Black Pig and Greenhouse Tavern. Likewise, Chien had made a name for himself in cocktail competitions, and they offered him the opportunity to lead his first bar program.
Celebrating Fellow Entrepreneurs
As the name implies, Watershed is based on the idea of celebrating important moments and big steps. With that in mind, Lehman and Rigo recently launched an online series called “I'll Have What I'm Having,” where they invite some of their favorite entrepreneurs and collaborators to tell their stories and share their knowledge. “It highlights the people we want to highlight,” Rigo says, “people who are changing the community.” It's their way to support other businesses and give back to the restaurants and organizations that supported them early on. “We started being local,” Lehman says, “but we realized we're more than that. We care about the community itself, being a part of the change that's driving it. We were inspired by others to start our company; now we're inspiring and celebrating others.”