Open Raised by Wolves’ menu and you’ll be treated to an interesting lesson on Roman mythology about Romulus and Remus—two boys raised by wolves who would go on to found the great city of Rome.
What does this myth have to do with the bar? Everything, as it turns out.
Raised by Wolves celebrates the values of the pack—loyalty, caring, and a sense of family and social connection—especially in regards to its staff, which refers to themselves as the “wolfpack.”
“It’s a civilization through savagery,” says Erick Castro, who co-owns the bar that is part of Arsalun Tafazoli’s Consortium Holdings. “Wolves are pack animals, and they’re actually a lot more socially adapted than I think a lot of people give them credit for. So we wanted to take something that’s viewed as uncivilized and juxtapose that with something as austere and beautiful as our bar. It’s flipping those expectations upside down.”
Since it opened in 2018, Raised by Wolves has flipped every expectation on its head through its cocktail menu, décor, and even its location within a suburban mall—San Diego’s Westfield UTC outdoor shopping mall. “We wanted to try something different, try something a little bit new, and try something that was challenging,” says Castro. “We really saw an opportunity to open a craft cocktail bar in a mall. It seemed like such an interesting, postmodern idea.”
What also makes Raised by Wolves unique is its status as one of the only venues in the U.S. that combines on-premise and off-premise licenses under one roof. “Everything about this place is unexpected,” says Castro. “It’s already shattering conventions just by existing.”
Combining a fine retail spirits operation with a bar is something Castro originally wanted to do with his venue Polite Provisions back in 2012, but it wasn’t in the cards for that establishment. With Raised by Wolves, Castro succeeded in overcoming the hurdles to get the licensing to combine on- and off-premise operations, and the venue now views itself as a sort of one-stop shop. “There’s something very gratifying about being able to sell on the same premise,” says Castro.
Now when a guest likes a cocktail and asks what is in it, the bar staff can offer to collect the bottles and ingredients in the retail store for them to buy on the way out—the ultimate upsell. The retail store includes nearly 1,300 curated spirits, and the store is staffed by trained bartenders who are knowledgeable about the products, their use, and their history.
Raised by Wolves doesn’t aim to out-compete the chain liquor stores on big name brands, rather, they aim to satisfy those looking for unique and hard-to-find selections. “We’re going to beat them on selection, knowledge, and diversity of product,” says Castro.
The retail space is the first thing that greets guests with its opulent aesthetic achieved through painted murals, glass display cases, and decor that marries Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and French provincial influences.
A revolving wall with a fireplace transports guests into the hidden bar where that same timeless opulence is carried through in custom fabrications, French Art Nouveau-inspired couches, and handpainted walls and ceilings.
The centerpiece is a 22-foot circular marble bar with a towering fountain and ornate stools that sits under a stained glass hemispherical ceiling, complete with LED lighting simulating daytime and nighttime. The interior evokes a London library, complete with bookshelves filled with antique volumes, knick-knacks, and intricate wood flooring.
“We wanted to make you forget that you’re in a mall. We wanted to take you away from that,” says Castro. “There are no windows in the bar. You can’t see outside. You don’t know if it’s midnight or if it’s noon. We really wanted to create a world all unto itself.
“We put a lot of effort and a lot of love into the space. Even if you just had a whiskey on the rocks or a beer, we wanted the venue to feel transformative. The cocktails were meant to complement that transcendence, not to substitute for it.”
And complement they do. The beverage program, which brings world-class cocktails to an unexpected suburban setting, is just another way that Raised by Wolves challenges its guests to forget their expectations about cocktail tropes. “I intentionally tried to flip all the cocktails and all the expectations on their head,” says Castro. “What really surprised us is that we’ve been able to get away with way more adventurous, esoteric, and eccentric style cocktails here than we have been able to get in just about any other bar I’ve ever been involved with.”
The biggest challenge was crafting a beverage program that catered to regulars and mall drop-ins alike. “We had to make sure that the menu could make happy the most hardcore spirits and cocktail nerds but also just a random casual guest that has never had any experience with craft cocktails and was just walking through the mall,” says Castro, who explains that staff training and the right balance of cocktails helped them to appeal to both groups. “Doing that menu was actually one of the most fun, rewarding things I’ve ever done in regards to food and drink.”
The main cocktail menu is updated about every three months. The classics section (featuring more obscure classics like Planter’s Punch, Bee’s Knees, and Pimm’s Cup) rotates more frequently, every two months or less, so that regulars always have something new to try.
“That one rotates faster than the rest of the menu because we wanted to make sure we’re introducing classics to expand the vocabulary of our clientele and our staff so that they have a richer way of understanding a lot of these classic cocktails,” says Castro.
For guests just discovering the world of craft cocktails, bartenders seek to provide an education and introduce them to something new. “When we have the opportunity to allow people to come into our world and convert them to our style of drink, we’re creating regulars for life because we’re changing the way they drink,” says Castro. “It’s a two-way street. They’re giving us the opportunity to wow them, and then we’re hopefully rising to the occasion.”
Castro embraces sophisticated mixological techniques, including fat-washing, culinary centrifuges, self-agitating kegs for sparkling cocktails on tap, alkaloids, phosphates, and house infusions created via sous vide.
For example, instead of a regular old fashioned, the bar’s house version, the Island Old Fashioned, includes banana liqueur, Peruvian bitters, Angostura Bitters, and coconut-washed Irish whiskey. The coconut Irish whiskey is created by fat washing whiskey with unrefined coconut fat and then sous viding the mixture, which results in an authentic coconut flavor.
Other highlights from the cocktail menu include the Redneck Riviera with rye whiskey, apple brandy, lime, bonal, maple, amaro, orange, cinnamon, and allspice dram; and the house spritz Trap Queen with Cappelletti Aperitivo, lychee liqueur, seltzer, and champagne.
Castro made sure to price the cocktails so that Raised by Wolves wouldn’t be just a “special occasion bar.” “We wanted to make sure that we priced it so that people could still come a few times a week if they work in the area, and we do get a lot of regulars,” he says.
Guests looking for food will have to visit one of the restaurants in the mall near Raised by Wolves, as the bar never developed a food menu after not experiencing the demand for it. Plus, the venue wanted to keep the focus on what it does best—making exceptional cocktails. “We didn’t want to enter an arena unless we could dominate it,” explains Castro.
After $3.5 million in sales in its first year and a number of accolades, including recognition as a Top 10 Regional Nominee for “Best New Cocktail Bar” Spirited Award (USA – West) at the 2019 Tales of the Cocktail, it’s safe to say the bar has succeeded in dominating.
Castro attributes his success to the culture, which he and his co-owners “transplant” into each new venue by getting staff from other properties involved in the opening. “It allows you to bring in that sense of identity to the new properties,” says Castro. “We have this culture of constant improvement.”
That sense of constant improvement has also contributed to the bar’s success. “Being the best in the industry isn’t you climb to the top of Everest and plant your flag. We’re climbing a mountain that has no peak,” he says. “If we’re not creating regulars, if we’re not sparking interest and loyalty for people to keep coming back, then you’re going to notice a drop off.”
Castro says above all, investing in staff is most important. “The only way you’re going to continue to grow and continue to draw in business is by investing in your people and keeping them motivated,” he says. “Investing in our own people and applying pressure to them in a way to keep them growing is one of the best things we’ve ever done.”