A wise person – probably my mum (R.I.P.) – once said that God laughs at people who make plans. Ha! How He must chuckling at all of us right now. With everything from the Olympics and Wimbledon to, heaven forbid, this year’s Bacardí Legacy Global Final, being cancelled, it just goes to show that nothing, however meticulously planned, however much money has gone into it, is a cert.
Which is a factor that Moe Aljaff and AJ White can attest to. One minute, there they were, together with fellow Schmuck James Bligh, embarking on a tour of a lifetime which would have seen them sharing a taster of their award-winning Barcelona-based bar Two Schmucks, in seven cities in the good old US of A. The next, they found themselves stuck in the middle of a WTF-is-happening-lockdown. 3,829 miles away from home.
Cue a made-up-on-the-hoof contingency plan. Now, while the rest of us would be having a major meltdown, frantically booking flights for the first plane home, anyone who knows anything about the Schmucks will know that this is a brand that always seems to find a way to turn any crisis into something inspiring. How? Well, that’s what we wanted to find out… Hence a call where we caught up with Moe somewhere mid-way between Nashville and Miami…
First, we hope you’re well, keeping safe and sane and not on the verge of killing each other!
[Laughs] We’re fine. Me and AJ are like an old married couple!
Like us then! Now let’s go back to when the tour was first publicised. How long was it from conception to take off?
AJ, James and myself have always wanted to do a road trip across the US. But the idea for this tour really began to formulate last October during London Cocktail Week. That was around the same time that we started seeing all of the presidential election campaign stuff taking place. On the back of that, we thought it would be fun to do a parody of the whole thing, with us touring the States doing a campaign of our own.
Our idea was that it would be called Schmuck 2020 and it would be a fun take on the seriousness that would be going on in full-effect with Trump and Biden arguing on television. The drinks and our specially designed merchandise would mimic the campaigning style and we’d do a bar takeover in various locations. It would have been a whole lot of fun and I think the people in the US would have responded to it in a really positive way.
L-R: James, Moe and AJ outside their bar Two Schmucks in Barcelona
But it wasn’t just about having fun – what was the rationale behind the tour?
For us, it was a chance to travel across the States. Also, it was an opportunity for us to dip our toes into the American market. If we wanted to do something in the US in the future, which was very much in our minds, this would have been a good way to do our research and get to know people in the market. At the same time we’d have an insight into which cities are doing particularly well.
Obviously you needed someone to help you out financially. How did you pitch the idea to Simon Ford of Fords Gin?
My pitch to Simon went like: “So we want to tour the United States from east to west coast in an RV and do pop-ups along the way, while we document it in a vlog. But we want to do the whole thing as a satire of the presidential election and we want to call it Schmuck 2020.”
Simon looked me in the eye, took a moment and said, “Let me check with our legal team.” A few months later we started working on the details with the Fords team and Tim Cooper [Fords Gin Global Brand Ambassador]. They were so supportive. Pulling this thing off turned out to be so much harder than we thought and I can honestly say that we wouldn’t have been able to do much without them.
Had it gone ahead, where were you scheduled to ‘tend?
The Schmuck 2020 Tour was scheduled to run from 12th March to 6th April, taking in Mace, New York; Best Intentions, Chicago; Lost Lake, Chicago; Pearl Diver, Nashville; Occidental, Denver; Cleaver, Las Vegas; Trick Dog, San Francisco; Bon Voyage, San Francisco, ending at Broken Shaker in Los Angeles.
What was the climate like before embarking on the tour?
Obviously, things [as in coronavirus related] were ramping up just before we were about to leave Barcelona. But as we all know now, it changes so quickly, day-by-day. First of all you don’t want to believe it: you think everything is being over exaggerated and there’s a certain amount of: “we’re alright/we’ll be fine/it’s not going to come to Spain/it’s not going to come to the US” mentality. That was only a week and a half ago! Now, the entire world is on lockdown! If you’d told me that two weeks ago, I would have thought you were absolutely crazy. But it’s now got to the point where the conspiracy theories don’t seem so far off…
When did the severity of the coronavirus actually hit?
Three days into our trip and we were in New York. We’d picked up the RV [their mode of transport and home for the majority of their US tour] and while doing so, we heard about what was happening in Spain. Coronavirus hadn’t really hit the US at that time, so we still did the event at Mace as scheduled. That was on the Thursday. By Sunday, shit got serious in the US.
Moe interviews Simon Ford in Nashville. Check out the full video here
While things were kicking off in America, you must have been keeping a close eye on how everything was progressing in Spain. What was happening in your bar?
By Friday night at around 2am, the police came into our bar and closed it down. The team were told that from midnight all bars had to close by government mandate.
James has a daughter in Barcelona, so he went back immediately. AJ and I stayed in the States, monitoring the situation. It was weird reading up on what was going on in Spain from a distance: they went extreme right from the get-go. Right now people aren’t even allowed to walk outside further than a three-mile radius.
What was harder for you: being away from home or being stuck in the US?
There were a lot of reasons why we didn’t want to go back to Spain. Firstly, James suggested that being in the States was a better option. His view was: “You have a house on moving wheels in the States. At least you can get out of the city.” He’s right. In a city as crammed as Barcelona, being stuck in your home isn’t healthy. And that’s one of the best tips that we’ve heard for coping in this crisis: staying healthy. You’ve got to keep your immune system up. If you can’t get out for exercise and top up your vitamin D levels – it’s not good for your general wellbeing or mental health. In Barcelona, the homes are so small, for us, being there didn’t seem to be conducive to either of those things.
Obviously the tour was cancelled. How did that go down with the Fords Gin team?
Simon and Tim were so supportive, they left it with us and said, “There’s no stress whatsoever from our side, just make sure you guys do whatever you guys want/need to do and we’re here for you.” At no point did we feel any like, “Aww fuck, all these events we were meant to be doing just got scrapped.” Instead we felt a ton of support from the guys.
After we found out about the conditions in Spain and decided we would stay and do the vlog/interviews, the brand wasn’t as involved, but Tim and Simon were still there for us and helped us with whatever we needed. They’re dope people.
So what was your initial plan of action?
The first thing we did was get the hell out of New York, which to our minds, is just as cramped as Barcelona. So we headed to Nashville. The team at Pearl Diver sorted us out with a very spacious, really beautiful house with a porch and everything – it was fantastic and really generous of them. We were there for a week, checking the situation day by day – which is what you need to do in this situation because everything changes so quickly.
We checked in with people in New Orleans, LA and New York to see how things were going there. In New York, LA and Washington they’d deployed the National Guard which made us feel a bit uneasy as we’re still in the US as visitors.
Moe, far left and AJ, far right, in Nashville with the Pearl Diver team
How has that affected your morale?
Our biggest fear right now is that Spain is going to lift the quarantine in mid-April and the US is going to shut down everything, including the airports, at the same time. So we’ve decided to go to Miami. The reason? There are several ways to get to Mexico from there – so far, they’ve only had a few reported cases. Or we could go to Cuba… Basically, we’re trying to distance ourselves and do our thing while not being in Spain because we couldn’t face being locked up like that. Of course, we’re distancing ourselves from people. Yesterday we were by a beach near the Atlantic Ocean and we were completely by ourselves – I would much rather do that than be stuck indoors in Barcelona.
Which is all well and good but what are you doing during your time in the States?
We decided to use the time that we’ve been given to do a daily vlog. As well as documenting what we see while we’re on the road, where we can, we set up one-to-one meetings – keeping our distance obviously – and just talking to people in the industry. There’s so much noise on Facebook that it’s nice to sit down and have an honest chat. We’re workers AJ and I, and we’ve always wanted to do this video thing, it’s been our side passion and as we’re in a position where we can’t be in bars right now, it’s a really good use of our time.
Who have you spoken to so far?
We started with the Pearl Diver guys in Nashville. It was so emotional speaking with them – they’re so full of love and incredibly hospitable. We learned from them that community is everything. They truly opened up about their situation and how it was for their community to be hit by a devastating tornado that destroyed the city and even cost a few of their friends lives, to barely being able to build the business up again before the covid lockdown began. As covid-19 was obviously media dominant, not a lot of people know what they went through but it was hard to both see and hear.
[Watch the in-depth interview below].
We also spoke with Simon Ford. As we know, his was a small brand which has been taken over by a big brand, so he’s seeing the impact of the current situation from both sides. He told us that if this had happened a year ago, Fords Gin wouldn’t exist now. I believe that’s what’s going to happen to a lot of small brands. I don’t think that there’s going to be a lot of room for niche or boutiquey things once this thing is over.
What’s the reaction to you guys being out and about on the road?
None really. They’re probably emptier than usual but to us the roads seem fairly busy. I mean, there are cars, vans and trucks being driven, plus the gas stations are open and there are still people about, so it all seems kind of normal.
What are you doing to fill time and keep yourselves sane?
It turns out that doing a daily vlog is a lot more demanding than we thought! We spend the daytime recording and nighttime editing. It takes around three hours to edit one of these videos. But like most things, if you do it every day you become better at it. We decided that if we were going to do this, we’d have to put our all into it. It’s working really well, doing one a day; every day it gets a little bit better and we’re using this time to rethink the entire game.
What have you learned about life during these past two weeks?
That nothing is guaranteed. Anything can just go ‘poooofff!’ That used to happen a lot when I was travelling and moving around a bit but since I’ve been settled in Barcelona, thinking that this is going to be what I’ll be doing for a good old while, I’ve put down roots and become more focused. It just goes to show how fragile everything is. Right now what’s going on in my head is ‘how am I going to restructure my business so it doesn’t rely on tourism? And how do we diversify our business so even in the worst of times we can still create something that’s good? That’s kind of what we’re doing with the vlogs – it’s something we can do so we’re not so vulnerable. And who knows? It could be our new thing.
Do you think having distance from Barcelona and the business is a good thing right now? Has it given you more clarity?
I think so. Otherwise we would have just been at home doing home videos but this is keeping us a lot more engaged. Witnessing for ourselves what’s happening in the States and being able to go around, seeing these markets being decimated gives us a completely different perspective on our business.
Team Schmuck, feeling the love in East Nashville
What can we all learn from these times that we find ourselves in?
That nothing lasts forever. We’ll see a lot of people try to rebuild their communities and a lot of people needing help. It’s an incredibly historic time that we’re all going through. This summer, the world will be a very different place.
There are two types of businesses in hospitality: one is escapism and experience, the other is about practicality. For example, in the case of coffee shops, there are the ones that you use when you just want your caffeine on the go, then there are others where you want to sit down and enjoy the full experience. For the average consumer, I think that going out for a drink is no longer going to be about experience or escapism. It’s going to be purely practical.
Let’s face it: the financial situation of the average person who’s been laid off for a few months isn’t going to be about going out for a nice experience, it’s going to be about going out to get drunk. Who’s going to spend 12€ on a cocktail over a 4€ beer? For those in the hospitality industry who rely heavily on tourism like Spain and Italy for instance, it’s going to be tough. No one is going to come to visit Spain this year, not after the massive outbreak that we’ve just been through.
I think we’re going to see pubs flourishing and thriving. In fact, I actually suggested that we install 10 beer taps and put sawdust on the floor in the bar. The only way that we can take care of our community is to become the most local joint we can be.