The last Friday of each month is something of a sprint for Matt Choy and Derrick Stevens. That’s the night that two of Honolulu’s biggest recurring events, ARTafterDARK and Eat The Street, take place simultaneously — and the pair is responsible for a key part of both events: the alcohol.
Choy and Stevens run Free Spirits, a mobile bartending service that provides beer, wine and custom cocktails for a range of events as well as private parties. And those last Friday events, they say, fill up quickly, and the crowds don’t slow until it’s over. Throughout the night, they estimate that they serve about 7,000 people total at both events — all in the span of just five hours.
“It’s a little crazy,” Choy admits.
“It is always busy,” Stevens agrees.
“But it’s always fun,” he adds after a beat.
After being at it for four years — Free Spirits launched in 2012, getting its start at an office party of just 25 people — Choy says they’ve got it “down to a science.” In addition to their regular lineup of events, which also includes Street Grindz’s Honolulu Night Market, they’re often called upon for weddings, corporate mixers, birthday parties, festivals, concerts and more.
Now, Free Spirits is embarking on even more growth. Last August, when Eat The Street and Night Market organizer Street Grindz opened its six day-a-week food-truck lot Makers and Tasters at Kewalo Harbor, Free Spirits took up residence there, serving as the site’s cocktail provider.
And within the next several months, they’re slated to open their very own brick and mortar, tentatively called Pitch Sports Bar, in the forthcoming SALT warehouse in Kaka‘ako.
Choy and Stevens initially conceptualized Free Spirits while they were bartending at the former Waikiki Edition, where they’d met as part of the venue’s opening staff. Sometimes, when private parties came to the hotel and needed extra bar staff, Choy and Stevens would fill in. The experience got them thinking — if the bar could travel to the customers, they reasoned, it would be more convenient, while allowing party hosts to customize their event while saving on venue fees.
“We created Free Spirits as a way to do a mobile bartending service that you can have in the comfort of your own backyard,” Choy explains.
At first, it was a fun side venture to make a little extra cash. But both already being industry veterans by that point, Choy and Stevens were drawn to the idea that they could create their own business. They’d both long been jumping from hotel to hotel, from bar to bar, as venues opened and closed. This, they thought, was a chance to make a name for themselves.
What really prompted them to keep going, though, was something they observed during early gigs: “The looks on people’s faces and how much fun they were having,” as Choy recalls.
“We realized that we really had an opportunity to make other people’s parties really special and be part of something that is memorable,” Choy says.
“It’s really rewarding to know that for a wedding, we made their day extra special,” he continues. “Especially if they want something really customized and we are able to do that for them when they couldn’t do that at another venue.”
Customization is a key part of Free Spirits. For private events, Choy and Stevens work with clients to create drinks just for them. They’ve done, for instance, a Star Wars-themed wedding with drinks the colors of lightsabers. Plus, they also tailor their Eat The Street and ARTafterDark offerings to fit the monthly themes.
Free Spirits has been with Street Grindz since the first Eat The Street location on South Street. Now, with their bar at Makers and Tasters, Bar TEN ELEVEN, they’ve got a permanent place. There, they’ve crafted a menu that is comprised of local twists on old classics. Cocktails include Stormy Seas with gin, blackberry, lime and ginger beer, and The Mariner, a mix of tequila, lime, grapefruit and a touch of li hing mui.
“(Free Spirits) really came to us with the right service at the right time,” says Poni Askew, who co-founded Street Grindz with husband Brandon. “We needed something to enhance our events, and they were able to provide that with ease.
“We initially chose Free Spirits because they were a small, local business like ours,” Poni continues. “Our aim at Street Grindz is to support and provide a way for these businesses to succeed.”
In Free Spirits’ case, that certainly worked. About two years in, both Choy and Stevens were able to quit their day jobs to focus on Free Spirits full time. While they’re the only full-time employees, they hire workers for their various events, sometimes managing a staff of up to 40 people.
In opening Pitch, which they’ll operate alongside other investors and partners, they aim to cater to both the “casual and fanatical sports fan,” Choy explains. The roughly 3,000-square-foot space will be broken up into various zones — one with stadium seating facing a television for a group game-watching experience, a bar with a few TVs, an outdoor seating area, as well as pool tables and dart boards. They also plan to serve lunch, dinner and late-night eats.
The SALT warehouse that’ll house Pitch is near many of Choy and Stevens’ earliest gigs — which largely is by design. Much of the work they’ve done has been in Kaka‘ako. They watched as the neighborhood grew and developed — at the same time that their own business did — and for them, it feels like home.
“Kaka‘ako saw us grow up, then we kind of ventured out, did our own thing and we wanted to make sure that we came back to Kaka‘ako and made our home here,” Choy says.
“If it weren’t for Kaka‘ako, we wouldn’t be where we are,” he continues, “and we like to think that we positively contributed somehow to its development and we want to keep it going.”
And from a business standpoint, they look at it as something of a personal challenge.
“Derrick and I have always talked about opening our own spot,” Choy says. “We know we can do catering successfully; what else can we do successfully?
“It is going to be a fun adventure for us,” he adds.
TEN ELEVEN at Makers and Tasters is open from 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday–Saturday. Next up, you can find Free Spirits at Honolulu Night Market on March 19. For more information on Free Spirits, visit fsmobilebartenders.com.