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Q&A: Tom Houser, The Copperhead Saloon

Nov 22, 2016 10:13AM ● Published by J. Chambless

Tom Houser of The Copperhead Saloon. (Photo by Richard L. Gaw)

When Tom Houser and his fiancee, Erin Wallace, opened the intimate Copperhead Saloon in Powder Mill Square earlier this year, they intended to bring back the look and feel of a traditional speakeasy. From concoctions to collaboration to pennies on the floor, the concept has worked magnificently. Greenville & Hockessin Life recently met with Houser to discuss how his business roots in Oklahoma began what he and Wallace are doing here, to change the way the locals are enjoying their beverages, one cocktail at a time.

Greenville & Hockessin Life: Take me back to the roots that eventually became the Copperhead Saloon.
Houser: I think those roots go back a ways. I'd been in the industry a long time in Norman, Oklahoma, and had partnerships with quite a few people. We had evolved several concepts -- a college beer bar, and then a wine bar, and then a gastropub, and then a cigar bar above the gastropub.  As we grew, we decided that instead of expanding a singular concept to other markets, we wanted to be in that one market, a college town. 
Over time, however, I found myself spreading further from one-on-one interactions with guests. My days were spent in training seminars and meetings, and I didn't get to go behind the bar and in the kitchen as much as I wanted to. It's what I enjoy doing most. I thought it would be nice to figure out if I could do this on my own.
At the same time, I met Erin, who was originally from Wilmington, and I quickly realized that she was the person I wanted to spend my life with. Through her, I knew it was time to make that move. I envied her ability to move about and change her lifestyle, because it opened up doors of possibility. I told my partners, 'Hey, I've met a girl,' and we then went to the negotiating table with each other.

What did you do next?
With the seed money from the negotiation, we initially looked at opening something up in Chicago. Being a mid-westerner from St. Louis, I liked that idea. Erin and I visited Chicago during February to scope out areas, we quickly realized that it was way too cold. We then moved to Florida. It turned out to be a very transient area and I like the idea of getting to know regulars. 
We began to talk about starting a family, and we realized that it would not make sense to do it away from family. We were in Wilmington visiting her family, and I told Erin that I felt more comfortable in Wilmington than I do in Florida. Once we moved, it was just a question of where we wanted to start a cocktail bar. 
I realized that this is a beer state -- with tons of great breweries -- but the cocktail scene was an untapped market in Wilmington. We knew that there would be a great opening for the concept. 

The Copperhead Saloon is halfway between the business and development of Wilmington and the Chester County countryside. How did location factor into your decision? How does being in Greenville help you as a business owner?
It was absolutely vital to find the right location for this type of bar. Location dictates what kind of a bar you want to open up. Space dictates what you're going to do with your concept. This location was ideal, because it's surrounded by those with fairly healthy incomes, but there is also a strong workforce very nearby. Being on this central corridor is crucial. I've timed it. If the lights are working for me, I can get from here to Trolley Square in eight minutes, and a lot of the population who works downtown. 

Another component of the Copperhead Saloon is its ambiance. Talk about the design influence you and Erin made on your establishment.
I tend to like clean lines, while Erin likes gilded and ornate design, so I like to think of this from the standpoint of 'I put down the bones, and Erin fleshed it all out.' So much of the identity of the Copperhead Saloon came from her idea to create a tile floor made of pennies. It began to dictate the tone and the colors we have used.
That's exactly the design that we wanted to do. You have a hard surface, but when you put all of the pennies in conjunction together, it creates warmth and ties the urban and rustic feel together. You want to create a space that speaks to history but at the same time, is contemporary.  

This is an intimate, 40-seat room.
We like it small and intimate. We love small bars, because on a Tuesday night, you can come in, and you don't feel like you're in a vast cavern with no one around you. There is a certain warmth to being in close proximity to other people, which is what I think a good tavern should have. It's a public meeting space, and if you wish to have a quiet conversation in the corner, we're here. If you want to come and meet people, we're here. 

Talk about why you feel there is such an increase in popularity for establishments like this in our culture. Are you riding a wave, or creating one?
It certainly is a national wave, and it's been building for the past 15 years. The cocktail culture has been growing since the late 1990s. A lot of it has to do with bartenders like myself, who began to connect their curiosities and passion together through advancements in technology and social media. They began to push envelopes.
The popularity of bitters also really set it off, and because of that curiosity, a lot of the old books with old recipes dating back to the 1800s started coming out the woodwork. It provides a glance back to that time to see what they were doing, and how easy and authentic it would be to recreate those recipes. It's like reaching back into the past and shaking hands with your great grandpa. This is a communal link that connects us to what people were drinking, say, in 1860, back when it was common to shoot bears off the land. 

What is the secret to a great cocktail?
It is understanding who is drinking the cocktail. There are so many great cocktails out there. You have to know what the person wants. You have to ask the right questions. What are they in the mood for. The secret to a great cocktail has nothing to do with the actual drink. It has to do with the rapport that the bartender and the guest have. It is going on a little bit of a journey, together. 
From the aspect of the bartender, it is attention to detail. With several cocktails, if you're off on your measurements, even just a little bit, that can totally throw off the balance of the drink. It is understanding how long to stir so that you get the right amount of cold and the right level of dilution. All of these factors come into play.

We choose as a society now to dip our heads into our gadgetry and our technology, and in the process, are losing the art of conversation. In contrast, with the Copperhead Saloon, you and Erin have created a conversation salon. 
Absolutely. First and foremost, people come to a bar for a specific reason, and that reason is not to drink. The reason is to socialize, to meet people, to commiserate with friends and make new friends. The bartender is the one who sets the stage. I teach my bartenders, 'Even if you don't know someone's name when they first walk through these doors, by the time they leave, you will know their name. You will know a little about them.'  We're selling the human interaction, and the drink is just the vehicle that helps us along that ride. 
There are a lot of places to drink around here. You choose to patronize one establishment versus another, because you like the people there. You know that when you walk in, they are going to know who you are, and they can facilitate you meeting other people, and you become a part of that group. You begin to have a sense of belonging. 

Do you have a favorite spot in Greenville and Hockessin?
Erin and I really like to go to George & Sons for oysters in Hockessin, and then head over to the House of William & Merry for some appetizers at the bar. Both establishments are a lot like the Copperhead Saloon, because we're all dialed in to the social fabric of the community.

Tom and Erin throw a dinner party. Who is invited?
Oh, wow. I know that Erin would have a vastly different set of people here than I would. She would love to have Bernie Sanders at that table. Maybe Mark Zuckerberg. For me?  I would love to have dinner with Stephen Hawking. I would also invite George R.R. Martin, so that I could press him to finally release another book. I would like to have my father at that table, as well.

What food or beverage is always in your refrigerator?
Chicken, or a protein of some sort. When we cook at home, it's simple seasonings, a quick marinade and a toss on the grill. 

The Copperhead Saloon is located in the Powder Mill Square Shopping Center, 3826 Kennett Pike, Wilmington, Del. 19807. Tel.: 302-256-0535. 

・ Richard L. Gaw

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