Cleveland insider: the real story behind Old City Libations

Old City Libations (OCL) has a few things in common with its peers on the local bar scene. The Gordon Square space features exposed piping and a mix of plank-and-tile paneling that nods to the popular “industrial rustic” trend. The menu includes pierogis (from Parma, of course), pretzels and bar bites, all of which are emblematic of a casual style of dining that is fast becoming the new wave. And its cocktails — many of which are made with quality, Ohio-distilled spirits — fall below the $10 price point.
What sets Old City Libations apart is its companion business, Old City Soda, Cleveland’s first (and only) micro-soda company; and its inception, which included seed money from a television show produced by LeBron James. Lastly, other newbie bar owners set out to open as watering holes from the get-go.
Mike Gulley was just a guy who made great soda.
“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit,” says Gulley, co-owner and founder of Old City Libations.
He started brewing his own ginger beer while tending bar around Cleveland in the mid-2000s. Its popularity inspired him to start a sideline project making ginger beer and other soft drinks. Lucrative partnerships with the Cleveland Flea and Platform Brewing helped him build his project into a rare venture in 21st century America: a local soda company.

Mike Gulley back in 2014 filling bottles of Old City Soda
For a while, putting out soft drinks at area venues like the Flea was Gulley’s sole focus. Then he got a call from CNBC to be one of four local businesses featured on the forthcoming unscripted business incubator series, Cleveland Hustles. Gulley and his team predicted, accurately, that the producers would want something a little flashy for the cameras.
“We knew they’d want us to open a retail location,” Gulley says.
The initial plan was to start a throwback soda fountain/ice cream parlor. But the show’s mission to revitalize the Gordon Square district put them just two doors down from Sweet Moses Soda Fountain and Sweet Shop, so Gulley pivoted.

General Manager Rob Dorsey talking with patrons at Old City Libations
“It was always in the game plan to be a restaurant or bar owner,” he says. 

Gulley and manager Rob Dorsey, a friend and fellow veteran of the Ohio City bartending scene, set out to build a bar with a drink menu highlighting the flavors of their sodas: “an adulteress version of a soda parlor,” as Gulley puts it.
Hustling behind the scenes
Opening a bar under the constraints of a reality show was even more difficult than Cleveland Hustles led viewers to believe. “There’s only so much you can do in screen shots and panoramas,” says Gulley. By the time he broke ground on OCL’s current location, they had fifty-five days until the show’s deadline.

“We were working 18- to 20-hour days the week leading up to opening.” The concrete for the bar was poured a mere four nights before the big day. Though the soft opening featured on the show was a success, most people didn’t know the bar was open until the episode aired a month later.
And no, they never got to meet LeBron.
They did, however, win the competition and Hustles turned out to be a big PR boon for the fledgling business. Within a month of opening, the fun and funky spot was one of the most-searched bars in the nation on Yelp. But even the Hustles publicity couldn’t eliminate the challenges of marketing a “soda bar” to the public.
“One misconception we come up against is that we just serve soda,” says Gulley. Given offerings like the Black Manhattan, a well-balanced, soda-free cocktail, or the house-made Fernet marshmallows and boozy whipped cream, it’s safe to say you can go to OCL for more than just a sugar rush.

If recent buzz is any indication, however, the “soda-only” confusion won’t last forever. Various local press outlets have covered OCL favorably. And just last month, the kitchen's spur-of-the-moment invention, Polish tacos, became a social media sensation. The dish, which makes fried pierogis from Parma’s own Perla Homemade Delights into a taco shell, is a stroke of unexpected bar-cuisine genius.
“We had no idea [it] would have been such a runaway success,” says Dorsey.
On top of its success with the younger Gordon Square crowd, OCL is also family-friendly for a significant portion of its operating hours with creative soda "mocktails" and board games. Sunday brunch features cartoons to further appeal to the kid contingent. Dorsey credits the family vibe to being a father, as is Gulley.
“We both wanted the same end game,” says Dorsey. “We were both sick of late night nights and we want to watch our sons grow and not be stuck behind a bar until 3 a.m. every night.”
A tight-knit community with a focus on family

Dorsey and Gulley both belong to the “tight-knit community of bartenders” that formed about a decade ago and helped shape Ohio City into a centerpiece of Cleveland nightlife. The cadre is just one part of a generation that’s coming into adulthood — one that's defined by more than just age.
“Lots of us are having kids now and settling down,” says Dorsey. Hence, when it came to the vision for OCL’s vibe, he and Gulley were on the same page. “We didn’t want to leave work stressed every day. We wanted to have a place where our wives and kids could hang out.”
Family is important to the OCS business model. Gulley’s twin brother Jeff lent a hand with construction, and co-owner Sean Adkins is his cousin. Early on, Adkins had high ambitions for the scope of the business and persuaded Gulley to change the name from Cleveland Soda Works to Old City Soda, thereby imparting a more universal than regional tone.

But the Old City name has a personal significance for Gulley and Adkins. Both are part of the sizable Altstadt clan (Gulley and Adkins are two of a set of 29 grandchildren). The bar’s Bavarian pretzels were inspired by the Altstadts’ German heritage, and the company logo — a big bear poised to bite the cap off a bottle of soda — comes from the family crest. Most importantly, Altstadt, which translates as “old town” or “old city,” figures prominently into the name.  
"Just the beginning"
In many ways, the bar’s success in Detroit Shoreway reflects the neighborhood’s overarching narrative. Liz Weiler, who works in economic development for the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization, calls OCL “a catalyst for growth.”
“The space they’re in was vacant for a long time,” she says. Old City Libations and the other Hustles businesses were part of a 2016 boom that saw thirteen new businesses open in the neighborhood.  “They’re a great addition,” she says of the bar.
As for the neighborhood’s future, Weiler is confident that “2016 was just the beginning.”
The same could be said for Gulley and company. Not content to rest on their laurels, they already have an eye on new markets. On the soda distribution end, Gulley hopes to have product on the West Coast by the end of this year. The team also plans to open a Columbus location in the next year or so. Other cities and states may follow. “Each location will adapt to the local cuisine and take on its own vibe,” says Gulley.
Exciting as new Old City locations will be, it will be hard to recreate the mix of great ideas, hard work, and happy accidents that led to the founding of Old City Libations in Cleveland. Soda, liquor, pinball, pretzels: it may seem like elements of OCL shouldn’t mix. But like pierogis and chorizo, they go together better than anyone could have predicted, including Gulley and company.

“I hate to say we were winging it,” says Gulley. “But we were doing our best to keep everything together — or at least appear like we were.”