Having a regular rotation of entrepreneurs drop by lunch seemed like a natural fit to Ti Martin.
“Every great business is started on a bar napkin,” said Martin, who opened SoBou, a cocktails-focused French Quarter restaurant, in 2012.
This month, SoBou began hosting a weekly networking lunch for local entrepreneurs who are focused in the hospitality sector. It provides them a captive — and casual — audience to pitch ideas off one another. They also learn from a lineup of guest speakers, who offer advice about different aspects of running a small business.
The sessions, which Martin calls Barpreneurs School, are slated for noon Fridays leading up to New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, which kicks off in March with eight days of seminars, workshops and social gatherings.
The eight-week Barpreneurs program is intended to take the stress out of what can be a rattling exercise — describing a fledgling business idea or practicing a pitch — to a room full of strangers.
Featured speakers range from patent attorneys to business consultants with expertise designing and building brands, as well as experts who are familiar with attracting investors.
“These hip, young entrepreneurs need support from lots of directions, but they also want to go out and have a good time,” Martin said. “SoBou seemed like the perfect, fun environment for them to get that support.”
SoBou’s setup features an array of beer taps on most tables and automated wine dispensers along the wall that offer pours by the glass.
SoBou began hosting more typical, run-of-the-mill lunches for entrepreneurs last year, which caught on and morphed into the latest program.
“There’s so many people coming into town, and there’s so many points for them to pitch their ideas, so we want to help them get ready,” said Samantha Fritz, a Commander’s spokeswoman who helped design the classes.
They didn’t go far for the first speaker: Tory McPhail, Commander’s executive chef, who talked about his experience bringing a new line of sauces to market and trying to drum up buzz on grocery shelves.
The sessions have gained followers by word of mouth, attracting a core group of entrepreneurs who regularly attend and others who come and go as time permits. Each event has followed a similar setup: If someone wants to pitch an idea to the group, they can take five minutes or so to do it. Then, the day’s speaker launches into a discussion on his realm of expertise for 15 or 20 minutes and takes questions from the crowd.
Afterward, the participants eat lunch and hang around, sometimes into early afternoon.
“OK, class is in session,” Michael Eckert, chairman of the NO/LA Angel Network, a coalition of angel investors who back small startups or entrepreneurs, told the group on a recent Friday, as a bartender rattled a cocktail shaker in the background.
With a dozen or so crowded around a set of tables near the bar, Eckert walked through an overview of key considerations before starting to raise money: having a concise idea about how much is needed, why it’s needed, how it will be spent and how long the money will last.
The casually dressed group, mostly in their mid- to late 30s, listened attentively. A few drank martinis; most had iced tea.
Emily Gaddis, the founder of Gator and Crane, which aims to promote healthy and sustainable living by exchanging food waste for nutritious groceries, listened and asked Eckert a couple follow-up questions. After, she said she enjoyed the session’s easygoing atomosphere.
“I think that it really does lower the barrier to entry and makes it very welcoming,” she said.
For her part, Martin hopes SoBou catches on with the entrepreneur set — not just once a week.
“That’s the idea: These are smart, interesting people,” she said, “and that’s just fun for us to have them as our guest.”
The lunchtime sessions run through March 4. The sessions include parking, 25 cent martinis and two-course lunch specials starting at $13.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.