A new mobile bar business wants to take the cockiness out of the cocktail scene.
“There’s a lot of ego in the cocktail scene, but we think the bar should be a distraction,” said Brian Shellenberger, co-founder of runner! cocktails. “When you’re having a stressed out week, what do you do? You go to a bar. You go relax. We take that same mentality.”
The business markets itself as a fun-focused, immersive bar experience — more than “just some schlubs popping open a beer or opening a bottle of wine,” Shellenberger said.
“We want to make sure we’re throwing a proper party and that people are having a good time,” he said. “And that can mean a million different things, but as long as everyone is having a good time, that’s our end goal.”
Click here to follow runner! cocktails on Instagram.
Shellenberger, after being laid off from his job at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, began the business by taking a page from Kansas City history.
“I literally bootlegged cocktails around the city for a couple months during the heaviest portion of COVID,” Shellenberger said. “It was an underground, batched and bottled cocktail delivery service that I called runner! cocktails.”
As the city began to reopen in summer 2020, he put a pin in the business.
“Let’s be honest — bootlegging is a very Kansas City thing to do,” he said. “I was happy to keep the tradition alive, but obviously there are some ramifications that I didn’t really want to deal with once things started opening back up.”
Around that time, Shellenberger began working at Lee’s Summit’s Hand in Glove, where he became fast friends with Landon Nichols and Billy Conway, fellow bartenders and future co-owners of the business. The trio quickly began discussing the possibility of making runner! cocktails a legitimate business.
“We were all just over the normal trajectory that a lot of service industry professionals find themselves in,” Shellenberger said. “We knew we were skilled in what we did, but we also understood that we had a lot more to offer, and in order to do so we were going to have to branch out on our own.”
From there, runner! cocktails hit the ground running. Through a contact of Shellenberger’s, the business scored its first gig — bartending a party hosted by Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. Later that summer, Runner! slung cocktails for Alec Burks of the Detroit Pistons.
“Obviously we’re not getting professional athletes every single weekend, but that definitely was a good launching point for us to really decide, you know what, there’s obviously a need for what we do in Kansas City and beyond,” Shellenberger said. “So we decided to give it a shot.”
The trio signed papers early this year, officially legitimizing the business. Recently, it signed a lease on a small space in the West Bottoms, though he said it’s strictly for liquor licensing purposes and not open to the public.
The business’s marketing strategy is split between “three and a half” areas, Shellenberger said. Its main focus is corporate clients, followed by luxury weddings and private parties. Public events are where the “half” comes into play.
“Honestly, there’s more value in doing wholly private events, but for a young company, we do the public events for the exposure they bring,” Shellenberger said.
runner! partners with a variety of businesses around the city, including Fox & Pearl, La Cultura Cigars and Savor & Swirl. Shellenberger said they look for businesses that jibe with the aesthetic of runner!, which he describes as “1960s Palm Beach.”
runner! takes a lot of its cues from the California-based apparel Company Nation Golf, he added.
“We understand that golf clubs and country clubs as they currently stand are very exclusionary,” he said. “That’s why Nation Golf is so cool to us, because they’re super inclusive. They’re kind of like us — they’re just here for a good time.”
runner!’s tagline — “we’re here for the party” — helps create a mentality that sets the business apart from others Shellenberger believes have a stronghold on many of Kansas City’s venues.
“Our biggest competitor is just the market itself and changing the way people look at a bar service,” he said. “We want to make sure that whomever hires us, whether it’s someone like Travis Kelce, or whether it’s a corporate client or a 24-year-old couple that’s getting married, they can still enjoy the same stuff and they’re going to get a really great experience and a very unique experience by hiring us, just because of our approach and the way that we facilitate the party itself.”
The three men develop the business’ menus themselves, drawing upon their long histories in the bar industry. Though they occasionally hire bartenders to help with their events, Shellenberger said there’s usually at least one of them on site at each gig.
Their newest venture: cocktail art. The client sends them a vector image, which is then printed on foam that tops the cocktail.
“Corporations love that,” Shellenberger said. “They’re literally drinking their own brand.”
Despite Runner!’s focus on a good time, Shellenberger said the realities of running a successful business are beginning to catch up to him.
“The honeymoon phase is officially over and it’s gone from this cool little passion project to a business with goals to make it successful, so how do we do that?” he said. “As much as I want to get out there and sell sell sell, it’s getting processes set up to where when you do have events, they go off seamlessly and are executed well.”
Now that the business is up and running, Shellenberger’s goal is to make it his main focus. Outside of runner!, Nichols is a tattoo artist at Light Sleeper Tattoo Co. and Conway runs an apparel business called Squints Apparel.
Shellenberger said that runner! has no plans to slow down. Within the next year, they hope to open a second space to hold consults. From there, they want to expand into other markets similar to Kansas City.
“Kansas City is really just the start for us,” Shellenberger said.
runner! cocktail’s next public event will be at Fox & Pearl’s July 24 Pinewood Derby. Frequent partner La Cultura Cigars will also be at the event.