We sat down with Nathan Hazard, owner of Littlebear Bottleshop in Skyforest, California. He shared his experience in the hospitality industry, pandemic pivoting and owning a small business in a small town.
I came of age in the Northwest, waiting tables at Marché. I still remember the shift when I asked then-bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler what the neon red “Negroni” drink was that one of the bar regulars sipped on. At Marché, I learned hospitality from the best, experienced farm-to-table firsthand, and fell in love with the tenets of the Slow Food movement. And then there was the wine — beautiful French and Willamette Valley wine only, which taught me about tradition, and terroir. It was a job I held for four years throughout college, and admit it was a bittersweet departure.
My creative itch lead me to Los Angeles in 2005, and I dove headfirst into the entertainment industry. Before I knew it, seven years had passed. My creative outlet over these years was food writing, with a particular interest in cocktails and places. My then-blog turned into a podcast centered around creative entertaining, which turned into a pop-up supper club. This ultimately ushered me out of my music career and back into beverage and hospitality. I loved serving as a steward for products I respected. I helped develop and seeded some new-to-market spirits. I had the opportunity to open bars and create cocktail programs in Panama, Colombia, and Italy. But I found a real passion in connecting with the bar industry on the education level – it doesn’t feel like sales when you’re sharing something you truly believe in. As a brand ambassador, I found contentment but knew the constant travel (and consumption) probably wasn’t sustainable for me in the long term. Spirit education, however, I knew was here to stay. Today I own Littlebear Bottleshop, a specialty wine & spirits shop dedicated to thoughtful makers, family-owned facilities, sustainable practices in our industry, and forward thinkers.
Littlebear Bottleshop was my ‘Covid pivot’ – born from struggle. I leased my small space in the San Bernardino Mountains in October 2020, when my then-employers could no longer afford to keep me eight months into the pandemic. Luckily during those fraught months, a longtime part-time employer – Bar Keeper in Silver Lake – was able to give me more shifts to help me pay my new mortgage. Working in the retail space during such trying times was deeply educational; revelatory regarding systems, success and failure, selfish behavior and human kindness. However, connecting with humans through education was the silver lining, connecting me to my past and future. This was when I knew that my long-term dream of owning my own shop may in fact needed to be an accelerated goal. Enter a whole new batch of logistical obstacles, including small business loan scarcity during the era of PPP, building material price hikes, market instability, and the continuing supply chain nightmare. I couldn’t have picked a worse time, but perhaps that’s why it was perfect. In the face of adversity, we can find bravery and strength to leap into the unknown. I can’t be certain I would have taken such a risk otherwise.
Littlebear Bottleshop is a very intentional space. The store is nestled in the former garage of a Skyforest roadside cabin that has seen many lives — our space once housed a fire engine when it was the local firehouse. Integrating into a small town was a process. I chose to embrace our mountain history — something folks up here take very seriously. Neighboring Lake Arrowhead was originally called Little Bear Lake (yes, sibling to Big Bear) before being rebranded in 1922, hence the shop’s namesake. Antiques and vintage barware share rustic wooden shelves with high-end Scotch Whisky and natural wine. “I’ve never seen most of the stuff before” is a common exclamation from guests, and, in fact, that is the goal. Littlebear aims to bring variety and discovery to the region and introduce boutique makers to locals and tourists alike.
Being a mountain shop, sitting at 5,700ft on the “Rim ‘o the World” highway, we also like to highlight high elevation makers, particularly organic Alpine wine and liqueurs from Italy, France and Bavaria, as well as mountainous western US natural wine makers following old world tradition. 'Adult Candy Store' is the concept: a visual feast with something for everybody. The goal is to spark wonder and thus conversation. The ultimate reward is getting a return customer thanking me for introducing them to their new favorite thing.
The Craft Spirits Coop has always had a likable, approachable, human essence reminiscent of some humble but passionate wine importers I have worked with. I remember my first tasting with Kalena many years back and truly understanding (and loving) Capurro’s story and exceptional line of premium piscos. With each new addition to the portfolio, I found myself anticipating these meetings; each new discovery was a welcomed departure from the corporate brands, with the Craft Spirits Coop championing—by name—craft distilling. Woody Creek has sold well at Littlebear since day one - their whiskies and vodka fit our focus on western United States and mountain makers. Manly Spirits Lilly Pilly Gin has come in strong ever since our consumer tasting event. Liquid-to-lips can make a favorite of something so obscure you had never heard of it before -pink gin? What's a lilly pilly?
It may seem odd for a liquor salesman to be encouraged by the rise in non-alcoholics. For anyone who has worked in this industry for some time, we have witnessed friends, colleagues, and customers struggle with alcoholism and abuse. It is important to me that the people I work with and for are healthy, first and foremost. For various reasons and trends, non-alcoholic substitutes are booming. But unlike the cannabis explosion, I am less concerned for our industry due to the rise in non-alcoholic options — a booze-free aperitif shows the human desire to retain the element of ritual. In the long term I believe this will lead to generally healthier relationships with alcohol. Fittingly, my slogan has always been “Keep it a treat!"
Beyond the shop walls, we host a spirit tasting series that gathers the community for intimate live discussion, help run and curate a massive public beer and wine festival in Crestline, sponsor local events such as Oktoberfest, as well as offer natural wine and single barrel whisky club subscriptions to our customers. Truly adding to our community is my goal, so getting to a place where I can say I’ve done that will feel like success. Being only a little over a year old, it is exciting to feel so much local support. This mountain community has completely blown my expectations out of the water and renewed my faith and optimism toward the future.
Visit Littlebear Bottleshop
Video credit Keith Musil (1x1films.com )