Given how many Icelanders still profess to believing in elves, calling us superstitious may not be unwarranted, but one man has shown himself to be anything but that. In the past two years, Jón Mýrdal Harðarson has opened two bars, Bravó and Húrra, in spots that some may have thought cursed, as between the two of them those locations have housed half a dozen establishments in the past decade. Where Bravó sits, there was Litla Gula Hænan, Barinn, and the long-lived Bar 22, and before Húrra, there was Harlem, Volta, Þýski Barinn and Bakkus. Jón says he didn’t really think about this the time, which is just as good, as the two are among the most popular bars in Reykjavík today.
Jón is frequently spotted at both establishments, talking to bands, friends, or regulars, serving beer to patrons, or running around taking care of the many tasks necessary to keep the two hotspots going. Despite working long hours, at least twelve to fifteen each day by his count, Jón never seems upset or unfriendly. Tired, yes, but always in good spirits, much like he was when we met at Húrra last Thursday to chat about running the bars.
Jón’s foray into the bar business was essentially an accident. In 2013, he and his business partner Baldvin Kristinsson were looking for a place on Laugavegur to open their own restaurant. When they heard the spot where Litla Gula Hænan was available, they immediately jumped on the opportunity. “We decided to run it as a bar while we were in the process of designing the restaurant,” he explained, “but then two months later it was going so well that we just kept it running like that. We figured we’d open our restaurant some other time.”
Bravó is a very relaxed joint—small, with comfortable seats, a simple bar, and music that doesn’t get too loud to chat over. Jón said the design came together on its own, lacking any pretence. “Maybe that’s why it’s gone so well, because we’re not trying to be something we’re not,” he said.
Húrra, however, was a completely different beast. When Jón first heard that Harlem was being sold, he said he wasn’t the least bit interested, but when he saw the place for himself, he knew he had to get it. He’s a big fan of concerts, and says he could foresee it being exactly the kind of place the city needed, even though so many others had tried and failed in that very same spot.
The planned one
“We put a lot of effort into designing the place and spent a lot of money on getting a good sound system,” he said. Soon enough, Húrra began drawing large crowds and bands of all genres were lining up to play.
Before Húrra opened, Jón said that he and Baldvin made all of these rules about how it should be run. He said his intention wasn’t to profit from concerts per say, but to deliver quality shows. By his admission, the place takes a 20-25% cut of ticket admissions and the rest goes to the performers, even on the days when ticket sales don’t end up covering costs.
They also decided that Húrra would always provide their own sound technician and have a solid drum set and amps for the bands. “We also always have cold beers in the back for the musicians,” he said. “I feel like it’s an honour to work with these people that are helping me make the place work. There’s no magic to attracting them, it’s about being respectful to people. You reap what you sow.”
In addition to regular events, including four live shows per week and a free Jazz night on Mondays, Jón makes sure to schedule a DJ after each concert to give patrons a reason to stay for a few more drinks. “There’s a trick to it,” he said, “you can’t make people wait too long from when the band finishes and the DJ starts their show, otherwise you’ll lose your customers.”
What made these ventures possible, Jón said, was his decision to give up drinking two years ago. “I had known for a while that drinking doesn’t suit me,” he said, “and I was tired of being mentally hung over. I have to answer at least 40 phone calls a day, and if I was also hungover, I couldn’t do it. It’s a blessing to be rewarded each and every day for not drinking.” It has, however, created plenty of funny situations, where he’s had to recommend drinks he’s never tried while working at the bar.
The adopted one
Right from the start, Jón has known that foreigners and tourists are a big part of both Bravó and Húrra’s clientele. He celebrates their arrival, and said they’ve helped turned things around in Iceland after the crash, but he’s also concerned about what will happen if hotels take over downtown Reykjavík. As things stand, some venues already can’t hold late concerts because of noise complaints from hotels, and there are fewer and fewer locations available due to redevelopment.
But for now, Jón will just keep doing what he’s doing. Asked why so many others had failed where he and Baldvin made it, he placed the blame on red tape rather than a curse. “Rent and alcohol licences are expensive, and there’s very little markup on beers, making it hard to profit.” Yet, he didn’t complain, saying that low prices are good for both customers and healthy competition.
As for his restaurant dream, it’s still on Jón’s agenda, but he hasn’t really gotten far with that idea. “I’ve been cooking a lot of fish lately, so maybe a seafood restaurant would be fun,” he said, before assuring me it wouldn’t continue Bravó and Húrra’s naming tradition and be called Jibbý or something like that.
After half an hour, I got the feeling that Jón already had to be somewhere else. Sure enough, soon after I thanked him for his time, he was already dropping his booking manager off somewhere, and continuing his long working day. I have no doubt I’ll run into him again before long.