Olivia Rose Griffin, The Limbo & Riot Cafe, Louisville. Copyright Jessica Ebelhar 2021 ©

When Olivia Rose Griffin moved from San Francisco to Louisville in 2014, there wasn’t a tiki bar in the state of Kentucky — and few in the South in general. But The Limbo (www.thelimbo.club/), which Griffin opened in early 2018, is so much more than a multiroom tiki bar with outdoor patio. Rum and tiki drinks lead the way, served in tiki mugs with flowers and tropical paraphernalia. Packed with vintage furniture, a jukebox, quirk and charm, Griffin’s inviting, “come as you are” spirit draws in a wide range of people. Hosting drag shows, bingo, karaoke and live jazz/music nights, to name a few, The Limbo is a community, a place of welcome, fun, even a respite.

But Griffin came to Louisville because of her hats. In San Francisco, she ran a hat and apparel shop for 12 years (and we San Franciscans sure miss her), with a strong Kentucky following for Derby hats. It made business sense over time to be centered in Kentucky. At Mysterious Rack (https://www.mysteriousrack.com/), her artistic hats know no equal. Around Derby time, she and her team work into the night crafting hundreds of hats by hand.

Upon moving to Kentucky, the camaraderie of the bourbon/spirits world drew Olivia in. While getting her master’s in business at the University of Louisville, she began concepting a unique performing arts “watering hole,” which became The Limbo. In pandemic, Griffin opened a social justice cafe and community center, Riot Cafe (www.instagram.com/riotcafeky), serving food (including build-your-own bagels), coffee, a focus on Japanese and Korean spirits and, of course, cocktails. This is a prime example of how you do business holistically and inclusively. As a mother of two boys — and a pet parrot named Frankie — Olivia is a rock star businesswoman whose businesses exemplify her care for the community.

In her own words, Griffin tells us about her journey into the bar world, how she decides what brands to stock and how she and her team are surviving pandemic.

What led you into the cocktail and the bar world?

I stumbled into the cocktail and bar world by total accident, like most of the other things that have happened to me. I moved to Louisville in 2014 to pursue designing hats for the Kentucky Derby and somehow ended up opening Kentucky’s only tropical bar. There’s a little more to it than that, of course, the main thing being that Louisville is a hospitality town. With all of the hype around bourbon and distilleries, naturally, good food follows. People here love good food and drink and love a good time. Louisvillians love showing off their town.

What is unique about your bar and how does being based in Louisville influence your operations?

What is unique about my bar is that it is the only tropical-style bar in Kentucky and the only rum-focused bar in Kentucky. Most of the bars focus on bourbon as the obvious choice and tourist draw. My theory was that people will get tired of just drinking bourbon and want to try other comparable spirits. Kentuckians already have a palate for aged spirits neat or on the rocks, and rum is a natural progression after bourbon. Because we’re in Louisville, we have played around with bourbon in classic tropical cocktails and find it plays quite nicely with profiles of flavors like orange curacao, ginger, almond orgeat and pineapple.

What is your philosophy on deciding what brands/bottles to stock in your bar?

This. This is the question. And this is the question, especially after what we have gone through with a global pandemic. When the pandemic hit and on-premise had to shut down and every citizen flocked to their local or chain liquor store to stock up, we all found out as bar owners that distributors and liquor brands had abandoned us. It was an uncertain time. We have never been through a pandemic before, and it was every person for themselves. A lot of us reached out to brands we had used before, with no response. A very select few brands reached out to us and did kind and thoughtful things. Those are the brands that I will never forget and will carry into perpetuity in my bar.

Outside of just working with kind liquor reps, I also care a lot about the ethics of brands, from spirits to beer. If the company is involved in anything that falls outside of our ethics, I am not interested in working with them. On the other side of the pandemic and the protests for Black Lives Matter, I am now focused on carrying the “underdogs”: brands created by or managed by BIPOC, LGBTQ or women. We have just opened a new cafe, bottle and bodega called Riot Cafe. And we are working with Uncle Nearest, the only whiskey brand with a Black woman at the helm (Fawn Weaver).

How do you educate customers on small batch, quality spirits?

I love introducing customers to good quality rums. You have to start slow, though. At least in Kentucky, the only rums people have heard of are Bacardí or Sailor Jerry. Usually I’ll start them off with a 3- or 5-year-aged rum on the rocks and let them sip it. It’s amazing to watch the sensation wash over them, a spirit that is markedly different than bourbon but as pleasurable to sip on. From there, I’ll let them try some funkier stuff: a r(h)um agricole or an overproof. It’s a whole new world for them here in Kentucky, and I am steering the ship!

How are you and your team surviving pandemic and what new forms of business or ideas have you implemented?

Oh my goodness. We are “surviving” for sure, not thriving yet, but we will see what happens. Will all of these new ideas we have implemented continue to be sources of income once things settle back to a better “normal”?

Before the pandemic, we didn’t have a takeout website and we didn’t have cocktails to-go. We didn’t have subscription programs — so many things. We started a Rum Club in early June, where we deliver a quart of cocktails, a rum sample, a dessert and a recipe for their rum journal for $20 a week. We have never missed a week. It’s a small source of midweek income that we have been able to rely on without fail, and anything that is consistent is a welcome relief. We started doing holiday dinners with paired cocktails for delivery: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s. We are also doing “ghost kitchens” and pop-up chefs, anything we can do to activate our space or use resources we already have.

How do you envision the bar world evolving in the coming years?

I’m excited to see how the bar world evolves in the coming years. Of course, I think to-go cocktails are here to stay, and that will have a huge impact on the industry. I think (and hope) that patrons will be more appreciative of in-person dining, hopefully tip better and appreciate that people who work in the industry are valuable, cherished and that their choice of work is a valid career. We choose to bartend, to cook, to serve because we love it. It takes skill, education and experience, and it’s certainly not a path for just anyone.