Josh Harris is No One Trick Dog

man smiling in front of a bar

If Josh Harris hired me as a ghostwriter for his online dating profile, it would be the easiest assignment of them all; much easier than the Arizona-based man-child drummer I was tasked to make virtually dateable a few years ago. Harris’s profile could write itself: he owns two of San Francisco’s highest esteemed bars, he is an avid estate saler, a former USC track star, lover of dumplings, precise and meaningful speech, and most things vintage.

But, Harris would never employ me to do so because he is a happily married man of almost two years, plus the artifice of online dating or a ghostwriter doesn’t quite seem like his style. His gold wedding band was one of the first details I noticed about him upon walking into his enthrallingly cluttered (a word he “resents”) office. It is a simple gold band, but it looked heavy, heavy with excitement and newness. Or maybe it was the slenderness of his fingers and the contrast of gold with the black and grey tattoos on his wrist, peeking out from under his denim shirt that made the ring seem so prominent. Whatever it was, that same emblematic energy radiated from his wife Ruby’s band as well, I noticed a few weeks later.

Harris’s office is the apex of all his endeavors. If you walked in looking straight ahead, past the seven or eight colorful empty planters, into the deep dark space of boxes, trinkets, miscellaneous signs, vintage barware, and a retired canoe, you’d think you were meeting with a collector or reseller. If you walked in and took a right at the mid-century modern chairs and coffee table, you’d know you were meeting with the owner of the James Beard Foundation Award nominated bar, Trick Dog. If you were sitting in the chairs facing the street window, gazing at the surface above all thirteen of Trick Dog’s past menus and merchandise, you’d assume you were meeting with a grown-up-child-at-heart with safari dreams of giraffes. If you walked past the giraffe sculptures, his assistant’s desks, through some cardboard, between bottles of spirits, into the dark, right into the room where his desk and computer live, you would feel claustrophobic and wonder whether the sun is still out or not.

Josh Harris, the entrepreneur, is mostly associated with his hospitality and marketing companies the Bon Vivants and BVHospitality, which own Trick Dog and the recently opened Bon Voyage. Trick Dog was nominated in 2018 as one of the world’s top 50 bars by the James Beard Foundation, among receiving some other pretty cool awards since its beginnings in 2013. My favorite thing about Trick Dog so far is Harris and his first partner’s (they separated because of different visions, values, and work ethics) decision to stray away from the plain, crisp cocktail menu and provide a more interactive, playful, and aesthetically pleasing way to order drinks. I sifted through the different menus, mentally noting my personal favorites: the Lucky 13 tattoo flash sheet, which is their current one, the Mural Project, Josh’s favorite as well (more on this later), the Pantone paint sample booklet, which was their first one, and the airplane safety instructions.

The menus are sold to raise funds for whatever philanthropic project BVHospitality is engaged in at the time. The Mural Project has been the most popular and engaged with the community. Harris and company worked with local artists and public spaces to paint murals for photographs for the menus. Local artist Mel Waters, responsible for putting us under Carlos Santana’s gaze when we walk down 19th St, participated in the Mural Project, along with many others. Some of the murals remain and some don’t.

Harris and his current partner, Morgan Schick, have recently teamed up with ScholarMatch to create the BVHospitality scholarship. They are in the process of picking the first-ever recipient right now. The scholarship is eligible for low-income San Francisco youth with parents in the service industry.

It is special that Bon Voyage is already in a philanthropic position. It opened up on Valencia Street October 2018 and according to bar manager Elliot Clark, it has made it through over six months without the usual bumps and bruises one expects in a newborn operation. Why? “Because Josh is really good,” says Clark. He is right. Harris is skillful with an air of innate entrepreneurialism and, well, goodness.

Bon Voyage!

Harris began his career in and around bars younger than he should have and it can sort of be credited to Minnesota. Sort of. After getting fake I.D.’s rejected by a bar on Union Street, he and a friend walked across the street to an empty one. He recalls thinking “That place looks fucking empty and lame. There’s no way they can cut us.” The guys behind the bar ended up being ones they had previously chatted with on a skiing trip. The four guys connected over their connections to Minnesota. The bar guys recently moved from there. Harris’s connection was a girl he dated. “I turned that into getting a job there without filling out any paperwork. Nobody ever asked me if I was 21 or not.”

Harris recalls all his other friends having internships and white-collar jobs and he felt what he was doing was the “coolest thing” he’d ever done. But in due time it was discovered he was not of age when a new manager came in. He went to host at Don Johnson and Cheech’s restaurant Ana Mandara, in the wharf, again feeding off the high energy one finds in the industry.

Harris returned the following summer to find his manager had left for Gary Danko’s flagship, Postrio. Harris followed. “I went in there like ‘I need a job, my mom’s mad at me.’” Lo and behold, he was offered a position behind the bar.
His excellence in this industry, to most except Harris himself, is somewhat ironic and against one pretty serious odd: Harris is fifteen years sober. Neither one of his bars are that old, nor is his career span as a bartender.

I could tell the entire story of Harris’s drug and alcohol abuse, but that is not where the stuff is. He even says it himself: “I was just a someone who really liked drugs and alcohol. I did them like I did everything else in my life: intensely.” My time with him made apparent that he is not one who gets caught up in stories, in the so what. He cares more about the what so, the action. That being said, there was one shortcoming of his youth he constantly refers back to: his apathy towards education, despite his blessings in that department.

After graduating from Saint Ignatius, where he played most sports (track was his number one) and had a string of knee injuries, he found himself at the University of Southern California. And yes, I feel justified in saying he found himself there; it didn’t seem like such an active process for him. His first semester ended in a literal 0.00 GPA. “Wow, you really have to try to get that,” I exclaimed. “No, you really don’t,” he replied. His second semester ended with a 4.00 in some carefully selected piece-of-cake classes and a strikingly weird prophecy. Having never done cocaine thus far, he wrote a dramatic monologue for his creative writing class about a desolate and deranged cokehead talking to himself in the mirror. Later that evening, before attending his professor’s reading he tried cocaine for the first time of his life. “The guy from my class I did coke with assumed I had done it before,” he recalls. “Since I had that experience with him, I refused to be anyone’s first exposure to drugs.”

As Kurt Vonnegut says in the face of harsh reality, “and so it goes…”

And so it went… south.

Having attended 12 step meetings myself here and there, I’ve heard this odd concept of “rock bottom” discussed often. It most definitely exists on a sliding scale. I’ve heard a rock bottom as tame as tripping in public. Then, I’ve heard of contracting multiple Hepatitis’s, losing a limb, and committing involuntary manslaughter (same guy). Some people are so attached to their pain and suffering that everything must be stripped away before the lightbulb as so much flickers. I’ve heard people say they want to keep going until they reach a rock bottom. Harris was not one of those: he got up and walked out of his apartment after three days of 22nd birthday celebratory drug and alcohol binging to never return to the same life again.

“There were two things,” he reflects. “One, I felt like a talker, not a doer. Two, I knew I was approaching a fork in the road and to continue on that same road would have been one of no return.”

Personal responsibility is at the forefront of Harris’s values. There was no wavering in his decision to get sober. He actually has a distaste for 12 step programs because he feels the rhetoric removes one’s accountability to their health and bettering. He took liberties in making his mess, and there’d be no personal liberty without his own cleanup.

This standard is not just for himself. His favorite BV Scholarship applicant, who was set to interview with him in the following week of our second to last meeting is no longer being considered because she could not make it to the interview. When Harris received this email at Dumpling Time in Potrero Hill, his wife and I pushed out our lower lips in pity for the young woman. Josh expressed none because he had none. He relayed that all applicants were given long notice of their interview times and dates, so any rescheduling should have been discussed and approved by that point. And so what of life’s circumstances and emergencies? Those come with cosmic provisions and natural consequences.

Well, of course, right? That is how the real world does indeed work. Yet, why were Ruby and I so quick to feel bad? I now realize how many of my externally celebrated successes can be attributed to being graced with second and even third chances, which is fine. It’s my fate; I am not cast in a shadow of what once was or what could have been, and why feel bad for what is? That’s the point, I suppose. Harris is a firm believer in no accidents. My repeat chances are just as important as his acceptance to USF after completing thirty days at the Ohlaff House treatment center.

“I told myself if I wasn’t accepted to USF then school wasn’t going to be for me. I’d find something else,” he said with utter seriousness. He remembers a distinct moment of walking in front of Gleeson during a fraternity recruitment day, being approached by guys to join their fraternities and thinking, “You have no idea. I just went through all of this and you have no idea. And no, absolutely not.” He graduated summa cum laude with a politics degree and embarked to Paris for nine months, all the while applying to law schools.

That no accidents thing is important in this part of his story: he was accepted to neither UC Hastings (“Which was whatever”), UC Berkeley (“Duh”), nor USF (“the biggest blow”). Harris considered law school to be the emblem and pinnacle of his triumph over the drugs, the alcohol, and the misery. Think of Odysseus reaching Ithaca, stripped of his disguise and sovereign again. Dare I say that I can still hear pangs of regret in his recounting of this sentiment?