East graduates David Epstein and Steve Revare have been best friends since their second-grade-days at Briarwood elementary. After learning of their family connections to Tom Pendergast, the man who ran the Pendergast political machine in Kansas City during the 1920s and 30s, the two were inspired to open Tom’s Town Distillery. The brand new liquor distillery off 18th and Main St. in Downtown Kansas City, Missouri celebrates the Pendergast/Prohibition era and what Kansas City was all about during that time.
Epstein’s grandfather was a bootlegger during this era, whom Pendergast ran out of business.
Revare’s great uncle, Mo Mulligan, was President Franklin Roosevelt’s hand-picked attorney, who locked Pendergast away in prison, ending the Pendergast political machine in Kansas City. Their family connections to Pendergast sparked an interest for both Epstein and Revare; one that would result in the creation Tom’s Town just a couple of years later.
This isn’t the first business venture for the duo; they ran an ad agency together in New York City from 1995-2000 that was bought out after five years. For the next six years, the duo parted ways, working apart for one of the first times in their lives.
“At that point, I kept talking to Steve about this renaissance that was happening in KC,” Epstein said. “And we talked about how it’s not really the first time KC has had a renaissance, it’s the second time- the Pendergast era was the first.”
Not only does their friendship go back to their earliest memories in life, but so does their collaboration in business. Recently, Epstein discovered a business card that the two made back in fourth grade.
“It was for a company called Easy Roller,” Epstein said. “Neither of us remember what it was exactly. But we were always creating. And that’s the thing about entrepreneurship. If you’re creative, if you have that creative mindset, it lends itself to that because everyday is so different.”
Back in their high school days at East, David was the Student Council President; Steve was his VP.
“I believe collaboration works,” Epstein said. “I know that there’s a million entrepreneurs that’ll tell you it’s your way or the highway, but that has never been for me, the way that I can operate. I have a high level of ADD, and I love change. Steve is an eagle scout, family of five, church-going. That’s just not who I am, so really our differences tends to smooth the edges, and it’s really worked.”
Tom’s Town opened nearly a month ago and has seen instant success. Although they won’t be able to start distributing their liquor for another 6 months due to the aging process not being complete, Tom’s Town is open Wednesday through Saturday evenings, essentially as a high-end bar — one similar to those found in Kansas City during the Pendergast era.
“We’ve even had to hire security on weekend nights,” Epstein said. “We’re going to have to get a velvet rope and stuff at the front, which I suppose is a sign of our initial success, which is much better than we could have ever anticipated.”
The design of Tom’s Town was inspired by the Pendergast period. Everything from the furniture to the goat taxidermy on the walls (a symbol for Pendergast’s “goat” gang) allow customers to live in the 20s, when, according to Epstein, “Kansas City was the Vegas of its time.”
“We wanted you to step into here and think of Gatsby,” Revare said. “Our art decorator came out here and toured all the artsy buildings in KC, we wanted that KC spirit. So everything was based on design, from the product to the brand.”
Tom’s Town offers three main beverages — vodka, gin and bourbon, all drinks that were prevalent in Kansas City during the Pendergast era.
“With the booze and spirits, it’s just as much about the story as it is about the drink itself,” Epstein said.