After moving back to Providence a few years ago, I began seeing posts about Little Bitte Cocktail Artisanal Cocktails catering service pop up on my Facebook feed; my friends were RSVPing to their workshops about bitters, craft cocktail-making, special daiquiris and floral crowns. Little Bitte’s lush imagery and elegant aesthetics drew me in, even as I wondered exactly what a cocktail caterer was, or what made it different from a standard bartending service.
I decided to go right to the source and find out more.
I met up with Little Bitte owner Willa Van Nostrand at Pastiche for coffee, tea, and rugelach.
The first thing I learned about her is that she grew up on a little herb farm in Rehoboth, MA, which cultivated a lifelong fascination with tastes, flavors, and how different ingredients interact. Willa started bartending in college and quickly developed her mixology skills at many bars in Boston and Providence.
She often attracted attention thanks to her creativity and passion for experimentation. “One day I would show up with edible flowers, the next shift I would be fresh-juicing my own pineapple,” Willa said. “To keep my mind interested and learning and excited, I needed to add my own touch to things and to keep that fire burning. Slowly but surely, I developed a following of people who came to visit me, and then some would start asking if I could come to their parties and bartend.”
Those small bartending gigs became the origins of Little Bitte, a play on “little bit” with the word “bitte” meaning “welcome,” “please,” and also “thank you” in German—and perhaps also sounding a bit like “bitter” in the German tongue. To Willa, the word embodies a throwback to the golden age of the cocktail era: a little bit of manners mixed with fine spirits.
As her bartending engagements increased, Willa found that she needed to enlist friends in the industry to help with larger events. Soon, she sought to legitimize, incorporate, and get licensing for what became Rhode Island’s first-ever cocktail catering company, coming up with signature drinks and new spins on old classics with an emphasis on small batch artisanal liquors, liqueurs, bitters, natural wine, and locally-sourced garnishes and fresh-squeezed juices.
Another pillar of Little Bitte is the aesthetics I mentioned before: a gorgeous bar, dazzling drinks, and every detail perfected down to a meticulous tee. “My background is in visual art and theater, and I wouldn’t have been able to build this brand if I hadn’t followed my gut and visions for the bars we create,” Willa said. “I studied improv, classical acting training, lighting, sets and everything; it’s very much at the heart of what I’m doing.”
Willa caters events ranging from just her with a tiny bar, all the way up to up to 20 mixologists, but the average is six. They are generally friends she knows locally from the industry, many of whom are also artists and musicians—but all are naturally personable. “For me, the personality is first and foremost: a generosity, openness, and willingness to participate and speak with the clients,” she said. “If they have that wish to learn, they’ll learn really fast, and each season will teach them more about mixers and modifiers.”
Most of the events she caters are wedding-related, working with a couple for sometimes over a year leading up with the big day, but she has also catered fundraisers for local nonprofits, festivals, runs a booth at Providence’s Waterfire, and worked with schools and colleges in the area.
To my surprise, Willa has never paid for advertising or marketing of any kind—all of her business has come from word-of-mouth and organic exposure. Willa herself is a writer for online Puddingstone Post and local food magazine Edible Rhody contributing as a cocktail expert, which no doubts help to boost her company’s image in the eyes of consumers. Willa has been committed to growing her business sustainably, and, because it is seasonal, she spends the off-months traveling, writing, consulting, and preparing. Recently, she’s been in the early stages of putting together her own cocktail recipe book.
Although she loves what she does, Willa was up front with me about the daunting amount of work required: “I call catering ‘The Great Schlep’: you’re constantly moving heavy things, loading and unloading. Then you do it all again in reverse, to clean and store it,” she said. “I love catering and the act of popping up, but all the client sees is this beautiful vibrant bar, this oasis of beauty and fine drinks, a crew of put-together gals and guys with a pop-red lip or bow ties shaking cocktails; they’re not seeing the work that goes into it. It takes me two days to source materials, going around to all of the farms and finding what I need, and those long kitchen hours and days of prep.”
The other massive obstacle that goes unseen by most clients was the decade-long process of negotiating licensing and liability under RI state jurisdictions and the health department. She has also never sought help from investors. I asked if she’s worried that other people will try to emulate what she’s done, and “It’s starting. And it’s creepy but, yeah, of course,” she replied.
“I wouldn’t actually recommend catering to anybody,” she continued. “This is not the life I envisioned for myself, and that’s okay, it’s great—it means I’m growing and learning with my craft and creativity and my own artistry. If you’re driven and an entrepreneur, you’re going to find your niche and forge new territory. Staying independent has allowed me to remain open to collaboration with people making other kinds of drinks or food.” Going in without investors has meant plenty of challenges and difficulty, requiring “hard-headed fortitude and bootstrapping,” she said, “but, for the most part, people seem to really click with what I’m doing, and I’m still inspired by it, so I know something’s working!”
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Thanks Amanda for sharing your business story. And yes, all of businesses started from small until rising up to reach goals.