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Dec 17, 2019

10 Years in Astoria: Sweet Afton

This week we’re highlighting some of the amazing local businesses celebrating milestone anniversaries as 2019 comes to an end. Happy Astoria-versary! Yesterday was five years. Ruairi Curtin, the owner behind (…)

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Courtesy Sweet Afton.

This week we’re highlighting some of the amazing local businesses celebrating milestone anniversaries as 2019 comes to an end. Happy Astoria-versary! Yesterday was five years.

Ruairi Curtin, the owner behind Astoria favorites Sweet Afton and The Bonnie (which is coincidentally celebrating five years this year!) first moved to Astoria in 1999. “It was still a very gritty neighborhood,” he said of the time. “There were not many places where I was interested in going to hang out at that time, especially on the bar front.”

Ruairi said because of the lack of quality haunts, he and his friends would usually head into the city on weekends, to spots like Tom & Jerry’s, Spring Lounge and the Otheroom. The goal was never anything fancy, just a “nice vibe, local beers, no TVs, a warm atmosphere,” he said. The frequent trips made him realize there was an open opportunity right in his home neighborhood.

Sweet Afton in the 1930s, courtesy Sweet Afton.

Ruairi and his friends/business partners opened their first bar, Bua, on St. Mark’s Place in 2004, and then Wilfie & Nell in the West Village in 2008. Still frustrated that there was no great bar in Astoria, Ruairi was walking one day and passed the space on 34th St. near 30th Ave. They were doing construction, but he knew as soon as he walked in that it was the perfect spot. He hit it off with the landlord, and a deal was struck within the week. In August of 2009, Sweet Afton opened its doors.

Echoing other business owners, Ruairi has definitely noticed the competition increase over the years, which he thinks is a good thing! “We don’t fear competition; we welcome other great businesses in the neighborhood,” he said. “As time goes on, there are more and more young professionals and actors in our neighborhood, more people that are looking for what we offer. As competition grows, the market for what we do grows as well.”

A beloved Sweet Afton cocktail, the Dirty Pickle Martini. Photo by Mike DiTota.

He says the single element that has most contributed to their long-term success is the staff. “We hire based on gut instinct more than anything else. You can teach anybody how to make a cocktail, but you can’t force personality out of somebody,” he said.

They have a handful of staff who has been with them since the beginning, and for everyone who joins the team, Ruairi’s goal is to be “the best hospitality company that our employees have ever worked for.” They offer a 401K, annual bonuses, health insurance and free meals.

Courtesy Sweet Afton.

To celebrate the 10-year anniversary, they did a series of renovations to elevate the space a bit and get it “ready for the next decade of its life.” Wes Anderson’s set decorator Kris Moran led the design, which included a mural inspired by the River Afton by Brooklyn artist Mackenzie Younger, tile mosaics on the floor, commissioned portraits of their most beloved chefs and barbacks, vintage light fixtures and more.

“An old house needs a fresh coat of paint every so often,” Ruairi said. “But at the core I don’t think Sweet Afton has changed at all. Our original regulars have grown up a bit, but essentially we are the same Sweet Afton that opened ten years ago with the same principles: great food, great drinks and great staff in a friendly, welcoming atmosphere.”

Sweet Afton, 30-09 34th St, Astoria

The “after” of the 10-year anniversary renovations. Courtesy Sweet Afton.

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