COLLEGE STATION - Dustin Batson's expectations for West End Elixir Company, one of College Station's newest bars, have been exceeded, he says.
Found at the former Church Street BBQ on the far west end of the Northgate District, it's only been open for a few weeks. In place of the Q, you'll find dozens of cocktails, brick oven pizzas and more.
"We wanted to basically be a refuge for the older crowd that doesn't want to deal with the rest of Northgate," the owner said.
In a way, it's also become a refuge for some veterans, and for Batson himself.
"I was in Fallujah (Iraq) in 2005. I was in Karmah (Iraq) in 2007, and then I was in Helmand Province (Afghanistan) in 2008," the Marine said. "I didn't get to go anywhere nice."
Within the nice confines of West End, there are some signs of military support. Some of the upcoming events listed include the Marine Corps' birthday on November 10 and Veterans Day a day later.
However, most of the customers who sip on cocktails and munch on pizza probably aren't aware that a huge chunk of Batson's staff -- more than half-a-dozen people -- are veterans like him.
"Most of my staff has never spent a day behind a bar, poured one drink until I train them," he said, "but the drive and the discipline allows them to pick up things much more quickly, and they have pride in what they do."
Kitchen manager Arron Barringer was in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. His military service ended the next year.
"Not only can we come to each other for support, but we all know that every other vet's going to get the job done, so it creates this environment of prosperity and hard work that you probably wouldn't find in a normal bar," he said.
Like the other employees, he dons a classier attire than what you'll likely find elsewhere on Northgate: suspenders, a bow tie and a hat on the Thursday night we spoke. He's outgoing, quick-witted, quick to joke -- "Remember, it's Barringer, like the wine, only sweeter" -- quick to laugh.
As the Marine tells it, his post-military career took him to New Mexico where he was a police officer, then to work for security contractors like Blackwater, then back to school for an associate degree in English literature.
But something was with him that he couldn't shake.
"My PTSD started getting the best of me, and when Dustin called me up to offer me the kitchen manager position, I was actually homeless," Barringer said. "I was living out of my car in Colorado and New Mexico. He knew I had fallen on hard times, so he called me up and said, 'hey, I'm opening up a bar. I want to make you my kitchen manager, give you a job, get you on your feet,' and that's exactly what he's done.
"I owe Dustin a great debt," he added. "He's a true brother, and he really believes in the Marine Corps motto of Semper Fidelis, which is 'always faithful.'"
For Batson, who says he had gotten tired of "whiskey Cokes, vodka Sprites and the Bud Lights" from his previous bartending jobs on Northgate, there's a lofty idea within his work that goes beyond making a classy drink.
"If you just come to me and say you're a vet and you need a job, even if I don't have a position for you, I'm going to find one for you," he said. "We're not looking to get rich. We're basically looking to just pay the bills, and just bring things to College Station that nobody's really had."
Yes, that's beverages, but there also seems to be something much more that's been created. Comradery is commonly found in bars. Comradery among a staff that's serving drinks after serving their country is a little harder to find.