Fair warning: If you ask a group of bartenders to meet you at noon on a Wednesday, bring lots of coffee. It’s kind of the equivalent of asking us 9-to-5 folks to come into the office at 6 a.m.
Once caffeinated and properly introduced – a few had never met, while several went way, way back – our group of six, representing nearly a century’s worth of experience in hospitality, casually discussed memorable encounters with famous chefs, the often maddening process of health inspections, the hardest drink to make perfectly (a margarita!) and the places of their past (most notably New York, New Orleans and Jackson Hole). It wasn’t long before the majority traded their coffee mugs for pint glasses. As Shannon Healy of Alley Twenty Six put it: “I didn’t get into the bar business because I don’t like to drink.”
After some fun and games – literally– thanks to our meeting spot West End Wine Bar & Billiards, a bar on West Main Street with pool tables, shuffleboard, bocce and basketball, we sat down fora candid and campy discussion of their world, from the biggest misconceptions to the importance of knowing how to read patrons in order to give them what they want.
Durham’s food is getting high marks. Is the beverage side following suit? Are you seeing more sophisticated palates walking through your doors – people who care about local ingredients in their drinks?
SHANNON When I decided to open, that was my premise. I was like, “There’s people spending all this time talking and thinking about what they’re eating. They should have bars to go to.”
TIM A significant portion of the community, though, are still very possessive about their drinking. The vast majority thinks they should be able to get a Crown Royal and Coke anywhere.
OLIVIA Or a vodka and Red Bull. Let’s take it down another notch.
TIM So everyone here is trying to elevate that to a different place. But it’s still not always seamless dealing with the general public.
SHANNON Even when drawing up a business plan, it was all about people stepping out of a box. In Durham, [customers] will let you be adventurous. But just as there are those people supporting Piedmont, Revolution, Straw Valley – there are also people supporting Chili’s and Bob Evans. So they might walk into my bar. This is hospitality. We’re trying to satisfy people, but by doing what we do.
BRAD If someone walks in and says, “I want a Crown and ginger,” you can say, “I think you’d like this.”
TIM All the work that all these bars and restaurants are putting in – the rewards are cumulatively reaped by all of us. It betters the Durham food scene.
FRED If we’re all communicating quality to the guests, and we’re buying the right ingredients, and we’re standing for integrity and intention, that’s going to help us all. We’re kind of a team. This is team Durham.
BRAD We all are in this business because it’s hospitality. We want to treat them well and have them come back.
Your job is to give people what they want. But what if I order a Blue Motorcycle? You don’t judge me for that?
BRAD I went to Nags Head when it was 58 degrees. I walked into a bar and said, “I want a frozen piña colada.”
OLIVIA I love a frozen piña colada.
BRAD Of course you do. They’re delicious! … It’s nice to get to that point where people say, “I don’t know what I want to drink. Make me something.” And then they do the same thing with the food.
FRED That’s trust!
SHANNON And you lose trust if you don’t have hospitality … if they come in and you actively judge them.
TIM As a bartender, your job is to assess someone as they walk through the door so you can cater their experience.
OLIVIA You have to know what they want in order to provide it.
TIM Deciding what kind of character they are, what they want to drink, where their night is going. Is it the end of their night? Are they eating? Where? You can use that information to … tailor a whole night based on looking at them.
FRED Just one or two words and a look.
BRAD You can’t be in this position without being able to read people.
Is the cliché true? Do people really tell you their problems?
BRAD Oh, Jesus Christ. Yes!
Will you share a story about that?
TIM You shouldn’t kiss and tell.
BRAD Go to your barber if you want to hear a story.
SHANNON Let the record reflect: We have no stories to tell about customers. Seriously.
FRED But people are there because they’re either in a moment of celebration or a moment of despair.
SHANNON Or it’s Tuesday.
TIM Or they’re hungry.
SHANNON I say this all the time: I don’t go to bars. I go to bartenders. I go because I like the people. I go to visit my friends in hospitality.
OLIVIA There’s a specific place I used to go to all the time that I haven’t been [to lately] because now I don’t know the person. It’s not my connection. That’s what happens. You can get a drink anywhere. But it’s that connection with the person.
CRAWFORD It’s all about how we make connections. The first time I went into Nana’s, they said, “How do you not know Brad? He’s from New Orleans.” It quickly turned into me saying to my husband, “I really have to take you to the bar at Nana’s. You have to meet these people.”
FRED Sports. Movies. Music. If you can talk about things other than what you do …
BRAD That’s my excuse to my wife for watching sports. Like, “It’s my job, honey.”
FRED Because you get two or three people a night saying, “Did you see what was on ESPN today?”
BRAD Ultimately, just take a genuine approach. That wins the day for all of us. I spend more time with these people than I do my family. No lie.
SHANNON It’s a lot easier to be genuine when you actually believe what you’re saying. … When you’re proud of what you serve, it makes it easy.
It’s obvious that you guys love what you do. So you’re career bartenders? You have decades of this profession ahead of you?
CRAWFORD I look to the next service. Why look further ahead than that? But yeah, I tried to get out of this business.
GROUP We all have!
CRAWFORD I spent three amazing years at Restaurant August, arguably the best restaurant in the city of New Orleans. I said, “I’ll go teach for a year.” I love teaching … but I’m not built to do that. What I am built to do is create restaurant concepts.
TIM All of this is a craft. And all of us are still learning.
OLIVIA Right. Every day.
TIM And it’s a lifelong craft. People master it in their 50s. The true veterans of it. It is beautiful to see how well they handle people.
BRAD It’s weird. You have a bunch of people who come in and say, “I bartended in college. I could do what you do.” I feel like I am a very good bartender. I am in control of everything going on around me. I am doing well at it. When people say that, you can’t help but question [things]. It’s like, “So what’s my next step then? Where am I at?” My wife, like eight years ago, talked to me about this because I used to say to people, “I bartend, but I’m thinking about other things.” She was like, “Are you ashamed of what you do? We own a house. We have a child. We have two cars that are paid for. And that’s all because of what you do. You’re there. What are you worried about?”
SHANNON My business card does not say owner. It says bartender. … If you come into my bar, do you really care that I own the joint? Or do you care that I’m going to make you a good drink? If I can balance my QuickBooks, what do you care?
OLIVIA I came through customs from Italy, and the guy asked me what I do, and I said “bartender.” I haven’t actually had a position as “bartender” in six years. That’s what I say. That’s what I’m comfortable with. We’re all intelligent, creative people. We have to deal with that pressure from society that we should be doing something else.
BRAD The relationships you build – these people babysit my kids. I serve them their first drink. For their wedding I create the drinks. That’s what’s grown over 10 years. I hope they’re as happy to see me as I am to see them. I love doing it.
OLIVIA I’m proud of my capacity to stretch beyond bartending and to run a business and to do all that. But it’s not my heart, so when you ask me what I do, it’s much more fluid for me to say “bartender.”
SHANNON The mastery of the craft of hospitality – you learn it behind the bar.
As a manager, is it getting harder to find good people to work for you?
TIM Yes. In any business.
BRAD When someone comes in and says, “I went to this bartending school, which is accredited for this and this,” it’s an immediate no hire. Because you have to untrain them on what they’ve learned in these terrible places. … I’d rather train someone from scratch who has good work ethic.
FRED At the end of the day, you want people to embrace your creativity, your concepts, your vision. You have to have people who will sacrifice a bit of their own ego at their door.
SHANNON One thing Tim said to me before I opened my bar is: “You can teach the craft, and you can teach the
skills. What you cannot teach is internal speed.” Some people don’t move quickly and never will.
OLIVIA You can teach someone to be a good bartender as far as the craft. You cannot teach them to be the full package. You cannot teach someone to think like an owner or manager who doesn’t have that capacity. You can’t teach someone to look at things the way you do.
Crawford, when I met you several months ago, you said that your first impression of the local food scene was that the back of the house was in good shape. But that the front of the house had a ways to go.
CRAWFORD I’m not shy about the fact that when I got here [a year ago] and ate in restaurants, I was like, “Wow. I’ve had some really awesome food throughout the Triangle and some terrible service.”
BRAD Well, Piedmont was one of them.
CRAWFORD Absolutely. And that was the first restaurant I touched. I watched a server open a bottle of wine, pop the cork too much, pour wine all over the ground and say, “Sometimes it just happens.” And I turned and looked at my husband and said, “Not if you know what you’re doing.”
So how do you improve things? Teach people who are already here or recruit people?
BRAD Put people in a spot where they can succeed, by giving them the knowledge.
OLIVIA I’m sure that I have been embarrassed in similar ways on many occasions. Because sometimes going into a place that’s already running and trying to re-train, re-hire, fix the restaurant – you’re going to have those situations. And that reflects on me – even if I had no responsibility in it.
Let’s talk about work-life balance.
GROUP There is none!
You just have significant others who are understanding of that?
OLIVIA Or not.
CRAWFORD It takes someone who’s really understanding.
OLIVIA And if you don’t have that person, it doesn’t work. We have to weed through a lot of people.
TIM A lot of people will be like, “When are you getting a real job?”
OLIVIA I once added up the number of hours …
SHANNON Don’t ever do that.
OLIVIA A boyfriend lived with me who had two children. And I added up the number of hours that he spent working at a job where he made twice what I did and the number of hours he spent driving his children back and forth and the number of hours he spent awake with his children – all of that was fewer hours than I work in a week.
TIM I used to put 5,000 miles on a car in about five-and-a-half weeks. Going laps – home, Bar Lusconi, Peccadillo. Home, Lusconi, Peccadillo.
You used to? What changed?
TIM I hired two managers. And that was awfully good for solving insomnia and various other conditions. … When you own your own business, for some reason your eyes just open at 8:30 in the morning [even if you worked till 3 a.m.].
SHANNON It’s the fear.
OLIVIA I will say I’ve been putting that part off. I’m very happy to work for other people right now.
TIM There are rewards to both. As an employee, you get to thrive, and when you leave work, you don’t take it home with you. As an employer, you really enjoy watching people grow. You watch them move up the ranks.
OLIVIA That’s why I think managing but not owning is the best marriage of both those things. Because you still see growth. But at the end of the day, it’s somebody else’s money.
A central theme of this discussion has been how you make people feel. So customers don’t remember how good a cocktail was? It’s just about making them feel good?
OLIVIA It’s an experience. We like to be part of the experience, but the experience is what people are looking for.
SHANNON It’s about the person and what they like. It’s not about my Manhattan being a really good Manhattan. It’s that they happen to love Manhattans. I’m going to do my best to make you the thing that I think you’re going to like the most. … I’m just listening. You told me what you liked, and I put it in a glass. If I ask the right questions and enough of them …
CRAWFORD The bar program, the wine program – they are small pieces. Important pieces. But small pieces.
For those of you who work at a restaurant, is it hard to take a backseat to food?
SHANNON No. I was at Crook’s Corner for years. … I loved trying to discover what that place was and what I could do to make the chef look good and the ownership look good and make the brand – as a Southern restaurant of Chapel Hill – be good. That’s what we’re all trying to do.
TIM The other thing with that is that you have such a broader palette of colors that you can employ to give someone a good time. Because you can sell someone a bottle of mineral water and dessert and make them have a lovely night. It doesn’t have to be booze. … Even if you’re not the person making it, food is a wonderful thing to present to someone.
CRAWFORD We’re a restaurant that focuses on local ingredients, and we hope it’s good food that people enjoy. What I do with the wine and the cocktail program is a complementary portion of that. Certainly you can walk in and say, “I’m going to have a cocktail, and that’s all I’m going to do in Piedmont today.” But I try to complement what goes on in the kitchen because that’s what 95% of people who walk through the door are looking for. Very rarely do people take the wine list and go, “We’re going to drink this bottle of wine. What should we eat to go with it?”
Do you take more ownership of cocktails because you’re creating them, whereas you’re merely pouring wine and beer?
OLIVIA No. One of the most satisfying things that I can do is introduce someone to a new wine that is exactly what they’re looking for. … And I didn’t create it at all. But you’re kind of the bridge of the language. Understanding what people are saying to tell you what they want. It’s not always the language that we use.
SHANNON You curate beer and wine. … But it’s the same skill set. … It’s all about pleasing the guest. DM
Bull City Bartenders
Backstory Olivia, 33, is a West Virginia native. She first came to Durham as a high schooler and then attended UNC. In her early years in the biz, she tended bar at West End Wine Bar, The Cellar, Lantern and Il Palio at The Siena Hotel (her college gig!). She helped open Revolution, on West Main, in 2008 and was the bar manager and a bartender there until 2012. Although she left for a bit to work at another restaurant, she returned to Revolution as the GM to run the beverage program and train the bar staff. She now works at West End Wine Bar & Billiards and lives in South Durham with her two mutts.
Total Years of Experience 14
Coffee? Who Needs Coffee? “I love the energy and the excitement [of this business]. I imagine we are all sort of adrenaline junkies, thriving off of the barely controlled chaos of a really busy night, reveling in the immediate gratification of providing someone with an amazing experience.”
Buzzkill “Some people seem to feel entitled to treat people – and especially service staff – with utter disrespect.”
Backstory Crawford, 29, grew up in Birmingham and Louisiana and is a graduate of LSU. He worked at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar in Baton Rouge and at John Besh’s Restaurant August in New Orleans. A backwaiter at first, he eventually became August’s director of wine and spirits. A job at Duke University Medical Center brought Crawford and husband, Clayton Alfonso, a physician, to Durham last summer. They live near Southpoint. Crawford has been the GM at Piedmont for just over a year, and he and Chef Ben Adams have been credited with resurrecting the once struggling contemporary Southern restaurant on Foster Street.
Total Years of Experience 7
The Great Debate When he’s not in the restaurant, Crawford coaches the Durham Academy debate team, which often means traveling around the country with the students. (Education is a passion; during his last year in New Orleans, he briefly left the hospitality world to teach at a small private school.)
Work Philosophy “Lead from the front. The managers whom I respect and who became my mentors in this business were the ones who were the first to step in and do what was necessary for the restaurant to succeed. They washed dishes, bussed tables, cleaned bathrooms and re-plastered walls, not because they had to, but because it needed to be done, and they wanted to set the example.”
Backstory Shannon hails from south Florida and is a University of Florida graduate. He moved to Durham in 1996 and worked at Crook’s Corner from 2000 to 2012, mostly serving as GM. Crook’s owner, Gene Hamer, encouraged him to start his own business and was instrumental in making it happen. Alley Twenty Six opened on East Chapel Hill Street in 2012. Shannon, 43, and his wife of one year, Andrea, live in downtown Durham.
Total Years of Experience 23
Why It’s All Worth It “Finding something you are genuinely interested in and like-minded people to work with does not make it easy, but it does make it fun.”
On the Horizon Soon you’ll be able to buy Alley Twenty Six’s homemade tonic, both at the bar and at certain retail locations.
Backstory He’s not from South Africa, contrary to popular belief! Remember that when you venture into Bar Lusconi on East Main Street or Peccadillo in Carrboro. Tim, 41, owns both.The Aussie moved to the Big Apple in 1997 to chase a woman. After 13 years there, working at Employees Only among other bars, he moved to Charleston, S.C., before relocating to the Triangle in 2010 (his girlfriend has family nearby) and working for Gary Crunkleton of The Crunkleton in Chapel Hill. He opened Peccadillo in 2011 and Lusconi in 2013.
Total Years of Experience 23
Work Philosophy “Get the best possible products at a reasonable price point. Offer incredible service. Create a warm and welcoming environment.”
Under the Radar You won’t find large signage outside of either of Tim’s bars. What’s up with that? “With Peccadillo, to alter the facade of the building would have cost many thousands of dollars,” he says. “Instead of changing it, I decided to embrace it and use it to the benefit of the bar. The exterior ends up creating a wonderful transition as you enter Peccadillo. Lusconi does have signage – about 200-300 business cards hanging in the window. It was a joke based upon people’s comments pertaining to the signage at Peccadillo. Upon finding either bar for the first time, most people can find it easily thereafter. Which ties in with the fact I use word of mouth predominantly to market both bars.”
Backstory Brad, 33, was born in Louisiana but moved around a lot because his parents worked for IBM. The family landed in Raleigh in 1995. He met his wife, Megan, in 2004 when she was a bartender at the now closed Nana’s Chophouse in Raleigh. They have two sweet daughters – Ella, 8, and Harper, 4 – and live in North Raleigh, but don’t judge them for it! It’s for the sake of being close to the girls’ grandmother, who provides frequent childcare. Brad started working at Nana’s in 2004 as a busboy. He’s been a bartender since 2005. He works with his brother, Graham, who’s a server and bartender there.
Total Years of Experience 16
On the Horizon Brad will be part owner of NanaSteak, alongside Nana’s Chef/Owner Scott Howell and Graham. It’s slated to open in 2015, in the same building as the new Aloft Hotel next to DPAC.
The Good and The Bad “The best thing about my job is the relationships that I’ve built over the years with a lot of my regular customers and co-workers. I really look forward to seeing them every night. As my family has grown and my kids have started school, the hardest thing about the job is that working nights takes away from my evenings and weekends with them.”
Backstory You may have heard about the November arrival of this 37-year-old master sommelier to Durham. Fred is one of only 140 with an M.S. in North America. The Pennsylvania native was the 79th person to receive the title in 2007. He came to Durham to launch Straw Valley Food & Drink and The Black House on 15-501 with his brother-in-law, Chef Adam Rose. (Fred is married to Adam’s sister, Jodi. The couple has a 6-year-old daughter, Sadie.) He’s since moved on to a new project, Rx Wine Lab. In his most recent previous life, Fred was a consultant who traveled coast to coast. For him, the strangest thing about his new normal is being contained within the wallsof one business. Fred’s resume highlights include famed New York City restaurants Daniel, Gramercy Tavern, Jean-Georges and the BLT Restaurant Group. A teenager when he entered the restaurant business, he was a cook at first; then he noticed that the “bartender always seemed like the coolest dude.”
Total Years of Experience 18
He’s Juicing “Fresh juice is an X factor. Every cocktail bar in America should create their own juices.”
A Work in Progress “I’m never satisfied. I’m always seeking to learn. When you get to be really good at something, you want to get better.”