Durham, N.C. — 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 office folks to report to a meeting at 6 a.m.
Once caffeinated and properly introduced, our group of six – Fred Dex of Rx Wine Lab, Olivia Gray of Revolution, Crawford Leavoy of Piedmont, Brad Weddington of Nana’s, Tim Neill of Bar Lusconi and Peccadillo, and Shannon Healy of Alley Twenty Six – sat down for a candid and campy discussion of their world.
What’s happening in Durham’s drink world? Food is getting high marks. Is the beverage side following suit?
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 think they should be able to get a Crown Royal and Coke anywhere. … 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 pina colada.”
OLIVIA: I love a frozen pina 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.
BRAD: You can’t be in this position without being able to read people. I
Is the cliché true – do people reveal all to their bartender? 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. … 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.
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.”
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.
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, and I love working with young adults. 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.
As a manager, is it getting harder and 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: The first three months behind my own bar, I had to break my own bad habits. Took me three full months. I kept saying. “Oh, I really should stop doing that.” … Getting somebody else to acknowledge that their habits are bad is almost impossible. 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.
BRAD: Every business could say the same thing.
Let’s talk about work-life balance.
GROUP: There is none.
So you just have significant others who are understanding of that?
OLIVIA: Or not.
CRAWFORD: It takes someone who is 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, 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.] You have stuff to do. I don’t know what happens, but you just don’t sleep as much anymore.
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.
TIM: The one thing I think is the downside of working in the industry is every now and again, you don’t get to go into another bar or another restaurant and just let the whole experience wash over you. You end up dissecting it. And you’ll miss out on something really special every now and again.
OLIVIA: Yeah, you can’t just enjoy it.
SHANNON: You should learn something anytime you walk into a bar. Even if you’re just having a beer and enjoying it. There’s something to learn from everyone. Even if it’s what not to do. Those are some valuable lessons, too.
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. They might be important pieces. But they are 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 and years. If you’re not good at figuring out what the theme of the place is and making what you do the best in that spot, then you’re in the wrong business. … I loved working at Crook’s and trying to discover what that place was 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. …
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 percent 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 this bottle of wine?”
Editor’s Note: Brad, Crawford, Tim, Shannon and Olivia will create unique craft cocktails – paired with food from Revolution’s Jim Anile and Piedmont’s Ben Adams – at the April 25 Artisan Cocktail Dinner at Durham’s The Cookery. There will also be a DJ and dancing! Tickets are on sale now. It’s part of the Taste food event series, and a portion of proceeds will go to the Food Bank of Central & Eastern N.C.