December 9, 2015 / Rachel Eva
There always seems to be something exciting going on in the San Diego Cocktail Scene, especially around the holidays. If it's not Old Fashioned's and Ugly Sweaters at the Lion's Share, it's Fernet's Bad Santa Toy Drive for Rady Children's Hospital (Dec 14th) . Not to mention the various Golden State of Cocktails Preview events in San Diego this week.
Behind all the hubbub, glitter bombs, out-of-town personalities, and competitions to determine who the "best of ... " is this season, we have bartenders and managers who show up for their shifts to provide consistent, considerate, intelligent service to their customers, day after day, and night after night. Today we'd like to shift a little of the spotlight onto two of these gentlemen who quietly ensure the magic happens every day of the year.
Frank McGrath and Aaron Zieske of Polite Provisions. Photo by Shawn Michael
These are Aaron Zieske and Frank McGrath, General Manager and Assistant GM at Polite Provisions. With a majority of their work happening behind-the-scenes, we don't often have a chance to sit down and appreciate the role that Managers have in a cocktail service operation. So we carved out some time to chat about what makes a cocktail bar like Polite run the way it does, and what specific skills and duties are crucial to being a successful bar manager.
Aaron Zieske, in his 10th year behind the stick, started at Polite Proviions as a lead bartender from the very first day in February 2013, nearly 3 years ago. Before he'd ever touched a bar spoon, he was a coffee roaster, which he credits to the initial development of his palate. Tasting coffee taught him about the nuances of flavor, which led to an interest in wine. When he moved to Oregon he took a position as a bar back at a fine dining restaurant to continue to study wine, but it was there that he learned about cocktails and started bartending. A decade later, he's moved from Assistant GM to General Manager of one of the best high volume cocktail bars in the US. Photo by Shawn Michael
Frank McGrath was in culinary school picking up extra work as muscle for a moving company when he met Erick Castro, Proprietor of the soon-to-open Polite Provisions. Between moving boxes and piles of couch cushions, Castro offered Frank a job as a prep guy at the new place. A few months later, first week on the job, not the last of Frank's questions was "what's OR-GEET"? For being new to the bartending world, he moved quickly from prep guy to bar back to bartender in about a year. As his studies and hard work continued, so did the opportunity to prove himself as positions opened for a lead bartender, and then an Assistant General Manager, a role he's been in since June 2015. Photo by Shawn Michael
The Front Side of the Job
Ok, well first things first and obviously, to manage a cocktail bar you've got to be on point with your cocktail knowledge and craft. Being a bar manager means developing new cocktails, working on new menus, making sure service is consistent, guests are happy, and there's enough booze flowing freely into the hearts of happy customers. It means working shifts behind the bar, delivering incredible service, making patrons feel loved, and supporting everyone else working with you. However, the service pressure lightens up as you exchange some shifts for office hours, and you have "additional duties."
While there are certain benefits to exchanging bartending shifts for office hours, it can also be a challenging transition. Aaron and Frank report that while you definitely miss some of the energy of shift work (especially those epic in-the-zone marathon nights of solidarity and hilarity behind the bar), you're also pretty excited about not having to close 4 nights a week, and about having Sunday and Monday off. After working only one shift each week for a while, it's also obvious how physically demanding bartending is, and your future body thanks you for giving it a break. However, it's also apparent that making drinks is a skill you've got to keep up, or you'll get rusty at it -- real fast
When asked if there's a lot of pressure to come up with your own original cocktails, Aaron replied with an emphatic YES. One of his cocktails, the Sorcerer's Apprentice, is due to appear on the menu this season (See the end of this article for the recipe!) Its name speaks to the emphasis he places on the importance of learning under someone and being mentored, and how continuous learning and development are an essential part of his story, not only as a recipient of wisdom and knowledge, but as one who now is responsible for providing it. "People have given that to me, and I have a responsibility to pass it on," he stated, matter-of-fact.
Aaron evaluating a cocktail made by staff. Photo by Shawn Michael
The Other Side of the Job
So what do a manager's duties entail when they're not keeping their craft up behind the bar? Well, there are administrative duties related to ordering, dealing with money, managing and revising workflow, keeping track of inventory, purchasing and managing repairs of machines, and dealing with emergencies like power outages and that one time there were no limes to be had anywhere.
But when we asked Aaron about the most important part of his job, his answer was suspiciously thematic: "staffing, scheduling, hiring, training, terminating, paying, mentoring, recommending...." to sum it up, the most important part of his role is staff relations. Yes, admin and technical duties are part of the package, but those things are easily teachable. If you're not adept at managing employees, and not willing to work on staff relations every single day, being a bar manager is not the role for you.
Photo by Shawn Michael
Being in charge of staffing and ensuring a bar program is run efficiently isn't the most glamorous of jobs. According to Aaron, if you're in it for the status, to be the big boss, to have a little reign of your own, it's pretty likely you'll fail before long. Being a Bar Manager or GM means you work for your employees, and your job is to make sure that their jobs are more enjoyable and more secure. That means being consistent, being fair, listening with understanding, and creating a culture of trust and dependability. It also means pointing the finger at yourself when things are rough, and constantly working to be better at the work you're doing.
Frank's journey to a managerial role is an exceptional case, the perfect combination of hard work and natural leading capability paired with being in the right place at the right time for the right opportunities to manifest in rapid growth. He's had his work cut out for him with a steep learning curve, but rose to the challenge, and his development is a great asset to the bar. We asked him about the most significant part of his journey into management, and he responded with the wisdom that's evidently a core part of his character: "any move to management is based on earning trust above and below you. If you don't have trust and respect, you don't deserve management."
Photo by Shawn Michael
The Everyday Man Will Be There Tomorrow
And that brings us to one of our closing thoughts.
It's easy in the cocktail industry to value the visible strengths of magnetic personalities, sexiest bartenders, scientific cocktail nerdiness (dare we say, snobbery?), or that guy who's moved on to open a bar program at the next new hot spot. None of these things are bad, and we appreciate them as well - they're fun, exciting, educational and challenging.
But there are other strengths that are so incredibly impactful, and that are by nature less newsworthy. Loyalty is one - what about the bar manager who's built up a great team and managed it well for years? Loyalty is, by it's very nature, the same old news. Trust and dependability are more of the same - no drama there to splash on the local magazines. These are the things we appreciate about sitting down at a familiar bar with a familiar face behind it. These are the things that communicate substance and provide a safe place, both for patrons and staff.
Of course, and as Aaron emphasized at one point, not everyone has the opportunity for development where they are, and every career follows a different path. Often change is necessary to remain engaged, challenged, and growing. But the quiet character traits of patience, perseverance, commitment and contentment are worth taking a step back and recognizing when you come across them.
There are many more of these men and women than we can recognize, and many that have been serving in managerial roles longer than Aaron and Frankie. We'd like to thank all them for the role they play in creating a culture where your team is solid and established, your guests are comfortable and familiar. Here's a cheers to those favorite haunts where you go not to be in the fray of the next big thing, but to rest in the familiar routine, have a glass of something nice, and just be.
You can find Aaron behind the bar on Friday nights, and Frank on Thursdays & Saturdays.
BONUS - Favorite Stirred Cocktail Recipes
While we were talking bartending craft, Aaron and Frank shared a few of their favorite cocktails with us. Since we were trying out the new spoons behind their bar, we kept them stirred and boozy! While both bartenders love the single-piece, straight handled Aero Cocktail Spoon, Frank unapologetically stands behind the Wingman Spinning Cocktail Spoon as a workhorse for busy nights behind the bar :)
Want a spoon for yourself or to give as a gift this season? Polite Provisions is currently the ONLY place in San Diego to pick up these spoons in person! Here's some stirred drink inspiration:
The Sorcerer's Apprentice Cocktail by Aaron Zieske
Dash of Dale Degroff's Pimento Bitters
Short 1/2 oz Nux Alpina Walnut Liqueur
3/4 oz 15-year Oloroso Sherry
1 oz Famous Grouse Blended Scotch Whiskey
1 oz Balvenie Doublewood 12 year
Orange Twist Garnish
Frankie's Old Fashioned
2 dashes black walnut bitters (a little goes a long way!)
1/4 oz house-made vanilla gomme syrup (make some with vanilla beans added to this DIY recipe)
2 oz Buffalo Trace bourbon
Lemon Peel Garnish