I have been a member of the Minneapolis chapter of the USBG (U.S. Bartender’s Guild) for about eight months now. For many reasons, I hadn’t attended any of the guild events in the twin cities until last month. I rode down with our brand manager to attend the meeting and spend the evening with a few folks. I had no idea what to expect.
We showed up at Hola Arepa a bit early and watched everyone arrive over the next twenty minutes, grab coffee or punch, and mingle. I was struck by how many hugs were passed around, and how many smiles and handshakes were offered to us, unfamiliar faces to most of the guild. We went from being the awkward first few folks to making acquaintances and connections with everyone in our vicinity quite quickly. The sense of camaraderie was palpable. These bartenders aren’t in competition with each other. They are friends, and most have worked with or for each other at some point. It is a group of craftspeople at various points in their careers. There were smiles all around, some playful banter, and a lot of learning about each other’s jobs.
I said hello and hugged a few of the friends I’ve made, and the meeting began. It was some old and new business, some charity talk, some upcoming events, and then a presentation by Baker’s bourbon. At the end of the presentation, a round of Arepas was delivered, these ridiculous corn sandwiches with pork and pickled onions and magic. Punch was a bourbon Campari thing, the Baker’s Dozen, very tasty. It felt like we were taken in by a family for a day and I felt so welcomed by all involved. It was good to meet and share stories with some people I have known of in this industry for some time.
We met up with a Copper & Kings rep, Patrick, had some amazing tacos and cocktails at the new place called Mercado, and talked shop. There were a few other industry folks there, just chilling on a Monday afternoon, studying or getting some computer work done. Food and drink were excellent.
We proceeded to the cleverly-hidden Volstead’s Emporium. To get in, we strolled down an alley and past some dumpsters, and after a few raps on the door, the metal slat opened and someone peeked out. The door guy let us in, sent us downstairs and into a luxurious, dimly lit bar. We snagged three of the five seats at the bar and met some real lovely dudes behind the stick. We chatted about some real nerdy stuff, as I’m wont to do: industry trends, weird cocktails we’d seen, and one of the tenders poured a small sample of a lamb-distilled mezcal. Some mezcals, called Pechuga, are distilled with raw poultry suspended above the pot to add a sort of savory, round richness. This mescal used lamb instead. Super weird, real delicious. We parked and just ate and drank and made conversation with new friends and our rep buddy and his fiancé. It was very inspiring to see the sort of engagement these bartenders have with their craft. They made us a lovely Martinez with our Voyageur Aquavit. We closed out and the bartenders sent us with their greetings to Dustin, a dear friend who works with a few bars in Minneapolis, who we were to meet at Restaurant Alma.
We got to Alma and sat at the bar, presented with a three-column menu and a fixed price. Cocktails were ridiculous, intentional and clearly well-crafted. Turns out, the manager on duty that night was an old elementary school friend of mine. Our plan was to have a drink and share three courses between the two of us. Dustin arrived, and we decided to add another three courses. It was supposed to be like two dinners shared. What ensued was a dining experience so outstanding and lovely it made me laugh on more than one occasion, earning some weird looks from some of the service staff.
Dustin helped design some of the cocktails on the menu, and he knew a bunch of the service staff. I think our connections and the slow-ish pace of the evening prompted some fun from the kitchen and our bartender/server. We were handled by a lovely, professional gal named Scarlett and the new guy who was training. He did most of the talking, and was just charming as hell. It was never merely “what can I do for you?”. It was “how are you feeling tonight, what kind of direction do you want to travel with this experience?”. We listened to him describe the few dishes he had tried, and he described them with such alacrity and poetry that it was difficult to choose anything but his recommendations. We picked our 6 things, and sipped our drinks. The kitchen sent out an amuse bouche salad for each of us. The service staff chose a wine and we each got a solid few ounces. Each course that followed contained one extra dish, so we each had a plate in front of us. We went at it like friends, just passing the plates around to try everything. Each plate of each course also came with another well-curated wine pairing. The server brought us each three glasses every time food was brought out and walked us through the pairings. Bonkers. The food was extraordinary on its own, but the wines just made it explode. When the second course of three was brought out and it happened again, three more amazing wines paired to our food, I think that’s when I started laughing. The entrée course was accompanied again by an extra dish from the kitchen. We were thinking about closing our tabs, as dessert only seemed likely when we were contending with just two dishes per course. Our server suppressed any hope of leaving immediately by bringing us each a small dollop of sorbet, instructing us to cleanse our palates and prepare for the dessert course. Because there was a dessert course. There was some crazy ricotta dish, nice and savory, and then a sweet thing that escapes my memory, I believe it had some orange marmalade and a cake-y thing. And another wine, a magical Moscato d’Asti. The attention and service we received were seriously insane. A wee cup of espresso made its way out for each of us after our marvelous desserts.
I can’t even.
The shared snack we sought evolved into hours of food and wine and laughter, and I can imagine no more fitting an end to our evening than that tiny cup of espresso and sharing smiles and handshakes with our service team.
There is a fun rapport that develops between bartenders/servers and regular guests. There is another, similar type of rapport that develops if a guest is a fellow industry employee. It’s not like we try to impress when we are working, really. I guess that is a part of it, but it’s more like we acknowledge and respect the contribution each other makes to the whole industry. When we walked into those bars and made industry-specific conversation, the atmosphere changed. We skip a certain amount of small-talk and we proceed to genuine chat about drinks and food, about our tattoos or jewelry selection, about our weird nerdy passions in and out of the industry.
At every turn, we were greeted as if we were family. The Alma dinner was a romantic gesture on behalf of the bar and kitchen staff, a sort of “you are welcome here, and we hope you are not only having a good time, but that you leave here in better spirits than when you arrived; here is a token of appreciation for no other reason than you’re a part of our community.” The romance is what keeps me in the industry, those moments of transcendence when providing or receiving such service.
Bartending has been elevated these past decades from its post-prohibition position as a menial, transitional or dead-end job to a craft, a career worthy of some respect. There is a myriad of skills required to truly transport a guest from the world outside our doors to a place of comfort and community. Even more recently, the craft cocktail service has moved from a pretentious knowledge gap back to genuine hospitality. I read a sign every day I walk to work, outside an old church close to downtown Duluth. It paraphrases a quote from Henri J. M. Nouwen, “Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.” Nouwen was a Dutch priest and theologian, and was writing about spirituality, but it gets at the kernel of magic revealed by truly exceptional service. It doesn’t matter as much anymore that your bartender knows the seven potential origins of the Martini, or has sampled age-old bottles of Chartreuse and considers the modern iteration sub-par. We go back to bars that treat us well, where we have developed friendships and had a great time. The kind of treatment we received isn’t only available to industry folks. It’s offered to friends, and any guest can become a friend.
For me, the most significant part of the trip wasn’t the extraordinary food or superb drinks. I loved watching and being included in the big family of bar and service folks. I think the biggest strength of a tightly-knit industry like hospitality is the sense that, no matter if our establishments are competitors, we are all on the same team. We all work and play together, eventually.
Wait. In the words of the Arthur theme song:
Everyday when you’re walking down the street, everybody that you meet
Has an original point of view
And I say HEY! hey! what a wonderful kind of day!
Where you can learn to work and play
And get along with each other
You should reasonably have that song stuck in your head if you watched PBS in the 90’s at all. I’m not sorry. Cheers!
PS: Stay tuned for photo updates.
PSS: Photo updates are live!
Photo Credit: Caitlin Nielson, Vikre Distillery