Employees Only Singapore is barely two weeks old and already the crowd inside (and waiting without) is bustling. Principal Bartender and partner in the business, Steve Schneider, handed over the reigns of Employees Only New York in order to head over to Singapore to see if he could truly make it anywhere.
Singapore’s cocktail scene has been both regionally and globally recognised and we have produced some top quality bartenders in the last few years. By choosing Singapore as its first overseas location, Employees Only, a New York icon, gives the country even more street cred. Schneider himself is something of a legend in the bartending industry, having won numerous global awards and also being the star of the 2013 documentary Hey Bartender.
Despite all this, the former marine is amazingly down to earth with a gratefulness and love for the industry that really comes across. We spoke to Schneider before his second Friday behind the bar to hear what he has to say about his hopes and dreams for Singapore’s newest bar.
LifestyleAsia (LSA): So what made you give up New York for Singapore?
Steve Schneider (SS): There were several factors. One was the opportunity to own something. After 14 years of grinding, scratching and clawing, all the ups and downs, I had the opportunity to be involved in my favourite company, my favourite bar at an even higher capacity.
One of our partner’s Josh Schwartz opened Pangea several years ago and works with Massive Collection. He actually taught Igor (Hadzismajlovic, another partner in the business) how to bartend many years ago. Igor was Josh’s bar back then I was Igor’s bar back. Igor likes to come out here in the summer, so having a good friend like Josh brought him to Singapore a lot. He’s seen how the scene has grown and has been wanting to do this for several years now, he’s just been looking for a space. Also he loves beach volleyball.
LSA: Is it different, being part-owner as well as bartender?
SS: I could have kept my three shifts a week in New York making USD$150,000 a year, that wouldn’t have been a problem for me. I went to 18-19 different countries last year. But I just felt that I had a vision, a dream, a goal and this is what I want to do. I’ve spent my life savings on this place, I didn’t come here on anyone else’s money, I put my money, my everything on the line as well.
LSA: Do you have the same hopes for your bartending staff as you had for yourself back in the day?
SS: The staff define Employees Only in New York and will do the same here in Singapore. The only thing we can give them is a platform and an opportunity and this place will be whatever they turn it into. Anything I’ve set my mind to, it’s really come through. My goal now is to see some of my staff be in my position one day. People have given me many opportunities in my life and I want to be able to pass it down to a younger generation — that’s how we live forever.
LSA: Do people who want to work here have big expectations?
SS: Some people hear about this mythical bar from New York and want to work here, and how do you manage those kinds of expectations? In New York it’s just a group of people who love what they do. Good people in this industry prove that you can move up in this industry and go higher and higher and achieve any goal that you have. That’s sort of my ethos. I believe I can show them how much you can get out of this job… But they don’t really know what they’re getting themselves into.
Even with all these awards that we’ve won, I’ve said before we need to manage people’s expectations that drinks are going to be fairly straightforward, made relatively fast with garnishes that work. The food will be the same.
LSA: What’s your plan for the future of Employees Only here?
SS: I’ve broken it down into a few simple phases. Right now we’re still in Phase 1 — getting everything we need, making sure that the staff understand my style of drink making. We’ve got 17 well-made cocktails on the menu. Basically anyone should be able to come into this bar from anywhere in the world and be able to find something they like. Phase 2 will be when I introduce more ingredients, more products, and also more responsibility for everyone.
LSA: Employees Only has a reputation for speed without skimping on the quality, how do you get that right?
Every day we do free pouring drills, we practice and we train. It’s the old school, American bartending way. I’ve been doing this for 14 years I know how to pour 30 ml like that. I figure if skateboarders can learn to do backflips, I can learn how to pour 30 ml. Repetition and practice is one of our styles, which for me is shocking that it’s been written about so much. It’s really about efficiency, knowing where one thing is and where exactly the next one is. It’s about using all your senses to make drinks, watching what you’re doing, tasting as you go, smelling it, repetition, muscle memory, watching yourself. All these little things.
LSA: How did you pick out the drinks for the menu in Singapore?
SS: I’ve picked drinks that I’ve made before, which are great drinks and also exemplify our style of drink making. The job is fairly simple, people stand in front of you and tell you what they want and that’s the beginning of it. For me it’s all about making good drinks for people. Making a good drink for people for me has more to do with desire, heart and determination.
LSA: What if people want something more fancy?
SS: That’s not us. You’ve talked to me for 20 minutes you know how simple I am! When I go out I have something quick and easy like a Daiquiri, Negroni or a Margarita. Every now and then I like to try something more out there, but nothing beats a good Tom Collins of gin, lemon, sugar and soda. Funny here everyone loves whisky sours, Negronis and Old Fashions, which is great since they only have three ingredients in them.
LSA: What does it take to make a great bartender?
SS: Who’s the best chef in the world? Your mom — she doesn’t have the best tricks but she has all the desire to make you the best food. I can have all the tricks and tools but if my heart’s not in it, it’s not going to be the same. I always judge a bartender by the quality of their insults. Anybody can make a drink but you also should be witty — but also humble and modest enough to realise you are giving someone a service and you’re there to be there for that person, even if it’s cheeky.
LSA: What do you think of Singapore so far?
I’ve been to Singapore about six times already and I really love all the bars in this area. I love 28 HongKong Street, Manhattan is beautiful, Operation Dagger is so cool. I don’t want to leave anyone out because I really respect them, places like Neon Pigeon, Cufflink Club, The Library, Burnt Ends, D.Bespoke, The Flagship and Gibson, I love that hood.
My map of Singapore basically goes from Raffles to The Flagship and Gibson, [and here]. That’s how I determine where I’m going so far. That’s my triangle.
Employees Only, 112 Amoy Street, Singapore 069932, www.facebook.com/employeesonlysingapore