Episode 8: Interview with Steve Schneider, from Employees Only
Episode Resources & Links:
- Steve Schneider
- Employees Only, NYC
- Employees Only, Singapore
- Strangers Club, Panama
- Chris Lowder
- Google Docs
- Ready, Fire, Aim" cocktail
- Bittermen's Hellfire habanero shrub
- Tobin Ellis
- Bar Magic
- Tony Abou-Ganim
- The Steve Schneider Show Podcast
- Mr. Boston's Cocktail Guide
- Mark Ridgwell — Spirits Explained
- Hey Bartender
- World Cup, New Zealand (2012)
Full Episode Transcript: Interview with Steve Schneider (Employees Only, Strangers Club)
What's up Movers & Shakers!? It's your host April Wachtel and today on the show we have the infamous Steve Schneider. Everyone in the bar community knows him from Employees Only, NYC and then he went to open Employees Only in Singapore. Most recently he opened The Strangers Club in Panama. And today in the podcast we are talking about a whole bunch of things; how he got a start in bartending, cocktail competitions, how to succeed in cocktail competitions, mentorship, opening his own bar and so much more. Without further ado, here's the show.
April Wachtel: Steve thanks so much for being on Movers & Shakers.
Steve Schneider: Thank you, thanks for having me.
April Wachtel: My pleasure. So before we get started, I wanted to tell you that whenever I have a guest coming on I try to make a cocktail in their honor and I know, I've had your "Ready, Fire, Aim" cocktail over the years multiple times; probably more than multiple times. So I made it for you today in your honor and it's with them Don Julio Blanco honey pineapple syrup is for anyone who wants to make it at home. Fresh pineapple juice, fresh lime juice, a few dashes of Bittermen's Hellfire habanero shrub and then topped with a grind of pink peppercorn and it's super delicious. So how did you come up with this recipe in the first place?
Steve Schneider: Well this recipe kind of stemmed from the syrup really. A lot of the drinks I make come from the one homemade ingredient, so I basically wanted to make a pineapple syrup because like a lot of old books there's pineapple syrup was very popular ingredient. So I want to make a pineapple syrup but I just decided to use honey as a base instead of sugar and then I was joking around with Chef and he was like... our daytime chef, he's like, you know pink peppercorn and honey and pineapple they all really well together. So I put pink peppercorn and syrup and it was just this really delicious syrup. So it started with that and then I thought okay what goes with pineapple and then of course mezcal was just getting popular, you know mescal was still new to the market when this came out. So it wasn't like what it is now where there’s whole mescal bars. It was nothing like that at the time many years ago and then, mescal, pineapple, of course you need lime juice and then pink peppercorn, give it a little fruity kind of berry kick to it and then of course spicy drinks were also what was hot on the streets at that time. And mezcal and habanero and then pineapple—it's just all makes sense, a lot of my drinks nothing too crazy, they're all just ingredients that make sense. And I think that kind of stuff will never go out of fashion.
April Wachtel: So when do you... because I know that you've made this with different spirits, when do you change mescal for tequila? When do you swap that out for rum? Is that just for each individual person you're making for, or is it just some time of day?
Steve Schneider: Another great sign of a bartender is to be able to like sort of BS his way through a lot of stuff and to be honest... like I am at the bar and someone's like I would like a cocktail with rum and like these ingredients all still make sense and they work really well with rum or even with vodka, it obviously doesn't have the smoky characteristics but it's a pretty spicy drink with vodka, even with gin. I think it's sign of a great drink that you can make it with any spirit really. Look at like a daiquiri for instance. You can technically make a daiquiri with pretty much anything, it's whiskey or a sour for instance, you know like with citrus and sugar and spirit. It works no matter what spirit you put on there you know, it's simple but I think this one is just a little more complex than... just another tool at my disposal or now in my vocabulary of drinks I have another vodka drink, I have another gin drink and rum drink and tequila drink.
April Wachtel: Yeah, perfect and again it's delicious. So thank you so much for that. Excuse me, taking a little sip here. So I think by now you're probably one of the top maybe two or three best-known bartenders in the world. You've done an incredible job building a global personal brand. So how did you get started in the industry and how'd you get to where you are now?
Steve Schneider: Well, this year is my 15th year behind the bar full time. The first step I guess would be just being around for a while.
April Wachtel: Just being old.
Steve Schneider: Yeah even I am 33 years old, I've been doing this, you know it's my 15th year, it's like... I'm still young but it's still like a long time to be doing any job really. So the first step I guess would be to get good at your job. I think that would be the main thing that you have to do if you want to make yourself I guess known. I don't know how to quite say it because I'm kind of…it sounds a little douchey in a way to say but you got to get good at what you do. I started 15 years ago. I was serving in the military, I was in Marine Corps. I had an accident injury and I was trying to heal up and I passed by a place that said Help Wanted and cleaned toilets up for a bit, I'd already known how to make drinks but you know anyone that's ever opened the beer at their brother's wedding calls himself a bartender and I didn't actually have any experience. So then I went in there, I cleaned toilets for a little while and then they threw me behind the bar; of a college bar, live music venue, 18 beers on tap, disco shots. This is before Red Bull made its way into U.S.
April Wachtel: And where were you by the way? Like what state?
Steve Schneider: Well this is in Washington D.C. I'm from Jersey originally, right outside the George Washington Bridge in Bergen County, New Jersey. That's where I grew up. Yeah so, my military life brought me down there and to be honest, it was just like... I had a head injury, I was depressed, I was sad. I was in pain but tending bar was the first thing that made me happy after my injury. When I got discharged, I didn't really want to go back to school and that's just kind of something that just organically kind of grew and I just wanted to get better at what I did. I got recruited to work for this man named John Hogan. We used to work at a Las Vegas... to work with like Tobin Ellis and stuff in Vegas. He taught a little bit of flair, he taught me proper free-pouring techniques and then I missed being back at home. So I went home, took the first shot I could get, which was a fine-dining joint in Hoboken New Jersey. I was a you know 22 year old - 23 year old, four year bartender, so chew tobacco behind the bar in D.C. you know, here I am trying to work. A foul mouthed former Marine trying to work fine dining.
It wasn't working out but you know what, I learned a lot about attention to detail and wine and food and ingredients in the kitchen that I never knew because I didn't really grow up with a lot of this... like a lot of diverse food. And then went to this sister restaurant and I was able to make all my own stuff and run like a little tiny bar program there and then I got recruited to work at Employees Only by chance, so after working at party with the guys from Employees Only.
April Wachtel: So how did that come about? How did that come about because at this point anybody who knows Employees Only knows that there's... I would say hundreds of people who want to work there and don't have the opportunity to work a party from the outside so how did you end up at this party?
Steve Schneider: It is a funny story. I was working at this place in Hoboken and the owner of the place was friends with this writer. His name is Anthony Giulio, his name is still Anthony Giulio. So he wanted somebody to create a cocktail for his wife for her 40th birthday and you know with my experiences from John Hogan and the guys from Bar Magic in Vegas, I was doing the fresh ingredients, the homemade ingredient stuff. I was doing the spirit vacation stuff when that was cool, making foams before it got played out. So I was doing all this stuff at this little cafe there and he was looking for someone on the cheap to create a cocktail for his wife's 40th birthday and the owner of the place Eugene was like, he's the guy you know. So I created a cocktail with gin and campari and a few other things, pomegranate. I think it was pomegranate, it was like the hottest thing going you know.
April Wachtel: Sorry, what year is this?
Steve Schneider: This was like 2007, I don't know.
April Wachtel: I remember that, I remember the first time I saw a pomegranate show up in a bar. I was in Boston at the time and we're all like, mind blown.
Steve Schneider: Yep, It was there. It was a big big deal, pomegranate. Everybody loved pomegranate due to its antioxidants you know. So any way, we hit it off; me and Anthony hit it off, and then he came to me a couple months later and he was like... and he happened to be one of the editors of Mr. Boston's Cocktail Guide. If you haven't seen, it's the little red book. It's been like... I don't know 80 different editions at this point. He was one of the editors along with Jim Meehan.
So he was like listen, the book is coming out and I'm working this New York City Wine & Food Festival at the Highline Ballroom I believe it was called, it's not open anymore but it’s in the Meatpacking District. Pick a party for like 750 people, can you create a cocktail for it? He's like I can't pay you but at least I'll put you on the bill with me. So I was like no problem I got this one, 700 people no problem. Let's do it.
He was like you know what, it'll give you a good chance to meet some people, that's what he told me. So I got the email and it said welcome mixologists and on the card their, people that make him the drinks that night was Tony Abou-Ganim, Audrey Saunders, Julie Reiner, Jim Meehan, Jason Cosmos and Duchamp Derek and then Steve Schneider.
April Wachtel: So he wasn't wrong, you were meeting some people?
Steve Schneider: Yeah I just turned 24 years and I was scared shitless. I was like whoa okay, this is big time. So I called Tony, I was like tell me man what are you trying to do to me? He's like I'll get somebody else if you want. I was like no way, I got this one. So I spent like making this overly complex like seven and eight ingredient cocktail. Like dehydrating my own strawberries, trying to make my own sweet vermouth. You know things that people weren't really doing. It was overly complicated but it was delicious I must say and gin and champagne and vermouth and strawberries and shit. So then as I got there, I've been into employees only maybe two times, three times. Just go there, be quiet and I would like you know tip well but I didn't really know these guys and I walk in and I'm prepping and they bring the whole crew. Everyone who wasn't working. This is before they open the trading company. There's only three or four people working that night. So they brought everybody you know.
April Wachtel: Which sounds like a very Igor thing to do.
Steve Schneider: Yeah they give me a big hug and like hey what are you doing here man we didn't know you were a bar tender and we hit it off so much and we made the biggest freaking mess possible. It was me, the EO guys and PDT bar and they were all like squares. You know like Don Lee being like a square and like across the room, it was like Julian, Audrey and Tony, they were I'd say adults, they were more adults than us at the time. We were all in our twenties.
April Wachtel: They are still more adult in fact because they are still as old.
Steve Schneider: Yeah, we were freaking crazy. I had the curly mustache and beard at the time. I was living the whole bartender costume. Yeah we just had such a massive party and you know these girls on the bar and the mess that we made, I couldn't recreate if you paid me. I was like... it was just such a good time. We had a few drinks and one of the guys he was like hey man what are you doing now? We're opening a new place, we're gonna have some openings, why don't you come work for us? He was just becoming a principal bartender from apprentice and he needed somebody to take his spot. He liked me. So I thought we were just like drunken chatters, so I was like yeah let's do it and then I didn't show up. I just thought it was all BS, so he's like hey come in but bring your resume you know. So then I show up maybe two weeks later to laugh about the night and then first thing, “Steve what's going on man, like where's your resume?” They had no body and I am like oh my god, this guy was serious. So he's like, man this is a Monday. They come in on Wednesday, 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. whatever it was, he's like bring your resume, trust me, you are in. So then I bring my resume in, it looked so good, I was doing all the homemades. I've been written up a couple times. People didn't write about bartenders back then really.
April Wachtel: Sorry what year is this now?
Steve Schneider: This was in 2008. It was rarely to be written up and stuff you know like in columns and posts you know. So then I walked in there with my resume, It was written that I won like a couple of speed bartending competition's D.C. You know a competition winning 24, 23 year old, whatever I was. Igor, one of the owners. He saw my resume. He opened it and he closed it right away. He didn't even read it. He's like you're a former US Marine, you're disciplined I like that. We can use you the Boy Scouts for you. He's like can you start next week. So that was it and I trained one day and right now as we're talking, I'm in Panama City, Panama right now and Rob said the one guy that recruited me after I became his bar manager, a fellow principal bartender, we worked together for nine years. We're now partners in the restaurant. We just opened last week called "The Strangers Club" and we created a nice little family; a family atmosphere and stuff and he has done so much for me and now we sort of had a baby together.
April Wachtel: So is this separate from Employees Only, is this still like...?
Steve Schneider: Yes. The Strangers Club is completely separate from Employees Only. All the Employees Only owners, they were all bartenders together at Pravda. So me and the partners here in Panama we were all bartenders together at Employees Only. EO was kind of like the Pravda of this thing. So that's where we all met, we all worked together at Employees Only and Macau Trading Company. We came down here about three years ago as a team. Every night we put $20 in the envelope at the end of our shift just to save up. Sometimes people got hurt, sometimes they got sick, sometimes you know just unfortunate things would happen and we helped pay for our family whether it be for people on the floor, in the kitchen behind the bar. So we were kind of disaster free for a few years so we had a lot of extra money. So first we went to Mexico on a team trip and then the next year we went to Panama to learn about rum. This was about three years ago and we fell in love. We really did. Place was really cool. Came here to learn about rum because there's a lot of different rums especially the Export was made here in Panama.
So we came here to learn about it and yeah we loved the place. We saved money, we ate freaking microwave ramen for three years and then we put our money together so that's what I really love about this project is that there's no like BS investors, there's nothing big. It's just like a mom-and-pop shop and it's just nice two-story old building in Casco Viejo, Panama city. It's just such a cool thing that I get a chance to work with my family down here; with my old my old boys especially after being in Singapore for the past year. It's a whole other story itself.
April Wachtel: So rewinding a little bit then. You were at Employees Only in New York City until what year?
Steve Schneider: Well I'm back next month. So I'm still there technically, I am still a part of it.
April Wachtel: But when did you leave for Singapore?
Steve Schneider: Okay, I left for Singapore the last May. May of 2016 and this is another one where it's like Igor is the one who actually took my resume and hired me. You know I bar back for him for a long time and then when he approached me about going to Singapore to try to do this expansion, this was like maybe four or five years ago, he came to me with this idea. You know I was glorious I want you to be my partner you know and that was just based off of just hard work and merit. There is no checking in on, no Facebook posts, no nothing, it was just me busting my ass at Employees Only. There's no lobbying for anything. He asked me to be a part of it. I went there with him, we checked out some spaces. We found the space that we liked and we were sitting around at a table with all these billionaires, investors and one of the guys... the one guy who does all of our money, his name is Josh, he was like going around about our budget, about how much we're going to put in and how much our budget is. And he's like, we're short this amount of dollars. So I raised my hand and I was like, hey guys I've been saving, I have that money. Is that okay if I put that in you know? They're like of course you dumbass and I was like alright. And one of the investor was like, this guy's got balls you know. I respect that. He's like whatever else you need you let me know and boom, the Singapore project kicked off. We landed, we broke ground we opened in 74 days or something the time we broke ground and we just hit the ground running and that was that was probably the most challenging thing I've ever had to do and bear in mind I was in the Marine Corps okay and I'm telling you right now, moving to Singapore and setting up a bar called Employees Only by yourself, you know training the whole bar staff from the ground up by yourself, it was the hardest thing I had to do. But I'm so proud of it right now.
April Wachtel: Why was it so hard?
Steve Schneider: Because there is just so much expectation. After 13 years the bar expands finally and there's a certain level... you know people know the apprenticeship system. They know nobody leaves Employees Only New York and people that are in Singapore, all they do is... all they have really is... some people have been there. A lot of people have been there but they expect that same stuff right off the bat. You can't start off and like you know... bars take time to mature and develop and so does the bar staff especially in my style of working, it's like it's so different than everybody else's. So it takes time. So let's just for example, in Employees Only New York, we've got twelve bar staff members that have been there for over five years right.
April Wachtel: Right, which for anybody listening who doesn't know that, that's crazy. And food and beverage turnover is insane. So that's crazy that.
Steve: I'm talking twelve of us right. So when somebody new... if whenever come on, usually like we don't have space so we do these “stage” program things, where it's like maybe four or five months you know, three four five months, you come learn how we work, be like the stalker which is at the bar back and then we'll give you a good reference when you get a job. So we were working on stuff like. Not everybody was able to make it but anyway but you have the whole entire team of 12 training this one person, you know what I mean. And so now it's all me training the whole entire bar staff. And it's like having to teach them, not just about the drinks but about the history of the brand and about what it means to put on that jacket. Because for us, we had to earn it and I made the Singaporean... they're all Singaporean kids between like 20 and 24 years old. That's kind of like when I got my... like I started cutting my teeth so I forgot what it was like to be 20 to 23 and 4 years old you know. I had deal with a lot of boyfriend-girlfriend dramas, daddy issues you know.
So I had to take a step back and be really empathetic and actually train a lot of these kids a different way and like really... I really embraced that and I worked every night behind that bar for the first who knows maybe five months, I was there seven days a week. I was there in the morning with the prep apprentice. All the friends, they do all the job in the house every freaking day I lost a ton of weight, my legs were killing me and I had to go to the doctor a couple times but I always still showed up; busting my ass you know. I could honestly tell you nine and a half months after opening, we paid back the whole project. So I got my money back, the investors got their money back and that kind of shit doesn't happen I tell you. For the listeners out there in podcast world, Movers & Shakers, you don't pay back your investors in nine and a half months. So that was just making a lot of sacrifices and just making sure that the money was being managed properly and handled properly and it was actually the time we signed our lease, the time we paid back was one year and one day.
April Wachtel: Wow, congratulations.
Steve Schneider: Yeah I wanted to be one year on the dot, but our accountant, he's on a holiday. So now I got that 366 day right stigma there. But anyway, so that was going on and while this was going on they asked me to be a part of the projects in Panama here. We all just put in our own money and again no investors, we have like two local partners who put their money in as well and they are here every day, I'm here every day. We're taking little shifts. So we have this beautiful condo here where I was just in my jacuzzi doing my own podcast before you called. In the jacuzzi with the bubbles going, I'm sitting here talking to a mic, it was bubbles by the way, bubble bath. It help relax the muscles before a shift so I've been working every day for the past three weeks, every night behind that bar. So yeah, so like that's a part of it. We put in money and it's relatively low like a low budget, low investment stuff. Made a few mistakes as far as budgeting but nothing that's insurmountable. But every day we're making money, we're in the positive, we're figuring this out as we go and it's a lot different in that regard and it's a lot more enjoyable because there's no real pressure. It's our own money, we don't have to worry about paying anybody else back. Obviously we want to get paid back but it's like... This is a more of a heart project than a conscious business decision for me at least. It's something that that we built together as friends, you know that's an extension of our friendship and that for me, we already made it. If the thing goes on there tomorrow, it's like I bought a freaking Kia or like a Honda Civic or something and I drove it through a flood. Oh well. Of course that doesn't mean I'm just gonna be a reckless and careless but the attitude is a lot more relaxed and laid-back. It's called "The Strangers Club", it's not called Employees Only, it's not affiliated with Employees Only except the style of training, the style of service and hopefully the energy and the ambience is what we know because we all came from that camp, from that same school and now we're training kids here to just sort of become masters of their domain.
April Wachtel: Who else came down then besides Brata.
Steve Schneider: There’s our apprentice. There's Ulysses Vidal, who was one of my former apprentices and he took my position as bar manager at Employees Only and then Evon, and Gabe Carney. They are two bartenders from Macau Trading Company. Avon used to work at Employees Only way back in the day for Macau. He left open Macau which actually gave me the opening to get hired so and I owe him a lot too.
April Wachtel: Are you guys all there permanently or is this just to get it up and running and then some people are going to disperse?
Steve Schneider: Yeah, we'll be doing this, right now it's just me and Ulysses. We're taking turns. We stay for two months at a time. So basically I came in the beginning of June and I leave at the beginning of August then I'll go back to New York for a couple months before I go back to Singapore for a couple months. So the beginning of August somebody comes, Ulysses got here the end of June, so he's leaving at the end of August when someone else would take his, so basically we're gonna try to do like two-month spins at a time but every month somebody comes. Kind of like the Solaris System you know, one person comes one person goes. A little bit of... so you get a chance to touch several of the partners. It's not just like two in and two out and shifts, there's always one person rotating.
April Wachtel: That's actually brilliant.
Steve Schneider: Yeah it keeps us fresh and it's like once things get rolling, like right now we have to close at midnight because we don't have our late-night permit but that thing like all the paperwork is done, it's waiting to be signed. Right now we're open every day from 6 to 12 and then once we get that late-night permit then we're going to be rolling, I'll tell you. We're gonna be 4 a.m. every night, Casco Viejo starts pretty late. Usually it starts around 10 o'clock. Some people come in, they have a drink and like maybe one or two drinks and then we got a couple of lights up at 11:30 you know. It's terrible but right now we're investing in people's good times. We're making sure everybody in there is getting the best possible product, who drinks everything and it's been working out. The people have really embraced us so far in our three weeks that we've been opening.
The first two weeks was soft opening, very small offering. Just to try to learn... so the staff can learn about us. To get to feel the room and then last Thursday was the grand opening with the full menu. And now next step would be the late night permit and then after that we have a whole upstairs, a kind of lounge, more high energy, more high volume kind of lounge which is huge upstairs and when that happens then we could... and hopefully by the end of the year that'll happen and then we'll start rolling. It's all about right now just making sure our product is where we want it to be and making sure our staff is getting all kinds of training and they're good, they're really good. They're very smart. They're adults you know. They work really hard and they take direction really well. A lot of times they just haven't been taught a lot of things. I'm talking like I had to go back and say okay these are Bourbons guys, this is what bourbon is. Here is bourbon, here's Bulleit. This is how a Bulleit tastes.
April Wachtel: Yeah but the content is easy. It's like the attitude that's hard.
Steve Schneider: Oh yeah, they're really receptive to new information and the most thing that they really respect about us which I think I got the respect of the kids in Singapore is the fact that I haven't had a day off since we opened it. I make sure they get their time off. They used to work like six nights a week six days a week, long hours. I put them five shifts a week. Keep them fresh, give them an extra day off. They make salary anyway, so it's like time is money. I made sure that everybody gets off before I do and I'm working alongside them. They don't have bosses like that here. They have people who point fingers, they have people who point fingers and tell you what to do, when to do it or raise their voice.
I mean these are like grown adults, I'm not going to be doing that. So well I could still go at 33, I could still go at a high level, I'm going to keep opening these places as much as I can and hopefully when I'm tired, I'll be able to just chill out and do whatever I want to do. Freedom, that's what I'm looking for.
April Wachtel: So that discipline and just kind of keeping your head down, did you learn that in the Marines, is that just part of your personality, did you learn that at Employees Only. How did you pick that up?
Steve Schneider: I think it's a combination of everything. I think it's you know like... of course the Marines taught me a lot about discipline and also a lot about teamwork and attention to detail, the whole deal but it's like you can't just re-transform people into other people. Some people have it, some people don't. I just always feel very accountable. I don't like taking other people's money, like I said I wanted to put my own money at Singapore. I want to put my own ass on the line. I never like to make excuses really. I want to just put skin in the game. I get a thrill off of that kind of stuff.
And you know, sometimes you just got to look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself what do you really want, what's success to you? What's happiness to you? What do you really want from this world, you know? For me it was always open my own restaurant, my own bar. And I was like okay well how do I get there? What do I have to do? I think the main thing is to find the mentors. People that have done it before and say how did they do it. Do I want to do it exactly the way they did or maybe I'll do things, these things a little bit different. Maybe I'll do this a little different and just learn from everybody that you come in contact with especially people that have been there and done it.
And that's one thing that Employees Only taught me is that these guys were bartenders. Igor my partner and the guy who hired me, my former mentor he's like a brother, he's like a father to me. He used to work as a bathroom attendant at a nightclub. Seriously and people gave him dollar, he thought it was the best thing ever. Like he gave me a dollar for this, this is great. This is where he came from, it was really humble beginnings know and stuff like that, it inspires me. It really does.
And here they are working next to me. Like getting their hands dirty. I was like I want to be that kind bar owner. I want to be the one getting my hands dirty with everybody until I can't do it anymore and that inspired me. It's not that difficult April, bartending. You coach somebody, give them a menu, you ask them what they want, you make what they want, you take the money and then you do it over and over again. You chat to people if you need to. This is act of bartending. It's really not that difficult. Fairly easy process, of course there's a lot of extras, but like well it's not that difficult. You just don't complain and get it done. To me that's just a way it came.
April Wachtel: Alright, this is an interesting segue into something else I wanted to ask you about. I think that or at least my guess is that you started kind of being more well-known because you have participated and won tons and tons and tons of cocktail competitions and I remember, years ago I was working with a brand and you were a competitor in this particular competition and I remember that you showed up before anybody else with all of your ingredients prepped and ready to go and almost all of the rest of the competitors showed up all scraggly. Basically up until the competition was in the process of starting. So I want to ask you, cocktail competitions in your experience... like firstly why do you like them? Secondly if you were to tell somebody who wanted to participate in these, how they can be successful. What would you say to them?
Steve Schneider: Alright, well first Movers & Shakers listeners, I should have won that competition. I got the second place. I should have won that...
April Wachtel: Shall we remain unnamed...
Steve Schneider: I'm just joking but not really... but honestly I love competition. I had a nice stretch there like from like 2011, to like 2013 or so. I had a nice run, a nice stretch. It's funny, this is gonna sound really weird but I'm a big professional wrestling fan. So I would always take those like... you know like when they would get the microphone and they'd be in the middle of the ring or backstage and they talk trash on the other opponent or something like that or they'll beat themselves up. I always treated competitions kind of like it was my little professional wrestling promo deal. I would like took cues from the Rock, even the Ultimate Warrior at some point or Macho Man you know. And just being out there and having fun and enjoying myself and maybe making people laugh. Sometimes I would feel a little bit too much, sometimes... I remember that one time I brought in the saxophone player.
April Wachtel: Yeah that was the competition I was talking about.
Steve Schneider: Yeah. So I was... because you know the drink had the Hellfire bitters in it and I was like well what can we do? I got this guy that I know that could play a saxophone that blows fire.
April Wachtel: Hold on I think we need to set the scene a little bit better. We were at the Sun Rose Lounge in New York City. It's overlooking Columbus Circle, it's beautiful, it's high-end. And the competition's taking place behind the bar. You were one of the last people to go I think out of let's say between ten and twelve people and honestly people were really nervous the entire time. Everybody was nervous, everybody's hands were shaking up as they're making the drinks. One thing leads to another and then you get up and again, it was just like dead silent, the audio the AV system was horrible. It was just like... you could barely hear speaking and then you get up and you bring this guy with you.
Steve Schneider: Yeah, well first I brought the young lady that was dressed like Uncle Sam playing the violin, telling a sad story about me being in the military and being injured and finding a, just what I told you earlier, finding a a new life really was bartending. So she's playing the national anthem somber with a violin as I'm telling a sad story, playing the violin. Like really taking a piss at myself. Then as the story is getting better, she's getting more intense with the violin as the story comes to its climax. And at the very end when I finish, the guy gets on stage with his saxophone and plays the end. "The land of the free and the home of the brave", and as soon as the brave part that's when the flames just shot. I think they have ceilings and the look April on your boss's face. I would pay to see that look again. It was hilarious, he was scared. He thought he was gonna lose his job, it was really funny. I would pay to see it again.
April Wachtel: The other amusing part about that is they specifically said no fire.
Steve Schneider: Yeah, and then what happened was I didn't even place but then because somebody had to drop out, I finished third or something. So I got a chance... so I moved up, like I got a second chance which my whole presentation was about having a second chance in life and I got a second chance in the competition. That's when things happened in Miami and I should have won.
April Wachtel: That's the whole air horn thing, right?
Steve Schneider: Yeah... yeah... I had the air horn, like they told me a million times please don't do the fire thing. And I was looking over, I was like yeah no problem I won't do anything I swear, with a smirk. But going back to that, but you know then we did this, with the World Championship in New Zealand in 2012 that was a good time; that was a presentation I did where I won the US in Miami as well.
April Wachtel: Was that 42 Below?
Steve Schneider: 42 Below, yes and what happened was, I did my regional presentation in New York and I purposely did not say a word. I was just trolling. My drink was delicious and they put me through based on the merit that my drink was good and they know that I could do better, but they tell me, they're like listen in Miami you have to engage the judges. So I said you know what, I'm not going to do. I'm not going to engage the judges. So what I did was, one of our workers and one of our food runners - busboys that Employees Only, he does a music production, his name is Sasha. I need to make my own song where I talk to myself. So we were in his room in like Red Hook or something like that and I basically had a whole script out there where I started to make my drink and then a big godlike voice which is my own voice comes on the PA and goes, “Steve, what are you doing, what are you doing to those limes?” I'm like I am cutting them to make my cocktail for the comp, and he goes no it goes, “You're looking at that hot girl in the crowd there.” And I was like man, like stop putting me on the spot conscious. So I was having... first like he said something and I was like god, god what the hell are you talking about? Son this is your conscience you know. I need you to start paying attention here instead of looking at the people in the crowd.
So basically I explained like what would you do with that bottle of lime juice or whatever. I was like oh I got to put in three quarter ounce of the cocktail here. Well what's in the cocktail? So I kind of didn't talk to the judges at all, I talked to my own conscience and got the point across. It was freaking hilarious and yeah they put me through along with my two teammates for Team USA. We went in and rocked the house and it was a great experience and great exposure and I'm still friends with all those people I met in New Zealand. And in fact Michael Callahan, I met him in Singapore... I met him in a in New Zealand in 2012. We created a friendship and he told me as soon as he was down there, he was originally from San Francisco or that's where he was bar sitting at the time and he's like, yeah when I leave here, I'm going to Singapore to open this bar called 28 Hong Kong Street and I was like where? He was like Singapore. I was like alright man, whatever.
And then he opened up, he was the opening partner bartender, he still is a partner there. 28 Hong Kong Street has won numerous awards; 50 best, Asia's, Tales of the Cocktail you name it. And now, he did a little traveling, he's back in Singapore. Right now he's the head bartender at
Employees Only Singapore.
April Wachtel: Oh cool.
Steve Schneider: They have become full circle. Yeah Michael Callahan, as I left we did this little transition where he would sort of take over for a year or so, training the kids and teaching the kids you know, he's like a hospitality professional and he's so good with guests and with training and more and more you know... I didn't have enough time to teach him all the “what's inside the bottle” stuff and all that kind of stuff. I had to teach these kids how to move and how to work. And how to have that energy and that vigor because how do you teach vibe and energy and lighting and music? You can't really teach that stuff, you have to just set it by example and just feel it. Something you feel and you have to just maybe I hope to inspire somebody. You can't teach people how to be hospitable to other people. You have to inspire them, you've got to do it yourself and they got to take... going back to mentorship you know, they got to believe in what you're doing. When I hired people in Singapore, I know we're kind of getting off track but that's kind of what I do. I hire people that I want to hang out with really instead of like people with loads of experience. I didn't care where you came from or what kind of experience you have much like Employees Only New York. They didn't give a damn how many competitions I won or who wrote about me; they cared about a characteristic. Something like discipline, Marine Corps. That's what they saw, that's what they wanted.
It didn't matter where I was from, didn't matter anything and here it was just like I found myself teaching like interviewing these kids. I wasn't interviewing them about the job, I was trying to sell the job to them. I was like, listen this is what I want to do, like let's do it. Instead of like well what are your qualifications, I was like well this is what I want to do, and I sold them, I had them buy into this to the ideas that they wanted to do to create that complete bartender. And I think we've done that for the most part and in one year, we finished 17th on Asia's 50 best bars this year in Singapore. So I need to give myself a pat on the back don't you think. And for me and the whole team in general, that's a big deal. The 50 best, especially like Asia's 50 best, that's a big deal out there. The kids earned it and I'm all about being humble but sometimes, like I said in my podcast as well, sometimes you gotta look at yourself in the mirror and say you know what, I deserve to, this one is sweet, this one's me.
April Wachtel: No, I completely agree.
Steve Schneider: But going back to competition and stuff, I just think you have to honor the brands that are paying the money to bring you out there. I was in... I did work last one here and somebody mentioned Zacapa was Jamaican or something. I was like what?! What's wrong with you?
April Wachtel: Yeah, it's like know your stuff.
Steve Schneider: Yeah and clearly that person didn't win but still it was just like the little things like that. Know what you're talking about, speak clearly. You could always cut your little story short, but you can't cut your drinks short. So make sure your drink is done. I don't know how people go over time, it's like make your drinks and then go ahead on your bartender spiel. Especially like in the competition I did in Miami where you have eight minutes to make one, you're making just one cocktail you know, whatever. Make your drink. How could you do overtime? Another thing is enjoy yourself, learn from your mistakes and it's like, my main thing is like you should always know what you're being judged on, so if you take the judging sheet right, let's say you're getting five points for the name of your cocktail, your name, you got to touch on it, have a good name that makes sense with the brand, that's easy to say. Picture somebody like ordering it at a bar, if it sound like a mouthful or if it's too long or if it's just, like has any kind of sexual connotation, it's probably not going to work out for you.
April Wachtel: If it's inappropriate.
Steve Schneider: Yeah, try to get like your five points. The taste obviously, you want it to taste as good as you can, that's like a given, but the other little things because like the highest scoring bartender always wins competitions. That's what I always say. Not necessarily the best drink, the highest scoring bartender will win these competitions.
I've won competitions with type of drinks that I feel were either second or third I think in taste but it was because of all the other aspects of what you're being judged on, that's why I think I managed to win and I probably have lost some, I’ve lost a whole lot more than I've won by the way. I had to stop competing, well I was asked to judge a lot too which was kind of cool but especially that competition in Miami, I was with a global judge a couple years ago in Sydney. It's like I found myself getting pissed off when I didn't win. I started saying what's wrong with the judges instead of what's wrong with me and I started to get mad. So as soon as soon as that happened, I was like okay. I can't do this anymore because I know I'm wrong. This person who won deserved to win and I here I am pointing fingers. That's bullshit.
April Wachtel: That's good of you to know that though, because I think most people don't think about it that way.
Steve Schneider: They hire people to do this job. I felt like they weren't judging fairly, but then you look at yourself and when you get over being angry and upset, you're like, well Steve you were real idiot.
That comes with age too. Like 27-28 year old me is really different than the 33 old me. I got a lot more to worry about in life, not in a bad way but just a little bit... take things a little bit easier than I used to. This whole cocktail thing is really coming up you know, I was right there, someone was like Hey Bartender and stuff was going, it was about who I knew and how many places I could go. For me, that was success. How many places could I check in on social media and then as I got older, none of that shit matters. What matters is from 6 o'clock p.m. to 4 a.m like when you're behind the bar, when you're working, when I am on the floor, whatever I'm doing. That's for me became the most important. Once I had my own money in the game too.
April Wachtel: Yeah that changes.
Steve Schneider: Once I was there every day, I was like ok this kind of matters a whole lot more than a pat on the back from somebody else. And that's the God's honest truth. I don't expect like a young bartender that's up and coming to not want to go out and see everything, I encourage it. I think it's really cool to see the world because like I got a whole lot smarter when I started traveling. I'm training bartenders now in 45 different countries. I’ve done shifts and seminars. They called “master classes” sometimes which I really love. I think that's a funny word. You know master of anything but I like the ring though so I don't make the changes. I leave it there, because I'm a bastard like that. I do think it's kind of funny. I think seminar is fine than training.
April Wachtel: So actually speaking Steve of that type of thing, I wanted to ask you for your recommendations for a few different categories that I ask all of my guests. One being educational resources, so these are basically things that you look to keep yourself educated or up to speed on cocktails or you name it. Like how you stay sharp?
Steve Schneider: Okay, well this is half joking but half serious. First thing you should do is don't listen to anything you read on Facebook or social media. Delete social media if you want, it's a sound advice. Oh my god these days everybody's always complaining, they are bitching about something. My god, it's driving me nuts. So you should stay off social media. But I like a book, there's a couple of books that I used as reference a lot. I'm not a big reader. I just don't comprehend well but it's called Spirits Explained and Spirits Distilled. Two different books same guy, Mark Ridgwell. One is about how the spirits are really made and the other one is a little bit more in depth. There's a little test in the back too. So I don't know how old the book is, but spirits explained Mark Ridgwell and spirits distilled from Mark Ridgwell. You can get them on your iBooks or whatever. It's a nice reference basically for me with education, I think too much education could be detrimental in the wrong hands. Nobody likes to be told that they're stupid and a lot of times I see some of these bartenders that... their knowledge of products and spirits is so much that they come off as kind of like a prick and people don't like that. So I try to learn bullet points about stuff. Something quick and easy, like blind tasting and all that stuff. I never got into that because nobody's ever asked me to do that kind of stuff. Little bits of knowledge here and there that you can describe the difference between Bulleit and something else. Nothing crazy, sound bites, quick hitters and that's it. That's what I try to focus on as far as the extent of my knowledge. I don't need to know the whole history of one brand really and something competing or something. So that's kind of my deal. So too much education without proper mentorship is very alarming for me.
So for me you could read, you can do all this stuff, you can watch a lot of videos but nothing beats just having a mentor who's actually been there and done that and use your education tools and use these books and use everything you see as just like a tool really and not just like everything. A lot of bartenders are get books these days and not a lot have ever had a break up a fight.
April Wachtel: Right.
Steve Schneider: That's for me that’s a complete bartender. Someone that could take their knowledge of their drinks and their spirits and their craft really and use it sparingly and use it when it's appropriate. That's for me, that's something I've always tried to do. It'll save you a lot of headaches. For me, I was never good at comprehension and reading. So it saves me a lot of headaches, I don't have to read all this stuff you know. I just learn what I want to learn and that's it. I'm joking for the most part but again to wrap that up, having proper mentorship and using your knowledge and information sparingly; to not come off as a condescending prick.
April Wachtel: I think that's a great goal for everybody. Okay two more quick questions. Any recommendations for organizational tools and then where do you get your inspiration from?
Steve Schneider: Organizational tools?
April Wachtel: Yeah, if you have any.
Steve Schneider: What is that like?
Steve Schneider: Oh okay. I use a Google Docs. That's easy and simple. You know me for a while, I'm pretty simple. I don't get too technical and a lot of this stuff I do comes from the heart or from the head; more of the heart sometimes. But I don't go over the top for stuff like that. I know there's so many different things that people are doing but I don't know. I'm like a free-form bartender you know. I'm a little bit less spec heavy kind of guy too on stuff but a lot of this stuff that I do is Google Docs. You know breaking down the whole tip sheet too over here because and in Singapore we have a service charge, so like the more drinks they make, the more money they make. So we got to break that down the see who worked at night and all that stuff. So Google Docs for me has been just a easy simple one. Gets the job done. And what else? What else have we got?
April Wachtel: Inspiration. What inspires you?
Steve Schneider: I think the man in the mirror to be honest. I wanna do something cool. I was given a second chance in this world and I want to just to make the most of it really. It sounds really cliché and stuff but you know... I told you pro wrestling inspires me too. My love of humor... if I could be a comedian I would love to, I would love to have been a comedian. I just didn't have the guts to do something like that. But I would love to be a comedian. So I take this job very comedic and very light-hearted. I take my career and my job... I get serious, I get high hunker down when I have to but I like to just laugh everything off. Because after going through some shit, it's like life is... I value it a little bit more and I don't take it as but I still don't take it as seriously. I just have a good laugh. Drinking is funny that's what I think. Bartending is funny. People are funny when they're drunk.
April Wachtel: This is true.
Steve Schneider: That's probably the easy what inspires me kind of thing.
April Wachtel: So Steve where can people find you on the internet? You have your own podcast, which people should listen to, so what is it called and where can they find it?
Steve Schneider: It's called "The Steve Schneider Show Podcast." I couldn't think of a better name, so I figured if I just name it after myself, I'm funding it you know, so if I name it after myself, I figured I could just talk about anything I want. Say whatever I want and again it'll go back on me. But I did this a few years ago just because I would always listen to podcast on my bicycle ride to work. Pro-wrestling podcast actually; I was like I want to do one of those and I knew a lot of people and I just figured out how to do it. And it was a lot of fun and I was so popular but then the past maybe year and a half, numbers kind of took a dip because I stopped doing it. I used to do it like every 10 days or so. Now I do once a month because real life went ahead and got in my way.
But I gotta edit the whole thing myself and everything but hopefully when I'm back in New York, I could maybe get a nice little swing again but it's called "The Steve Schneider Show Podcast"; it's www.schneideyshow.com and I've got a ton of episodes; a lot of stuff is really funny. A lot of people from all over... I did a product cast on the Great Wall of China, I did one in the freaking Acropolis you know in Greece. It was a great experience and I always got my little microphone on me.
Where else can they find me? Instagram - you should definitely follow The Strangers Clubs; so if you go to instagram.com/thestrangersclubpanama, you know we got a lot of really cool photos of Casco Viejo here is beautiful old town. Our building has been standing for 100 plus years. All the buildings here have been standing for well over 100 years. So it's really cool to see the city kind of grow but still maintain its old heritage and we got that on Instagram.
And I don't use Twitter I have Twitter but if you just google my name Steve Schneider, you will find a bunch of crap. I used to be an intelligence specialist; my job was to like hide and stay off the radar and now it's the complete opposite. Now you could find me in an instant in no matter what country I am in.
April Wachtel: Yeah, you are not difficult to find.
Steve Schneider: Yeah, I am easy to find. And I love hearing messages from people listening to my podcast and I'm always down to listen to people when they send me messages. I really get a lot of sweet messages from bartenders all over the world and I really don't take that for granted. I'm really thankful for just the mix of luck and skill I think in everybody's life.
April Wachtel: Well thank you so much for being on Steve. So you're in Panama for another you said month or so and then you're headed back to New York?
Steve Schneider: Yeah, I'll be back there probably the first or second week of August. I'll be back with my old bar. You know not having to manage, I'll still be a bartender a couple nights a week. I got a lot of stuff to sort out. I'm still paying Internet from my place in Brooklyn, I wish I need to sort out because my old roommate's there, they still never change the stuff to their name. So I got a nice big fat one plus year of internet bills. But they're gonna have to pay me back you know. So I got a nice big fat check waiting for me there.
April Wachtel: Excellent.
Steve Schneider: Yeah I got to sort out my storage unit too. You know I have a two-bedroom condo here and I pay less here in Panama than I do for my storage unit in Brooklyn.
April Wachtel: Damn.
Steve Schneider: I mean they are gonna, they're going to move into my storage unit or I'm just going to move all my crap here in Panama.
April Wachtel: So alright, let's do this. I'm going to get the dates from you of when you'll be here and if it's okay with you, I'll post that on our website so people could come visit you when you are at Employees Only.
Steve Schneider: Yes, I'll be back probably... my first shift back I think is the 10th or something like that. Just working Thursday and Friday nights.
April Wachtel: Okay, awesome. Thank you so much. Best of luck with the rest of the bar opening transitions.
Steve Schneider: Thank you. This was a lot of fun. Thank you, I tend to talk a lot but hey, it's podcast you know.
April Wachtel: No, it was great. Thank you. Talk soon.
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