Episode 2: Interview with Tobin Ellis, from Bar Magic

Episode 2: Interview with Tobin Ellis, from Bar Magic

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Full Episode Transcript: Interview with Tobin Ellis (Bar Magic)

Tobin Ellis, Bar Magic

Hello, Movers and Shakers this is April Wachtel and today my guest is Tobin Ellis, the owner of Bar Magic in Las Vegas. Bar Magic is an award-winning hospitality design and consulting firm. You may have seen Tobin on ABC, NBC, USA, E, Anne, Food Network, Travel Channel, Spike, Bravo, HBO and much more. In today's episode we discuss good design. Tobin's background and flair, his love of Mai Tai cocktail and much more.

April Wachtel: Tobin, I'm so excited to have you on the podcast today. Thanksfor joining Movers and Shakers.

 Tobin Ellis: Thanks April, I'm thrilled to be here virtually.

April Wachtel: I know so this is a shame so, for anyone any of our listeners who are listening, you might have noticed a pattern which is we've had some really great guests on from out of town, but that leaves me drinking alone in each of these shows so, sad for my guests I think, but not so much for me.

Tobin Ellis: Wait, you didn't tell me you were going to be drinking, I could have prepared.

April Wachtel: Well no, so okay... so I know a few of your favorite cocktails, so I decided to make on Mai Tai in your honor. In this particular case I did equal parts. So I did:

  • .75 oz Ron Zacapa Guatemalan Rum
  • .75 oz Smith & Cross Jamaican Rum
  • .75 oz Rhum JM Agricole Blanc
  • .75 oz Fresh Lime Juice
  • .50 oz Orange Curaçao
  • .25 oz Orgeat
  • .25 oz Simple Syrup (if desired)

I used some fresh lime orange Curacao and just a shout out to my buddy Adam's Company—Orgeat Works. I used the macadamia orgeat, just 1/2 an ounce. Yeah, phenomenal orgeat. So super psyched to be drinking.

Tobin Ellis: I'm going to do, too.

April Wachtel: Well I'm drinking it and I think it's delicious. So why the Mai Tai just out of curiosity?

Tobin Ellis: The Mai Tai is kind of chased me or haunted me my whole career, I guess. It was the first drink anyone ever asked behind a bar and I was... in the late '80s and I was at a college dives, kind of one of those sort of makeshift nightclubs. It was the bar manager from the next door bar and it was my first day behind a real bar. I'd been sort of a catering bartender and he just sat down, I mean no one else is in the places like all the Mai Tai. This guy was like a big Harley looking dude and I'm like Mai Tai and a friend who had trained me meaning, I went to her bar bought a drink and she told me a few things she said, whenever a drink sounds tropical, try to figure out what color it is and then use this and this and she pulled up a pineapple juice and Malibu rum. 

So anyway, I just went oh Mai Tai, I have one of those in forever that's, what color is that? He's like oh it's pink, I'm like, alright pink. So I'm going in my head pink, pink. Pink is red and white okay what's red wait, I got milk and grenadine, so my first month ever was Malibu rum, pineapple juice, half-and-half and grenadine. 

So yeah, I know amazing, isn't that amazing? 

April Wachtel: So what did the person say?

Tobin Ellis: He took a sip and he goes that's it you nailed it, this is awesome. He put a $5 bill down as a tip, which 20, 30 years ago that was like putting a 20 down; he drank it and walked away and I went “Oh I'm going to be good at this job.”

 April Wachtel: Auspicious beginnings.

Tobin Ellis: Yeah well so fast forward to 2010 and I'm opening up a hotel with John Lermayer out in Hawaii and for Ian Schrager and Marriott Riss Carlton. If you've been to Hawaii, you can see how bad the Mai Tais are. They were horrible and we're telling the staff we're not making a Mai Tai here, we've got an all fresh program there's been a classic program, there's no way and they're like you're going to have to , everyone wants it. So I came up with this deconstructed Mai Tai. Basically we just took some Pyrat XO Rum and a little bit of house-main orgeat and we stirred that in and then we did a Mai Tai foam, it was fresh lime, fresh orange a little bit more orgeat and some rock candy syrup and garnished it with the shiso leaf, sort of a nod from the mint leaf of an old Mai Tai, but with a Japanese twist for being in Hawaii and that Mai Tai is still the number two selling drink on the property like seven years later and no one orders the crappy one. So it's kind of like a full circle drink. So I really appreciate you making a Mai Tai today.

 April Wachtel: Oh, you got it. So just kind of follow-up question on that, Did you say when you guys were putting that recipe together like oh you forgot the cream?

 Tobin Ellis:  Yeah it was the grenadine and the milk, oh man yeah.

 April Wachtel: Alright so, I'm like so pumped to have you on, you are like the only person that I know of who has really taken, you know you're experienced in flair and your experience in "Mixology", blended the two together and translated this into a career in design. Can you just speak a little bit about how that evolved? Maybe a little about your flair background too.

Tobin Ellis:  Yeah absolutely, I mean it's been a pretty organic kind of evolution I think. And it's only I think the way that the media tends to latch on to trends and polarize things that I think has made it seem like it's so bizarre. It's not to me.

I started bartending and I actually started at my college campus in Oswego, New York. And I was the dishwasher and then I became a bar back and then I was a waiter, than a banquet bartender. And the banquets, if you've ever done banquet work, it's somewhat not too flashy or exciting. It's a lot of standing around. I mean I was setting up bars for like... there was a dinner for 15 people and they're having cocktails first which meant four people are going to have a glass of wine and I was there for like three hours. So bored. 

I hadn't seen you know the movie cocktail or any that kind of stuff, it was just... I don't know I was just bored so I was just toying around with my stuff and just throwing things and catching and dropping and it was just fun. I didn't really have a frame of reference. In fact, I think the first time I saw anything that caught my attention was there was an old TV show with Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari called "Bosom Buddies", and at the opening credits, they are grocery shopping and Tom takes fruit and throw it like oranges and throws them over his head and Peter Scolari catches them in a bag behind him. It just always struck me like, they're taking something mundane, that daily task or weekly task and they're making it fun for themselves, entertainment for other people. It's just as fast, it's not faster because they're using teamwork. It just instantly light went off like there's something here. I'm going to explore this space of having fun but being smarter about working. At the same time, it’s funny my original introduction to mixology was out of necessity. I would get assigned this really weird portable bar duty - the shifts down in the Student Union in the pizza joint, because you could drink on campus if you were 21. Nobody would go to it, I don't know why they scheduled it, but I had to work it I'd stand there, my friends would come in, oh make us shots. Well it's a college bar in the '80s, I've got like rum, vodka, gin, brandy, some kind of blended whiskey and that's it. No nothing, no juices. I've got a few pieces of fresh fruit and I've got sugar packs from you know like a coffee caddy. So I'm making it first lemon drop, so then I'm using whiskey and then I'm trying to do with limes and orange and I'm sort of like realizing like sugar and fresh fruit and acid and booze actually tastes really good and I had no idea there was any other kind of world because to sound really ancient, I mean there was no connectivity. There was no internet, there was no Facebook, there were no you couldn't go to a book store and find a book on--- believe me I tried. 

April Wachtel: Paper hadn't been invented. [Laughs] I was just kidding.

Tobin Ellis: No... It feels like there was no paper I'm telling ya, so I didn't really know what I was doing. You just kind of figure it out as you went, you went to do a bar, you saw a bartender do something you asked them what they were doing? That’s how you learned. So I was learning flair and mixology, while I was learning bartending and high-volume bartending.

 April Wachtel: Sorry, what years is this again?

 Tobin Ellis: My career really started right around 1990. I was behind a bar in the like 88-89 but I really got serious about it or it started, I started working in bars, multiple bars in '90. So I was doing all that and I guess I fell in love with it right away and I also to survive... you had to be really fast. I mean these were college shot bars, you couldn't pay your rent, if you weren't fast. So speed was really important and I remember the first time I started doing flair behind the bar, I was scheduled the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the owner only scheduled me in that same club. No bouncers, no DJ, no other bartenders and I'm like "isn't this going to be really busy?" And he's like nah, all the college kids went home. I'm like yeah, but what about all the people that go to college that live here. He's like nah, well we got crushed I mean the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the busiest bar night of the year of course, everyone learned later on. I was so slammed in a way that I could never replicate. We did 50 cent mixed drinks and I think I rang something insane like $1,800 or I don't know... It was not fun busy. And the shot everyone drank was a kamikaze, which are three ingredients vodka triple sec lime, and I was so busy on the fly I'm like, I have to make these faster, so I started putting two bottles in one hand and then I figured out how to pick up three bottles in one hand, and it was just faster and smarter and as I did it, I'll never forget some random guy - college kid, threw like 2 bucks down which in this place, I think that's a ton. And he's like that's so cool I went "oh I can make money from being smarter?" Cool. And that's kind of where it all started. 

But as time went on, you learned that there's a ceiling over your head, it's like someone puts you in a Ferrari but then they put a regulator on it, you can only go 40 miles an hour and I wanted to go faster and I wanted to ring more and I wanted to make better drinks and I was handcuffed by the equipment and the setup with these bars and every bartenders had that like just... You walk in and you go, "Who designed this place?" It's clearly not a bartender.
April Wachtel: Yeah, why is that and we'll get to this later about you company Bar Magic but, why is that always the case? I've helped open I don't know six properties as a bartender and as a manager and I don't know why every time the bar team gets there, everything important is already in place and it's always wrong.

 Tobin Ellis: Because the design-build world is extremely ingrained in its habits and practices and it's a financial model and there is no place for the bartender or the end user. It's this simple. Cars when they are designed and built, there is incredible scrutiny to every aspect of ergonomics and comfort why, because every buyer and designer is an end-user. The buyers and designers of bar equipment are never end users. They don't know what good a part or equipment should be like and they don't know where it should go and they don't frankly usually care; what they care about is building on time and on budget. So when the general contractor or someone's coming in and worrying about the MEP and they're going well they wanted the thing here, but it's not going to work because we already drain... the drains are here, so we're putting it here and that's how it is and there's no bartender in the building yet, because it's still being built. That's why bars are built so crazy. 

 April Wachtel: Right. So please sorry, I interrupted you, go ahead.

Tobin Ellis: No it's all right I could go on for what will feel like an eon. We would grow old on this call. 

 April Wachtel: Please do. So alright so that's where things really started kind of coming together, so at what point did you say okay I'm going to help design.
 Tobin Ellis: I was begging to... all the jobs I did, so I decided actually it's 20 years ago this month... I decided to start my own business and nobody knew what I was talking about and I had no idea what the hell I was talking about. I said, I'm going to be a bar consultant and they're like what's that? I don't know but I'll figure it out. So I started getting hired to do training and to do... I'll call them menus or programs. They weren't cocktails, this was the '90s; these are specialty drinks. And I would design these drinks and then the bartenders would make them wrong and I am like oh I have to train the bartender's too, so then I would say hey, I got to train your bartenders and make the drinks. So then you do that and you realize oh wait the manager switched out apple cider for apple juice and doesn't know there's a pH difference and now the drink tastes flat, it's unbalanced; oh, I have to do all the procurement too and on and on and on. Pretty soon I'm doing every aspect of this business and I realize no matter what I do, I cannot improve the revenue, the throughput - the output per time period, because of the handcuffs of the equipment and so I just started every job saying, you know what I really need to design your bar and they'd always laugh, they'll be like, yeah no; it's already been done, or you're a bartender what do you know and I just kept pushing and pushing and eventually someone said, yes and once they said yes, I just never took no for an answer again and that's how I started designing bars and that was about 2003 was the first bar I ever designed.

April Wachtel: So, when he said you never took no for an answer, meaning that would you turn down work, if they refused to kind of go by your recommendations or how did that work?

 Tobin Ellis: Yes, I wouldn't take jobs. Early in my career in consulting, I always asked the wrong questions and now the first questions I ask clients are very different and one of the questions I ask, whenever it's and in fact they have to tell me on my website, if they want to try to contact me is, what stage of development are you in? The first question I ask is are the floors poured? Because once the floors have been poured and the drains are in place and all the MEP all the mechanical engineering and plumbing is in place, you have to put the equipment in certain locations, there's just no option, no one's going to core drill in the middle of a brand new build-out to make the bartender happy because they think, they want a station moved three feet to the left. They don't understand the importance of that, they don't get it at all. They think it's just cry-baby, pre-madonna stuff, they don't realize that they're building a factory and that factory makes or breaks that entire business, not the chandelier not the Italian marble, honestly not even the restaurant; all of the profit comes from the bar, the bar is a front-of-house Factory and it's the only industry I can think of where no one really cares about the efficiency of the factory. They just care about how it looks because, it's also a showroom.

So yeah, it's that important I tell people that this is sort of a dirty secret of consulting, right. I've been consulting for yeah for 20 years now if, you could only hire me to do one thing you said, I'm not hiring you for this a to z package. I'm just going to let you do one thing, absolutely hands down there's no number two - bar design, it's the thing I would do for you because that's the one thing that can make the most difference, the most impact and it's hardest and most painful for you to change and mess up, because it costs a lot of money to the core drill and buy new equipment. So it's that important and that's why I decided to start focusing on it quite a while ago.

 April Wachtel: So here's a question for you. There's thousands and thousands and thousands of bar and restaurant owners out there. Why do you think such an important faucet of the business is so overlooked? Because you see that problem again the poorly designed bar in places where the chefs are hyper vigilant, chef owners are hyper vigilant about their food costs for example and are on point in every other regard. Why do you think it's such a giant, kind of overlooked element of the business?

 Tobin Ellis: That's a great question. I think it's really a push-pull kind of thing. I think on one side, as we already talked about it's that the people who are specking out the equipment, buying it paying for it installing it, a very small percentage of them have ever used that equipment. So they think they know what bartending is? But they don't and I'll give you my favorite example. I just spent a while redesigning all of the speed rails for the entire corporation not just for my station and one of the reasons why they said well, these are great, they do this they do that and I showed them I said yeah, but the way you demonstrate that's not bartending. What they were doing is they were gently walking up to the rail and like standing in front of it. I'm like that's not bartending, so then I like ran up to it like bash my knees into it and all the bottles fell out. I go that's bartending. That's why these need to change. There's no contractor/architect who knows that and thinks about that. I shouldn't say no but there's very very few. So that's part of the problem.

The other part of the problem honestly is on us. It's our industry. This is like the most Wild West free-for-all bullshit as you go industry and I don't just mean bartending, I mean the whole industry. There are so many people that are at very high levels in this industry that, they kind of just BS their way into it or honestly they just work hard and someone needed to fill the position. We don't have... we haven't had very much accreditation or industry-wide global or even national training standards until very recently. There's not a lot of networking that focuses on the systems and ops side of this industry, it's all about where was the gin made and how to sous-vide, cryovac, cocktails and things that are fun and exciting but they don't speak to the realities of the business and as a result it's not taken very seriously when things are built. I mean kitchens are taken very seriously, I mean the Ansel systems and menu mix and how many flat tops and where's the salamander going and I mean they spend so much time on that and then it's... I've sat with a guy who designs hundreds of bars in a major market—I don't want to say who he is or what market because there's only a couple people who do it—and he stood in front of me, in front of a very famous chef, they called me to help give them new ideas and he said look, the bar station is a bar station, a bar is a bar. You put a drain board here, you put an ice bin here, you put a sink here they're all the same, everyone looked at me and I just went with all due respect, I completely disagree with you and this is the problem with our industry. Everyone's treating drinks like we're serving the same drinks we served 30 years ago, when everyone just ordered ten Coors Lights, a shot a jack and got their car drunk drove home. That's not our industry anymore.

So it's our fault too, it's because we haven't really pushed things on that professional level until very recently and not hard enough in that area. There's not a lot of us that have seats at the table. I mean, how many times does MGM Mirage or Darden or Hilton Hotels, when they're having a... they're sitting with developers and real estate developers and architects and say hey, wait a minute where is our bartender, we can't have this meeting without our bartender. It doesn't happen and thankfully now we've got people who have worked their way up the ranks, who are in those positions, who did come up through the trenches that understand the importance of this and if we didn't have them, I don't think I'd have a career right now I mean half my phone calls are former bartenders that are now beverage directors and owners and ops people for huge companies saying, hey man we want to use your equipment, we want you to come and help us design these bars and because they understand, that it's make-or-break right for their pro-forma and their accountability.

 April Wachtel: Well, so do you think that there is, do you think that there's like a wave of change happening?

Tobin Ellis: Yeah we're already past that, I mean the way of a change started with all the macgyvering and so I spent... I mean I've been doing it for a decade but about five years ago or six years ago I got real serious about design and I thought, I have my ideas and I've opened, I don't even know like 50 bars and hotels or whatever it is. I've designed bars, I've done all this work. You kind of get to that place especially I think when your business model is about your brain and about being consulting. I'm like, hey I know what I'm doing and then I kind of went, no this is too important, this can't just be about my ideas I've got to make sure that everyone thinks this is smart. So I booked flights and I contacted people and I travelled around the U.S and then I've also gone to Europe several times and I've asked specific bars can I come... I told them, I said: Listen I want to look at your equipment, I want to take pictures, I am designing bars all the time. I want to start... I want to have better practices and pretty much everybody I mean actually everybody was really gracious and like yeah and they were so proud of the things they'd done I mean, some of the stuff that Scott Josh did at trick dog and there's things that Ryan did up at his place, Oven and Shaker that were just really smart and on and on and on and I can name countless cities and bartenders and owners and managers. They were just taking equipment and they were modifying it, which is what I'd been doing in my bar design and repurposing kitchen equipment and refrigerated drawers and deli counters and ice cream dipper wells and installing special valves and things to make bartending easier and faster and better. 

oven and shaker cocktails

So I knew it was already coming and especially as we've entered this new age where we've got the bartender/owner, I mean that was the golden ring 20 years ago, that never happened, no bartender ever ended up owning a bar and now it's kind of somewhat common thing that happens. The only way you owned a bar as a bartender 20 years ago is you worked at that bar for like 20 years small, family-owned the owner was sick of it and he sold it to you. So it was coming and the wave is here and I'm not taking credit for it. It started actually at least 10... more than 10, at least 10 years ago when Salvatore - a maestro, Salvatore Calabresi came out with his line of equipment in Europe and that's something that I tell everyone like that was a big inspiration for me. When I went behind Salvatore at 50, hit the Playboy Club in London, in 2000...I'm not sure but, whenever it was and he showed me behind his bar, the biggest thing that happened to me that day is I went this is possible like, here's a bartender who got an equipment company to listen to him and develop a better line of bar equipment, I can do this too now, because I was already trying to do it. I just was like how do I do this? Like how am I ever... I can't start a manufacturing plants and figure this out. So it was done and I think and Francesco has his racetrack design that came out almost the same time mine did which is super beautiful and exciting. This is definitely not just a fad but we're seeing that, bar design by bartenders is something that's going to stick around for a while.

April Wachtel: So you had mentioned in this conversation earlier how we are kind of at fault in the industry. 

Tobin Ellis: Me and you, yes. Woah woah woah don't pin this on me.

 April Wachtel: The two of us specifically. I'm very curious I've had this conversation from kind of different angles with some of our other guests about education and just the evolution of the industry kind of what's coming next. I'm just really interested in knowing do you think that like a single person or several people will continue to lead this drive towards good design or do you think it's something that's organically happening. So for example, let me just be a little bit clear about what I'm saying, if you look at sustainability in the food world, Dan Barber, Michael Pollan these are figure heads, well not figureheads because actually they had real impact but they're there figures that inspire others and it makes it easier to kind of attach a person's name and work with a more abstract concept, so I'm wondering if you think in order to make this like a topic of great importance to the global industry, if people will need like a person or people to attach it to or just going to evolve organically on its own.

Tobin Ellis: I think it's both because, I think it's it was happening and it's going to continue to happen the same way. It really started probably I don't know when it started could've hundreds of years ago but, I mean I remember my career; you got to your station and you knew the business better than the managers, the owners, the guests, anyone. You knew what you're going to sell that night, so you stacked ten cases of red bull to the left you down or whatever, you're on your blend, made sure you had ten cold bottles of patron silver all already corks etc. The foil off the grey goose because it cuts if you're in a hurry, your bar backs did that. All the little things that you knew would make you faster, that wouldn't put you in the weeds. So you were already sort of making your own custom station. The problem was the equipment wasn't helping you. So I think it's always been happening.

It's now that we're in this this new age where there's so much revenue and media attention on the cocktail movement that it's allowed people to build these amazing bars that, let's be honest most of them have no chance of ever turning a significant profit but that's not why they exist. There's a lot of people that just want to own a really cool space and they've got the money to do it and that didn't used to happen, bars were always built pretty much by independent little mom-and-pop kind of shop thing and they struggled to survive. Well now we've got people with trust funds that are like: I think I just want to own a chain of really cool bars and value with the real estate buy and that's a smart model. Build a really cool bar in a neighbourhood that's being gentrified, raise the property values own the land, own the building and then sell it 10 years, 20 years later and have all that interest in the meantime, that equity. 

So I think that's really fueling it as well but at the same time you always need, someone needs to break down the wall, someone needs to be first to market and someone needs to lead a movement and I think Salvatori in my mind is the bartender that did that, and then there's a lot of other people very recently, the last few years I think that, a small handful I should say that have done the same thing and it's creating a conversation and I'm thrilled to be in that conversation because it's something that's... April I've got, I don't know I probably have pictures, I do have pictures somewhere. It would have been about twelve years ago I've got like pictures of my garage where I've got like plywood and particle board and milk crates and pieces of speed rail and I'm make-shifting my own stations like, this is how I would design it and I've got these sketches and I think every bartender has dreamed about designing their own station, and everyone wants that Neil Peart drum kit, that cockpit. They want to be surrounded by their tools. I mean, look at the work that John Gertsen did at Drink in Boston, how long ago was that. And he spent a year.

He is incredibly talented, intelligent creative guy, bartender spent a year planning every inch and asking the most important and also kind of obvious questions that no one else thought to ask like wait a minute, we're spending $8,000 on an ice machine that has a reverse osmosis system and drops from a different direction to create this perfect solid clear 1x1 cube that everyone is crazy about, and then we're sticking it into a room-temperature bin like that doesn't make sense. The ice should be in a freezer drawer and boom and this is where the innovation comes from so, I think it's both.

April Wachtel: So if, let's just say, I assume that some of the folks listening to our conversation here have their own bars and will say, all this is great but I work in or I own, an effed up physical space. How do I fix it? Like what are small fixes that I can make to my space to make it work better? Any thoughts, I know this is like super broad.

Tobin Ellis: Yeah. One thought we're not supposed to say fuck on the show because I didn't know.

April Wachtel: No we can. Say fuck all you want.

Tobin Ellis: I've always wanted to bleeped.

April Wachtel: Oh yeah, well I mean if you want we can totally bleep you.

Tobin Ellis: Just like one bleep, just one fucking bleep.

April Wachtel: [Laughs] You got it.

Tobin Ellis: Alright so yeah, I mean isn't that's the ultimate quagmire of this whole conversation is, what do you do? You own your own place, you don't have a lot of money, you can't afford brand-new equipment and I'll tell you right now you cannot afford custom fabrication unless you got a buddy that works in an NSF approved shop. That's kind of the whole reason we did the project. It was to put something in the catalogues that anybody could buy anywhere and it's not just one giant station it's all components, so that they could buy just like the sinks, because that's all you have room for. And that's one of the things that is happening that is a bad example I think to the industry is and my travels and my conversations about all these macgyvering and all this really custom fab that was happening. I  saw a lot of health code violations, and a lot of building violations and egress violations and that's  a big part of my work because as the years have gone on I work I'm working for gigantic hotel and casino and resort companies and chains, they don't mess around. They will not do anything that has... I mean they've got to deal with like for example, you and your bar have to put a dishwasher in. You only have a few choices to make three comp sink, high temp/low temp that's pretty much it. Which way you want the carousel to move or do you want to drawer. Someone who's scaled and has businesses all over the country well, in New Jersey they need an audible and a visual alarm over the high temp dishwasher so that if it the water drops below temperature everyone can see it. In LA County in LA you have to have you have to have a three comp sink even if you have a glass washer, it's a requirement from an old code from the '50s and on and on and on. So, they're very serious about compliance and so am I as a consultant. So a lot of the stuff that bartenders are macgyvering is not code and they're getting away with it, because they're under the radar. But sooner or later they won't be, putting glass rinsers up in scupper rails is a very common practice right now and it's also...

April Wachtel:  Sorry can you explain scupper rails for...

Tobin Ellis: What’s that?

April Wachtel: Can you explain scupper rails, just define that.

scupper rail bar

Tobin Ellis: Oh, I'm sorry peanut rail, or scupper rail it's the little the drain rail, where you put the perforated steel where bartenders put their tins and glasses on and make drinks on and it's sometimes it's drained and it runs along the edge of the bar counter that's closest to the bartender and they're putting the glass rinsers so they can speed power wash their tins and glasses and jiggers, but the problem with that is that the health code violation in every single County in America. You cannot combine a food preparation area with a waste area without physical separation. So you need basically a wall between those two things and everyone's like yeah but I've seen it all over the place, uh-huh and it's a health code violation all of it. So these are the challenges for these small operators is, what do they do because custom fabrication is three five eight times the cost of commercial catalogue equipment. So I don't know the answer to it to be honest, I can just tell you this, there's a what do I call it... there's sort of a hypocrisy that a lot of business owners have where they will preach, when they're on the panel, they'll talk about how important throughput and cost and revenue and being smarter in it, you got to invest and you got to spend money to make money and then when it comes time to like do that in their own bar they're like yeah we can't afford that. Wait a minute.

I can tell you that we have the sales mix summaries. I know now for sure, it's not just sort of like yeah if you redesign your bar, it's going to be cool and the bartenders are going to be happier and they'll make a few more drinks. We've seen revenue lists of 30%, 70%. I've got one hotel that we redesigned the bar revenue was lifted quarter-to-quarter comparables, by 231%. The revenue shot up because the bar was designed so badly. It took so long for bartenders.

April Wachtel: It started so bad yeah.

Tobin Ellis: Yeah don't get me wrong, that was the home run that was an easy one but this is something that is I'd say to anyone who's thinking about it, yes it's going to cost you some money, it's going to hurt in a short term but you're going to love it in a long term because it's going to deliver more revenue, better service. It's funny because that's the buzzword of the last year so the thing everyone wants to be on the panel is about talks about is hospitality. Getting back to hospitality well, wait a minute... when did we leave and why did we ever leave? I’ve basically Michelin-starred culinary techniques on the bar in front of the guests and we didn't have time for it. It's like I can either be your buddy and talk to you all night or I can be over here making your complicated cocktails that you came here for.

April Wachtel: But there's also the side, where there's also the celebrity piece came along with it and as such a lot of people felt like they were then entitled to feel entitled.

 Tobin Ellis: Yeah absolutely. That's another part of my work is and I've been spending about two years in that space now or about a year and a half in this neuroscience of hospitality which we can get into at some point but, the important part of it is that the most simplest realization that I had and that we try to train now is kind of like music is what exists between the notes, Hospitality exists in the spaces between the steps of service. If you want more hospitality, you need to give your staff more time to be a part of it to have that dialogue, and the only way you do that is by designing smarter better bars and then training bartenders but, if you can train all you want but if... I don't care who you are, if you're a world champion or it doesn't matter whatever your title accolades or your ability to ring or make cocktails, if you've got to walk 20 feet to go get that thing every time you make that thing, you don't have time to sit there and have a conversation with anyone.

April Wachtel: Right, so what do you think about programs like White Lyan that have streamlined, a lot of the processes of actually preparing the cocktail. 

Tobin Ellis: You mean like that pre chilling and diluting and not using ice and shaking and all those sorts of things.

April Wachtel: Exactly, yeah and pre bottling in order to make space for that.

Tobin Ellis: I think they're genius and they're beautiful and I love this push towards sustainability and it's important because, these places are creating a model that can be scaled at some point because the thing that no one really wants to talk about is White Lyan or any one place that does this, they're not, I'm going to get a shot for saying this but this is true. They themselves are not making a difference in the actual economics of let's say water conservation. They're not. The same way that you living in California during the recent drought and not watering your lawn or taking fewer showers has absolutely zero impact on the economics the reality of those numbers because in California it's really the 2.1 million gallons per day spent watering the golf courses in the Coachella Valley and the fact that 67% of all water usage in California comes from commercial agriculture. Those are the monsters that are causing the water problem, not you taking an extra two minutes of a shower or flushing your toilet and extra time. So one little tiny bar doing this, it's not changing the world now today but it is absolutely changing the way the world is looking at how a bar can be built and run and that is its value and that's what's exciting because that is going to drive eventually the monsters, the huge companies that do have a gigantic footprint to be better at what they do. 

There's a famous story my Starbucks work with Howard Schultz the CEO was woken up on a Sunday evening about a story that broke out of London, about how Starbucks was wasting sixty thousand gallons of water a day on a dipper well, and it's famously his answer was, "What's a dipper well?" It's such a specific little thing that he's like what and then someone explained it oh, it's the place we run the water to put the spoon that we use for the foam and because they have 21,000 locations there's a lot of water so, they reacted and they figured out how to you know... they created a new piece of equipment that would put those circulating water, recirculate the water, use less, put it on a timer to save that water. So I love what places like that are doing it's fascinating, it's hard to scale right now but the fact that as long as they're successful it's a model, it proves the model and that's what we need.

 April Wachtel: I actually as a kind of sidebar love Howard Schultz. I know that there's like a lot of criticism about him kind of furthering his own political agendas with his work, but I think if you can push forward take your morals and you control a company that makes real impact I think that's amazing.

Tobin Ellis: Yeah, he's a fascinating guy. I read his first book 20 years 15 20 years before I ever worked with them and I took the job on, I said no to a couple of very large chains because I didn't really respect the senior leadership and the way they ran their business, and I've been called a fool because I passed up very large consulting fees for it but, I was thrilled to work with Starbucks because of that and I hear some of these stories about oh, Howard Schultz this and that and I'm like you don't really do a lot of reading. You don't really pay attention really because he is... Probably my favorite thing he ever did is, there was a shareholder meeting that he was present for and one of the shares... Starbucks supported LBGT rights completely publicly and someone from, he was one of the religious you know Christian or some kind of religious watch group stood up and said, you're losing a lot of shareholders because of this stance that is against their religion whatever, what do you think about that? And his answer was, “There are a few things that are great joys about being at the helm of a giant company and one of them is sometimes you get to make choices that are just the right decision. I'm proud of our stance on this issue and anyone who disagrees with it please sell your shares, I'll happily buy them up, next question.”

He's like that, he's a guy that walks, he lives down the street from the place, the big Starbucks. He comes in there, he hangs out, and he talks to people, he's a good guy so I agree with you. He is a really fascinating person.

April Wachtel: What was the nature of the work you did with Starbucks?

Tobin Ellis: Most of it I can't speak to, it's just it's really rock-solid NDA's I can talk about generalities. I actually dove into a lot of different departments. I spent the majority of my time working on the store of the future. What coffee would look like in ten years seven to ten years? I worked on design, equipment design, and overall design and then did a really fascinating pilot project where we got into hospitality flow state, as I've come to call it and in the neuroscience of hospitality. Basically, one of the VP came to me and said can you teach hospitality? I said well the conventional wisdom in my industry is no you can't teach it, you can culturize it, you can develop it and but most people would say that, you're either born with a hospitality gene or you are not and he looked at me and said well what do you think and I said, like I would always say to a client, I'd say I don't know. Do you want to pay to find out?

So the experiment was, can you teach, not service but can you improve and create teach hospitality in a classroom in a finite block of time? I honestly didn't know what we would, I knew we would come up with something interesting but I didn't know what would happen and the end result after about oh I don't know, we piloted for like five months I think is yes you absolutely can teach hospitality and you can dramatically teach a culturizing shift in a building or in an organization through ways that are a little unconventional but grounded and rooted in some very conventional ideas. It's probably the most fascinating work I've dove into in my career. I love it. I'm obsessed with it. I mean, getting to get up in front of a group of people and talk about right super marginal gyrus impact on empathy and just like what? It's like how the science geek in me, comes flying out and it’s fun.

April Wachtel: Alright so, I am really sorry to say that we were running out of time and this is like I mean I think we could talk about just that topic for at least another couple shows. So I'm wondering if we can do this, if you'd be willing to give me a couple of recommendations just to tide our listeners over for now. If you'd be willing I would love to snag another 45 minutes to an hour of your time at a later date because, I really think that this is such interesting work interesting conversation that I think would be ashamed not to share it so...

Tobin Ellis: Yeah I would love to, it'd be great.

April Wachtel: Awesome like, I'm going to get you to commit on air right now.

Tobin Ellis: Yeah no problem, I would love to.

April Wachtel: OK awesome, wonderful. So again just to tied our listeners over for now, I have been asking all my guests at the end any recommendations for resources that you seek out to keep stay sharp to just find inspiration, so whether that's podcast or educational materials books any type of media, anything off the top of your head that you're like, I always read this or I always listen to this and I leave refreshed and energized. 

Tobin Ellis: Man, how much time do you have left? 

April Wachtel: You can say no.

Tobin Ellis: I have tons, I'm a big book person. I'm staring at part of my library right now and its ranges from...

April Wachtel: Let's go with top three.

Tobin Ellis: What's that? 

April Wachtel: Let's go with top three. Well, top three recommendations if you were only able to give three recommendations.

Tobin Ellis: OK, if you're interested in design Dieter Rams Less is More. He is a famous industrial designer. Steve Jobs' biography by Isaacson is a really long read but it's a real insight into what good design really means. Those are a couple that they're more of a foundation theoretical, but I think they're really important.

The truth about hospitality is, I have scanned and searched there are so few books obviously Setting the Table is a must but there's very few books that really get into the nuts and bolts of service and hospitality in a way that's relevant. I read a ton. I travel a lot I mean, I don't know if anyone's ever caught me but like if I'm in a bar there's a 50/50 chance I've got a digital or a regular tape measure in my pocket, and I'm taking pictures I'm always trying to learn in the field and what people will share with me. I speak quite a bit and when I speak I learn quite a bit. So I speak not just in our industry, I speak at equipment shows, I go to really boring conventions to learn things. I went to the AHR which is the refrigeration convention. It has got to be one of the most boring convention that exists but two days of walking that floor, I actually found some amazing ideas for innovations. I'm like, we can use that I know how to apply that to the bar to my bar design work. I speak at the Hospitality Design Expo and I try to just immerse myself in kind of in a… like way into the cultures of not just other people in the world but in other industries and see how they've solved problems, so it's not a concrete resource I'm sorry I don't know.

April Wachtel: I think that's a great directive honestly.

Tobin Ellis: I want to know what these resources are because, I'm always scouring for, where this stuff is? There's just not a lot to be honest at this point, I think we'll see that change soon.

April Wachtel: No that's totally perfect. Tobin where can our listeners find you on social or if they want to attack you for your comments about water, how do they get in touch with you?

Tobin Ellis: I have social media but it's kind of mostly personal about Flash Professional but I don't really promote it a lot. My website is a good place to get in touch a little bit, it's barmagic.com. My company is on Facebook, Bar Magic LLC or Bar Magic of Las Vegas. My Instagram is mostly pictures of my cat and the side of a sailboat that I thought looked cool an hour ago or whatever, so it's not really that inspirational but... yeah. I'm actually looking at the side of a sailboat right now that's why that popped up in my head. 

April Wachtel: Perfect, Tobin this was incredible. Thank you so much for joining us and I can't wait to have you back on. Have an awesome day.

Tobin Ellis: You too. Go, fight, win.

April Wachtel: OK.

Episode 4: Interview with Lindsey Johnson from Lush Life Productions

Episode 4: Interview with Lindsey Johnson from Lush Life Productions

Episode 1: Interview with Chris Lowder, International Head Bartender

Episode 1: Interview with Chris Lowder, International Head Bartender