Back in May during the Bacardi Legacy Global Cocktail Competition finals in Sydney, we caught up with one of the judges, Steve Schneider, to talk about his career and bartending more broadly.
Schneider is the bar manager at Employees Only, one of the seminal New York cocktail bars that signified the return of bartending as a craft.
Schneider is a natural storyteller — and he’s got one heck of a story to tell — so we figured it was best to hear from him in his own words.
As told to Sam Bygrave
This is my fourth time here in Sydney, and every time it just gets better and better — I love this place, I love the whole country. I love the bartenders, the bars, Australian bartenders are some of the most cool, calm, funny and just creative people that I know.
The chat from Australian bartenders I think is the premiere. Americans can learn a lot when it comes to good banter, good chat — having fun, it’s ok to take the piss. They could learn a lot.
I started bartending when I was 18; I’m 31 now. In the US it’s 21 to drink, 18 to serve in most places. In Washington DC where I started it was 21 to serve but I started at 18 because I lied about my age and used someone else’s ID.
More importantly, I was in the US Marines; I signed up after 9/11. I really applied myself; I was a pretty bright kid, but never really applied myself in school. I was always into team sports, I played a lot of basketball, baseball, football. I was bit bigger then too, more solid.
The planes hit the buildings on 9/11 and I grew up just outside New York City and it gave me the kind of motivation I needed to go out and make something of myself. I was a senior in high school. So I signed up for the Marine Corps and I went in in great shape, worked out, worked hard, studied as much as I could — really didn’t drink and go out and party. I wanted to be prepared. I wanted to be the best I could be before I got in there.
Of course when I got in there, it was difficult, but it came easy to me. You just shut up and do as you’re told. The concept is quite simple, it gave me this kind of discipline to just listen to people who came before me, and do my thing. Physically I was fine, but I had to master the mental side.
So I finished top of my class, I got a rank that usually takes two years to achieve — I got that in six months. Nobody pushed me, I wanted to do that myself. I studied the books, studied the physical aspect, and really mastered my craft.
I could have gone anywhere in the world I wanted to go. There was an opening in Hawaii for Homeland Security, pretty much do what the guys were supposed to do in Pearl Harbor.
But I volunteered to go to this unit I was meeting in Japan that would ultimately go to Afghanistan. I figured, here I am, top of my class — who am I if I just go to Hawaii for two years. I wanted to make a difference. It’s heroic type talk, but whatever — that was my state of mind. That’s where I was.
If I had gone to Hawaii I would have gone straight from my intelligence training to Hawaii. Instead, I had 30 days at home, to see my family and that. I was home, and I was in a kind of bad part of town, and there was a fight that broke out with loved ones, and I decided to get involved. My mindset at the time was to break it up, but that doesn’t really matter — it was at a bar of all things, believe it or not.
I got my head stomped in on some concrete. I got sent to the hospital, and I fell into a coma. I had three plates put in my head as a last ditch effort, just to see what they could do. I had a crack in my skull, a hole in my head, a blood clot, bleeding out of my eyes, nose, ears and mouth — it just sucked.
Doctors said I only had a few minutes to live, they could just try [to save me]. The only reason they could try was because I had the military health care, otherwise if I was just a regular guy on the street I would have been dead, they wouldn’t have had the money to pay for it.
So I don’t know if it was just me being stubborn or me being in great shape or me being lucky — maybe a combination of the three, but I woke up after a couple of days, 52 staples in my head, and confused as hell. My brain was fucked. Everything I had worked for was thrown away right there.
I could blame this person or that person, but at the end of the day… my fault. I shouldn’t have been there, I shouldn’t have got involved. But you know I’d do it all again, because when loved ones are involved — fuck it, nothing matters.
Now what do I do? I get sent to Bethesda, Maryland, where I’m doing this mindless brain rehab stuff, because my memory was fucked, trying to memorise these numbers in sequence. They’re strapping probes to my head, giving me brain teasers and shit — I was not interested in this.
I didn’t want to be there, so I wasn’t healing. I wanted to do 30 years in the Marines and retire at 48, full pay, full benefits, open a bar on the corner and just talk shit the rest of my life.
I ended up handing out basketballs and towels at the gym, near the Pentagon to officers, people attending the gym. I worked with the guy that got run over by a tank, with the guy that got shot with a rocket, a guy with cancer, and me. A couple of these guys actually out there doing it, and here I was just fucking off on a night. That feeling of being helpless , knowing you fucked up — it was so hard to get over. Nothing made me happy, man.
Then I was walking down Georgetown in Washington DC and there was a help wanted sign in this shitty dive bar, I was like fuck it, because I had extra time — I was only handing out basketballs in the gym for twenty hours a week — and I didn’t have anything else to do. I was in debt, another mistake you make when you’re 18 — so I was like fuck it, I’ll make a few extra bucks.
So I started working behind a bar, making disco shots, 18 beers on tap, but moving my ass. On the weekends it was very busy, but during the week it would cost me more money to get to work than I would make.
But I did it, because for the first time in my life after being injured, something made me happy. It was something completely different. And being happy was the first step to feeling better. And memorising recipes, memorising prices, pour counts, techniques, and a couple of beers at the same time —I’m working on getting my motor skills back.
That really helped me recover. I wasn’t doing mindless memorisations, I was memorising prices, I was memorising what was in what. It was a slow process, but it was a first step to something.
After I got out [of the military], I was kind of bummed, but I entered this speed bartending competition. I won it, and I won it again, and made a lot of money you know — now I had a purpose, now I had a goal. I had something I could look forward to.
Most importantly it got me linked up with this guy out of Las Vegas, who was from the Washington DC area who was consulting on a project, John Hogan. He was into flair, proper freepouring techniques, fresh ingredients, cocktails, fancy garnishes and more importantly than that he was somebody doing this as a career.
I didn’t want to go to school. I was just bartending, just treading water. I was like ok, I could make a career out of this stuff. I was with him for a brief time, but he lit a fire under me, I guess you could say.
I went back to the New York area, took the first job I could get, which was in Hoboken New Jersey, where Frank Sinatra was born and the birthplace of baseball. I was in a fine dining place. I didn’t fit in. I was a 23 year old, foul-mouthed former Marine kid. With loads of skill, but no class, no tact — I was used to chewing tobacco behind the bar and telling guests to fuck off.
Now I had to be the complete opposite, and learned a lot about wine. They showed a lot of patience in me, I learned a lot about attention to detail. While in Washington DC I was learning about speed, now I was learning about the other side: wine, attention to detail, service, being in service for other people instead of whattaya want? [it was] what can I do for you? That lit another spark about the service.
There was one more thing I needed. Through chance I worked an event with Employees Only, we got along right away, and they recruited me. I was completely over-qualified for the job but everybody starts from the bottom. When I had the interview, which was me showing my resume to one of the owners and who had heard about me from one of the other bartenders, he opened it up – all these competition wins, me being written up, a hot shot 23 year old, been bartending since I was 18 — he opened it and he closed it. He said: “Former Marine. You’re disciplined. I like that, I’ve got something for you.” He didn’t give a shit about any of that other stuff.
He heard from one of the other bartenders that they believed in me, heard I might have what it takes to be part of their team. He didn’t give a shit about what I did — he cared about the blend of character, you know?
I got it right away. First of all starting from the bottom, having discipline, carrying ice, being able to forget about all you think you know, in order to become a bartender at this establishment, because the people who came before you and the people who come after you are going to do it the same way? Hmm, that sounds familiar to something in my past. Wearing a nice uniform? This is all kind making sense, you know?
I had so much respect and love for these guys, they welcomed me with open arms, and as much as I gave them they gave me two times in return. That kind of love and compassion, that’s what really took it over the edge for me.
I loved what I did and I loved what I did for me — I wanted to open up my own bar. I wanted to be the best bartender that I could be. But it took me working at Employees Only, real quickly, to learn that I wanted to be the best overall package that I can be. I wanted to be the best teammate I could be, the best brother — I wanted to be just a guy that when it was all said and done they could be like, oh yeah, we enjoyed working with him. We felt comfortable when he came into work, we felt safe that his vision is for the right reasons; he cares about the business.
Working your way up from the bottom, you get the respect amongst everybody, because now the guys who were training me, I get to work with them. The guys that recruited me, I don’t just get a chance to work alongside them, I’m also their bar manager now.
In my short time there I was able to achieve a rank there that took other people many years to do, and again, that’s the same exact thing that happened in the military man. So there’s all this stuff that’s coming back and forth, and it was once that talented kid had a leadership and direction, saying OK, this is the last place I’m going to work before I open my own place, and I need to learn from these guys, I need to respect these guys, and I need to pass on this knowledge to the apprentices when I become the top guy — because that’s how you get people to want to work with you, that’s how you get the trust of everybody, and then tending bar becomes so simple..
If you tend bar for other people, the job is so fucking easy. The discipline, of me shutting up and listening to what the drill instructors had to say in the Marine Corps — just do what you’re told — it’s the same thing in the bar, you do what you’re told — either by the guest or by the boss, until you’re the boss. In the military when you become the boss, you tell people what to do. If you have the pedigree, if you have that relationship with people that they believe in you and they trust you, then they’re going to follow you.
As a bar manager, I’ve had the biggest thrill, as a bartender, being able to bar manage my favourite bar — [but] I’m also doing it at the lowest percentage pour cost it’s ever been.
You know when you hand somebody a cocktail they really love, and they take that sip — you feel good, right? I still love that feeling. And when they order a second drink, a drink you’ve been working on and they’re like give me another? That’s an awesome feeling.
For me, it’s just as good a feeling, when I print out every three months my numbers — how we bought versus how much we sold versus how much we have, and it’s a number I love to see. When our profit margin is bigger than it’s ever been, in New York City, and I know the quality is just as good if not better — man I get a kick out of that.
It makes me so proud.