Having been working as the Head Bartender for one of the World’s 50 Best Bars, Employees Only, in New York, Steve Schneider is now making his dream come true. Moving to Singapore as the co-owner and still a bartender for the second branch, it has taken a lot for Steve to build Employees Only in Singapore from scratch. But no more than one year later, the bar was awarded as one of Asia’s 50 Best Bars.
Recently, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Steve Schneider in Jakarta, and chatted with him on the challenges of running a bar, how to be successful in overcoming them, the best drink he makes, and does he get hit on a lot? Read on!
What have been the most challenging aspects of moving from New York to Singapore and setting up Employees Only?
Coming out to Singapore, it was me alone. Trying to teach all new people about what I’m talking about here, about style, service, our history, our drinks, the vibe and energy, which you can’t teach. You can’t really teach hospitality, vibe, and energy. It’s a thing that you have to lead by example and show them.
This is especially because people are so different in Singapore, and just upbringing as well! They’re not “where I’m from”, but in your face: boisterous and loud. It takes a lot of work to be more serious and quiet. You know Singaporean culture: they are not really into speaking with strangers; not really speaking when spoken to; and not asking or answering questions. And here I am trying to make them all to come up, talk to strangers, find out where they’re from, and talk to them.
How about the services in Employees only?
Very simple executions. There’s no smoke, no gimmicks. We take the thing from a bottle, we put it in a glass and that’s it. Simple stuff, good service, which will make you feel good. Timeless execution: it’s never gonna go out of style. That’s never a trend: that’s a style; it’s service. Drinks come, drinks go, trends change, but simple drinks executed quickly with a good vibe, energy, and hospitality, and music, well... people stay forever.
How many people work in Employees Only in Singapore?
We have six apprentices. We hired only apprentices—they have to earn a bartender jacket. You start off with everybody wearing a shirt and then they have to earn a jacket as an apprentice. After that, they have to earn a jacket as a bartender and then principal bartender.
What’s your goal for Employees Only in Singapore?
I said: let’s make Employees Only the best we can. We were placed 17th on Asia’s 50 Best Bars in year one, which was awesome. And I can honestly tell you right now that Employees Only Singapore has the best cocktail menu I've ever curated during my 10 years with the company and I'm very, very proud of it.
For long-term goals, we invest our time and energy into our staff, and that creates a team. Employees Only has this staff and this kind of energy because everyone has been there forever, and they love the place. And when you go to the same bar, you see the same bartender and that bartender knows what you like and remembers your name. It’s all about having teamwork together and they all know we’re reliable.
Have you found any obstacles in managing Employees Only Singapore?
Yeah. A lot of the drinks we have are the same as New York, but the recipes are different. The limes and lemons are different; the sugars are different; even like a bottle of gin might have a different alcohol percentage compared between the US and Singapore. So you have to adjust your recipes, making very familiar drinks with different recipes. It’s challenging and requires a lot of attention, I guess.
It’s hard to stay energised, but at the end of the day, if I’m not there, the dream doesn’t come true. When that happens, I just have to be there, to be observant, and to see every little thing. Attention to detail is everything! All these little tiny details that create this energy that I want. It’s just that teaching this takes time, energy and patience, and believing in your staff.
See also: Cocktail Hour with Dre Masso
What is your role as a bartender?
For me, it’s all been one long shift for 15 years. Little things happen here and there. But you know, people come to the bar to let loose and maybe get a little crazy time. Make sure that nobody’s desire to have a blast ruins someone else good time. For me, it’s safety first. Whether it’s physical safety or emotional safety. Go to a place that makes you feel safe.
Bartending is just a hobby that you like, maybe?
Yeah, it was something that took me when I got injured. Brain surgery: I have three plates in my head. So I had a lot of time to heal from my injuries and I walked by a bar. Well, I had the extra time, so I thought: “Let’s do it.” It was a nice escape from my injuries; a nice way for me to have fun. I have the skillset and I don’t want to go back to school. And I just started to take it more seriously. And then the goal was, “I’m gonna open my own place”.
What do you make the best?
The best drink for me might not be the best drink for you. So I think that in order to be a good bartender and have a good bar is to be able to make wide varieties of things really, really, really well. If all you can do is make one drink really well, you’re limiting yourself. You need to be able to make everything on earth that you could possibly do and really well. Kind of a jack of all trades, you know? The best drink is the one that you’re gonna enjoy.
And you know, the stuff in the glass is mainly a vehicle. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cocktail, a beer, a wine, a whisky, or a rum. It should be made quickly, consistently and served well. It doesn’t matter what you drink as long as you enjoy yourself!
Do you get hit on a lot?
Yeah. It’s part of going to the bar. You know, playful stuff. But a lot of time I’m busy. So for me, non-verbal communication is the best. It’s all about what you don’t say. Let the people know what you feel. We can’t say the cheesy one-liners all day. It’s about the vibe and reaction you get and give.
What do you think is the most important thing to have when we start working in this industry?
You have to find mentor, so mentoring is very important in my line of work. A lot of our kids, they want to have their own bars. Some people don’t want to open up their own bars—it’s up to me as their mentor to find out what they want to do and do everything in my power to make sure that they can achieve their goals and dreams given the right opportunities. I have gotten the opportunities—and we’re the 17th best bar in Asia already.