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Steve Schneider: Employees Only, “Hey Bartender” & Beyond

Hey Bartender is a documentary about the renaissance of cocktail culture, directed by Douglas Tirola. Set against the backdrop of craft cocktail bars, with comments from leading bartenders across the country, the movie follows two bartenders, Steve Schneider (Employees Only) and Steve “Carpi” Carpentieri, the owner of Dunville’s in Westport, Connecticut. Hey Bartender debuted at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, and after its theatrical premiere in New York last month, embarked on a barnstorming tour of limited runs, including a week-long run in Los Angeles. On the opening day of Hey Bartender’s LA run, I sat down with Tirola, Schneider and Carpentieri at the historic Musso & Frank Grill, where legendary bartender Manny Aguirre was behind the stick.

Steve Schneider in "Hey Bartender"

Photo courtesy of 4th Row Films

When Steve Schneider asked Manny Aguirre for a Tanqueray Martini, it was a fleeting but memorable moment—a multi-generational exchange between an acclaimed bartender from the modern era and a living legend who’s served everyone from James Dean to Keith Richards and Johnny Depp. As Aguirre made one of his famed Martinis, Schneider recalled the first time he walked into Employees Only. “I was working in Hoboken, New Jersey. And my bartender there said, ‘Listen, we gotta go to this place called Employees Only.’ And when I walked in, I was just floored. I had one of those New York moments where I felt like I was in a different world,” said Schneider. “The minute I went through that curtain—it was the music, the lighting, and that vibe, that pulse you get in that cliché moment. I saw the bartenders behind the bar, it was Rob [Krueger] and [Bratislav Glisic] and they were working so well together, weaving in and out and barely talking to each other. I said, ‘I want to be these guys.’ I didn’t want to be like them, I wanted to be these guys. I came in three or four times with a friend and we’d drink through the menu, but I wouldn’t really ask any questions, I was pretty intimidated. Being a former Marine and I was pretty scared, these guys were my heroes.”

Through his bar in Hoboken, Schneider eventually met Anthony Giglio, who asked Schneider to create a drink for his wife’s 40th birthday party. Giglio loved the drink, and he and Schneider hit it off at the party. At the time, Giglio was editing the Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide with Jim Meehan, whom Schneider met that night. Mr. Boston was coming out a couple of weeks later, and Giglio invited Schneider to create a cocktail and bartend at Midnight Music and Munchies, an event at the 2008 NYC Wine & Food Festival. It was an unpaid gig, but Giglio said it would be good exposure and he would put Schneider on equal billing. “So I had about three weeks to prepare, and I get an email,” said Schneider, his eyes widening. “And these were the bartenders: Tony Abou-Ganim, Audrey Saunders, Julie Reiner, Jim Meehan and Don Lee, Jay [Kosmas] and Dushan [Zaric], and Steve Schneider. It’s like, ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’ I called up Anthony, ‘What are you trying to do to me?’ And he said, ‘I told you it’s an opportunity.’”

Schneider jumped at the chance. “I was working around the clock, I was overly over the top, making homemade vermouth, dehydrating stuff, doing all this shit, trying to make an impression,” he said. “So at the event, I have an assistant with me, we’re setting up and I see that I’m sharing a bar with the guys from PDT, Jay and Dushan, and me. I’m batching cocktails for 600 people, this nine-ingredient drink, way over the top.” Schneider definitely made an impression—even if Life with Food and Drink didn’t quite “get” the Stairway to Heaven cocktail, Schneider and Giglio “were the most fun bartenders there.”

Then the Employees Only team arrived. “This is before they opened Macao [Trading Company], so they have everybody,” said Schneider. “Jay, Dushan, Henry [LaFargue] was there, the whole crew, like a dozen guys. And they saw me, and immediately they treated me like family. We just hit it off right there. The party we had, and the mess we made, I couldn’t recreate that mess if you paid me. I feel bad for the people at the venue. Everyone had a great time. And these guys just treated me like one of their own.”

Glisic, one of the bartenders who was working when Schneider first walked into Employees Only, came up to him. “‘We’re gonna open Macao, so we’re gonna have an opening at EO, why don’t you come work for us? We could use a good guy like you.’ I was like, ‘Totally dude,’” he said with an an incredulous “yeah, right” expression as he recalled Glisic’s invitation.

Schneider’s skepticism had nothing to do with a lack of desire to bartend in New York. “I grew up five miles west of the city,” he said. “Ever since I made my first drink I always wanted to be in the city. It’s looming large in my backyard. This is the place I wanted to be, I just had this vision in my head, taking over a city somehow, you know? Because it’s impossible, nobody’s bigger than the city. I just wanted to grab it, just for a second.”

Two weeks later, Schneider went to EO, thinking they would all have a good laugh about their raucous night at the festival. “And I show up and [Glisic] goes, ‘Steve, what the fuck, where’s your resume?’ Listen, the guys know about you, we want you here. We think you’re a good guy, you got a lot of talent. Bring your résumé on Wednesday at 3:30, the owners are having a meeting. Trust me, you’re in.’ I’ll always remember that.”

Employees Only - "The Gang"

“The Postcard” | Photo courtesy of Henry LaFargue, via Facebook

“So that was a Monday, I had a couple of days. I show up on Wednesday with my résumé outside, and the boys are there. I felt like the postcard was staring at me,” a nod to the EO postcard referenced in Hey Bartender. “I had a kickass résumé, I’d won competitions, I’d been written up several times, I was in a book, this and that. Just a 24-year-old punk with loads of talent and no direction. I gave my résumé, and [Glisic] opens and closes it right away. ‘Former Marine, I like that. You’re disciplined. We might have something for you in a couple of weeks.’ He talked with Dushan and everything, and Dushan said, ‘The guy’s housebroken, let’s do it. He’s in.’

“Got the call. ‘Can you come in tomorrow to train?’ Hell yeah,” said Schneider. The timing was ideal. It was the Fall of 2008, Glisic was being promoted to Principal Bartender and there was an opening. Schneider trained for one day, and then he was working behind the Employees Only bar as an Apprentice in a black shirt.

“They unlocked something in me,” he said. “I’d been bartending for about six years already before I started there. So you think you know it all. I hadn’t gotten ice for anybody. Igor [Hadzismajlovic] asked me, ‘Are you willing to start from the bottom?’ And I said, ‘I wouldn’t want it any other way.’ So all of a sudden my first gig in New York is at my favorite bar. Then working my way up the ranks, and now five years later, I’m not only one of the Principal Bartenders, but I’m also the bar manager, and every Wednesday I get to work alongside that same guy that recruited me. And we’ve become the dearest of friends, me and all the guys, and man, that’s pretty special to me.”

The mentorship relationship between Schneider and Zaric that’s shown in Hey Bartender exists between all of the principals and staff at EO. Schneider noted that it’s not all business, they talk about everything. “Dushan told me that when they were hiring the staff to open EO, he was living in a house with Jay and Igor. They invited the staff over and just hung out. ‘How we treated you today, is how we want you to treat your guests at the bar.’”

Schneider has always respected Zaric’s insight and his point of view. “Just the way he goes about business, he carries himself like a champ,” said Schneider. “When I met him, I always wanted to be guilty by association—I figured if I handle myself like he handles himself, I’m gonna be OK. I always say, surround yourself with a bunch of winners and you’re going to have to perform to that level.

“Working for six years behind a bar, I thought I already knew everything,” said Schneider. “But when I came in there, I threw out the playbook and had the humility to learn their way of making drinks without trying to make my own suggestions, it wasn’t my place. And [Dushan] appreciated that, and we worked alongside each other for a few years.”

"Hey Bartender" preparty at The Spare Room

“Hey Bartender” preparty at The Spare Room: Lindsay Nader, Brooke Arthur, Steve Schneider, Jackie Patterson, Christine England (L to R)

For Schneider, the lessons from Zaric didn’t end when he donned the Principal Bartender coat. “Just the other day, we’re talking on the phone,” said Schneider. “‘Man, that [Los Angeles] premiere was so awesome, the crowd was into it and they seem to be into everything they’re doing with each other. The camaraderie is huge.’ And he simply said, ‘That’s because they’re not afraid of each other. They want a common goal and they all know they’re on the same team.’ That’s what a community is all about.”

“One thing that Dushan always teaches me, you have to constantly evolve in this business,” he said. “A lot of people think about our industry, the longevity of the bartender. It’s very grueling, mentally and physically. We can’t all be Manny,” he said with a laugh, as we watched the elder bartender take care of his guests.

“But Dushan has taught me to evolve and just constantly be doing something positive, and treat everybody right,” said Schneider. “He started at the bottom, and then he became a bartender at Pravda. And then Jay [Kosmas], Igor and Henry said, ‘What’s next? Let’s open our own place.’ And when they do that, ‘What’s next? Let’s write a book. Let’s come out with our own grenadine and Bloody Marys. Let’s start our own spirit company.’ There’s always something else. Now they’re not only some of the most successful bartenders out there, they’re successful business owners and they own their own liquor company.”

The numerous accomplishments of the EO partners are motivation for Schneider. “My next stop is going to be ownership. These are the last people I’m ever going to work for, I realized that my first day [at EO]. I’m going to peddle their bike for as long as I want while they steer, and some day I’ll be steering that bike and other people are gonna be pedaling.”

Hey Bartender will certainly provide Schneider with a calling card when the time comes for him to take that next step. Schneider first met Hey Bartender director Douglas Tirola at EO, when he sat in front of him at the bar. “I took care of him, we chit chat. He comes back and says, ‘Would you like to be the subject in a movie I’m making about bartenders?’ And I said, ‘Yeah whatever, man. Cool.’ Because you hear that shit all the time. ‘Cool. Whatever I can do to help.’ But I underestimated them, they were everywhere. They put a lot of their heart and soul, they put everything into this project for many, many years.”

Schneider marveled at the role he played in Hey Bartender’s inception. “An artist, a filmmaker like Doug, who’s well respected in his independent film community, to be able to inspire him to make a whole movie about the craft that we do, words can’t describe something like that,” he said. “I’m really excited to be representing one bartender’s story out of thousands and thousands of bartenders all over the world. Hopefully this is the launching point for more stories to come out. It’s really well put together and I’m really proud of it. I know what this is going to bring me. I have to always treat our craft and our profession and other bartenders with respect. Milk it for all it’s worth, take it in, but not lose sight of my task at hand, which is running the bar at EO.”

“I got a lot of respect for Doug and the people at 4th Row Films,” he said. “It’s just such a great feeling. This guy’s made films, he’s been all over. I love what I do, I love our craft so much. I put so much effort into it, but I’m no different than any other bartender. There’s a lot of bartenders that do the same shit as me. I just follow the simple rule, treat everybody right. [Doug] came in, and I treated him as I would any other guest. It just so happened that this guy’s a filmmaker and wanted to make a movie about us. That’s pretty cool!”

“I get to work with guys every day that I idolize,” he continued. “These are the guys that made the man who’s here right now. I understand my success is together with the success of Employees Only. To be part of that team, and now to be manager of the bar there, that’s a dream come true. I’m gonna savor this, I’m gonna enjoy it, but my goal ultimately is ownership of restaurants and bars all over the world. I’m 29 years old, I’ve been bartending for almost 11 years now, five of which at my favorite bar. The sky’s the limit.”

Employees Only
510 Hudson St.
New York, NY 10014
(212) 242-3021
www.employeesonlynyc.com


ON HOLIDAY
Created by Steve Schneider
Ingredients:

  • 1.5 oz Hendrick’s gin
  • .5 oz simple syrup
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • .5 oz Lillet Blanc
  • 1 pinch basil
  • Club soda

Preparation:

  • Add all ingredients except the club soda to a mixing glass.
  • Add ice, shake, and fine‐strain over ice into a tall Tom Collins glass.
  • Top with club soda, stir, and ornament with a basil leaf and a cucumber slice.
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