The eight proud investors outside their new venue, from left to right: Ulysses Vidal, Bratislav Glisic, Steve Schneider,
Ivan Radulovic, Mitar Prentic, Gabriel Carney; centre front: Carlos Esquivel

So long, sayonara and shut the door firmly behind you when you leave us 2016; we’re looking forward to the year ahead. While we don’t have a clue what the big bad world has in store for 2017, we do know this: the next 12 months are going to be pretty damned fab when it comes to bar openings.

The brand new offering from Steve Schneider is a case in point. No, we’re not talking about the Employees Only outpost which he opened in Singapore just over six months ago (under budget, in 74 days we might add). This is something different entirely.

It’s in another part of the world for starters – Panama to be exact, and although it won’t be trading under the Employees Only banner, the cool new joint opening in February will definitely be EO flavoured. Not only has Steve partnered up with three EO members and two others from its sister restaurant, Macao Trading Company, the venture started with $20 in an envelope collected at the end of every EO shift.

We caught up with the man they call ‘Mighty Schneidey’ to find out more…

Hey Steve, we last spoke a little over six months ago, just before you headed over to Singapore. How has the transition been for you?

Six months! It feels like it’s been three years… During the nine years I worked at Employees Only in New York we had 12-13 bar staff who had been there for over five years – to get a new person in was pretty rare. But when somebody fresh did come in, we had an entire team training one person. Here it was just me training everybody.

The first six months here have been about the basics: teaching the team to keep their heads up, how to pour, when to speak, when to shut up, how to move, when to hustle – the things that rarely get taught. It’s been six months of getting their asses kicked – they didn’t know what they signed up for! But now they’re being tested on 20 to 25 recipes a month and have grown in seriousness and confidence. They’ve all earned their Apprentice jackets and I’m so, so proud of them.

And now they’re jacketed, pretty much up to scratch on their specs and you’re down to working four or five days rather than a gut-busting seven, you’ve chosen to open another bar. Are you a glutton for punishment?

The project is actually spearheaded by Bratislav Glisic, [the guy who recruited me at EO], and his best friend Ivan Radulovic. They put a little team together a year and a half ago and asked me to be a part of it. I believe in them, I know how they work – I’ve worked with them for nine years. It’s not every day some of your best friends say, “we’re opening a bar in Panama, do you want in?” Of course I was like, “yeah, totally”. I went there, the place was amazing but more importantly, I believe in the guys who are involved.

The dream team – left to right, back row: Mitar Prentic; Steve Schneider, Ivan Radulovic, Carlos Esquivel, Gabriel Carney;
left to right, front row: Bratislav Glisic, Ulysses Vidal

Who makes up the team?

There are eight of us in total. Bratislav (Braca), Mitar Prentic, Ulysses Vidal and myself, all from EO; plus Ivan Radulovic, (former EO) and Gabriel Carney, both from Macao Trading Company – we’ve all worked together for ages. Then there’s Carlos Esquivel, founder and CEO of PILSA Fine Rums and his partner Celia Cañizales G, co-founder of Compulab and shareholder of Don Pancho Origenes Rum – who are both from Panama. We all put our own money in, purchased the building and signed the lease the day before Thanksgiving.

Why Panama and how did the project come about?

The story starts around seven years ago when one of our dishwashers at EO was terminally ill. The team decided to put some money together so we could give him enough to go back to Mexico to be with his family. A little later, one of our servers got hit by a car while riding her bicycle and couldn’t work for a few months. Again, we donated some money so we could help take care of her bills.

After that it was like, “guys, why don’t we put some money aside after every shift?” So each night we’d put $20 in an envelope. Things happened throughout the course of the seven years and the money was there to help out. For instance, my dog had to have $10,000 worth of surgery and the fund paid a good portion of that. Then one of our guys was super depressed as his longterm girlfriend broke his heart, so we gave him a month off and paid his bills. Another guy’s father passed away and we gave him some money to help with the costs – things like that. The money has helped our colleagues and other people in the industry throughout the years – nobody knows about it because we don’t talk about it, we just did it for each other.

Anyways, three years ago we were relatively disaster-free so Eric Lincoln our GM, said we had to do something with the money. We counted it up, put it in an account* and paid for the whole team to go to Mexico (in shifts) to tour tequila distilleries etc. The next year we paid for ourselves to go to Panama with The 86Co to see how Caña Brava, their rum is made. That’s where we met Carlos Esquivel, whose company PILSA is dedicated to the production of fine rums and sugar cane distillates including Caña Brava and Panama Pacific Rum. We instantly fell in love with the place and saw the potential out there.
(*Note: no money is left on the premises now, just in case you’re wondering…)

What is it about Panama that appealed?

It’s a really cool town, there’s the American Trade Hotel (owned by the ACE Hotel Group) and plenty of airbnb properties – people like to go out and socialise. It’s a main trading hub, they use American money, booze is cheap, the taxes are low and the economy is great. We just fell in love with it; it instantly felt like somewhere that we could do something really cool.

Friends who eat together…(with Celia at the far end of the table)

Tell us about your new venue.

Our place is right down the street from the American Trade Hotel. It’s a two-storey joint: downstairs is all natural light/cafe style with more of a Latin American/neighbourhood charm; upstairs is darker, sexier and more loungey.

The drinks will be reminiscent of our style, we’re going to serve people what they want but we’re also going to bring something new to the game. We’ll utilise the weather down there and all the ingredients will be super fresh. On the food front, we’ve hired Julia Jaksic as a consulting chef – she’s been with us at EO from day one. Although she doesn’t like using the term ‘international food’, she’s devising a menu pretty much based on all our travels.

Will there be elements of EO on the menu?

There’s a certain level of service, hospitality and style of drinks that’s to be expected from a bunch of guys who have come from EO because that’s what we know. And the look is going to be exactly what you’d think a bar in Panama opened by some guys from EO would be, but different.

So what’s it called?

The Strangers Club. It reflects what we are: a group of well travelled, hard working, seasoned bartenders who have come together to open a place just so we can do something really cool. It’s how EO started.

Six of you are based outside Panama, how will it work?

There will be two of us in Panama for two months at a time – we’ll probably split it with one of us working upstairs, one downstairs with a couple of Apprentices. We’ve divided up our areas too: Bratislav and Mitar will do everything bar related; Ivan and Gabe will deal with chef Julia and Warren Red our design team as well as anything to do with the floor. Ulysses and I will focus on all the office related stuff. We’re pooling together to buy an apartment and will share the expenses so we all have a base while we’re there.

Archive shot of The Strangers Club site circa 1950

Are there any tips that you’ll pass on from your opening in Singapore?

I can give my advice but to be honest, it’s just these guys rocking the house. They’ve been so cool and understanding about me being in Singapore which means I’ve been able to observe from afar a group of friends figuring it all out. I’ll be there for my stint in June/July but will also be on site next month and at the opening in February.

How do you hope The Strangers Club will go down with the locals?

From my time in Panama, I know the people there are going to enjoy it – they’re waiting for something new. We want to appeal to everyone – from those who want to go out and be adventurous to those who want to keep things simple and hang out with their friends. And if all fails, I can always make mojitos!

As far as the team goes, we’ll have the same ethos as EO: building a community. We want to provide a platform for young Panamanian bartenders to do whatever they want. We can’t promise anyone anything apart from a platform and an opportunity – that’s what I was given. I started at EO and I was in debt, now I’m able to invest my money with my friends to do something cool. It doesn’t get much better than that.

The Strangers Club opens at Calle B Avenida Central, Casco Viejo, Panama in February. For more details, follow them on their Facebook page, Facebook.com/strangersclubpanama and read updates in the next issue of The Cocktail Lovers Magazine, out mid-January.

For information on Employees Only New York, see employeesonlynyc.com; and for Employees Only Singapore see employeesonlysg.com 

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