We’re guessing you may have heard of Steve Schneider. We’re also assuming you know that he’s moved on from Employees Only in New York to set up a new outpost in Singapore. We caught up with him at the BACARDÍ Legacy Global Cocktail Competition in San Francisco a few weeks ago to talk about EO SG ahead of its opening.
So Steve, one chapter in your Employees Only story has come to an end and another is about to begin. How was your last shift in New York?
I had the opportunity to work with Bratislava Glisic, the person who recruited me and Ulysses Vidal, the person who’s taking my place as Bar Manager, so if that was the last shift for me in New York, it was a fitting end. It was crazy; super busy but business as usual for me really. I didn’t want to make it like a Kobe Bryant farewell tour as I have the option to go back after one year if I want. Anyway, I’m not really thinking about it as leaving, the way I see it is I’m just EOing somewhere else.
You’ve chosen Singapore as the ‘somewhere else’. Why?
Igor Hadzismajlovic, my mentor has wanted to do a Singapore project for the past four years. His mentor, Joshua Schwartz and wife Sarissa live out there overseeing nightlife venues and have seen the incredible growth in restaurants and bar openings in this part of Asia – we’ve seen it for ourselves. Also the weather is great, the time is right and Igor loves beach volleyball!
Igor asked if I’d like to be part of the Singapore venture and the opportunity to have a piece of a company where I started at the bottom was just incredible.
You’ve worked at EO New York for eight years, tell us about your journey there and why the time is now right for you to move on
I’ve gone from Stocker to Bar Back, Apprentice and Principal Bartender to Bar Manager, now I’m a Partner in the new venture in Singapore. It’s what I’ve worked my entire life for. Of course I’m leaving a lot of things behind and I’m taking a huge risk but it’s the right time and the opportunity to start from scratch and create something of my own, my own interpretation of what EO has come to be is something I’ve dreamed about. People have often asked me in interviews: if you could have your own bar, what would it be like? The answer is, EO.
Opening a bar is different to working in one. How have you found the progression?
In the 13 years I’ve been in this business I’ve walked behind bars that are already made, I’ve never opened one. Now I’m having to think about things like cutting boards, knives, all of that stuff – my life has become one big spreadsheet! For instance, I’ve just realised I need a juicer. We have a particular model in the bar in New York but starting from scratch I have to think, does it fit in our budget? How high is it on the priority scale? Can we get it in Singapore? If I can answer all of those things, I’ll mark it off and move on to the next thing. It’s all about the details.
What about the business side of things?
People usually want to talk to me about cocktail trends, no one ever talks to me about the actual business side and I absolutely love it, I always have. When I took over as Bar Manager three years ago, the pour costs were pretty high, I lowered them by 10 points in three years – that’s my number one achievement. I love doing the numbers – I didn’t know that before. It’s a real achievement for someone like me who had brain surgery and had problems with concentration and details – my inability to use my head was what got me discharged. Now I have the opportunity to use my head and get creative – it’s like a fun chess match of sorts. I have to think about things like how do you put out the best possible products but also run a profitable business and I love that, it’s so fun… Building this from scratch has just given me more tools where I can go to another market and open up another place. I’m learning so much from Josh and Igor who have opened places before and I’m looking forward to learning more once we’re actually up and running.
How will EO Singapore differ to EO New York?
It’s going to be exactly the same in one respect: defined by its staff. We’re looking for people who will be a good representation of EO but more importantly, a good representation of Singapore in general; they’re going to define that place; it’s going to be EO NY but a bit different. We are opening with quite a few of the team from New York including a GM, chef, floor manager and her husband who happens to be a bartender from Mother’s Ruin who will be starting with us as an Apprentice – so we have a solid team that knows our style of service, ethos and product and now we’re finding Singaporeans to fill in the gaps.
And the menu?
We’re bringing a proven version of what we have in NY to start with – our chef Julia is going to do her thing based on the ingredients she can find here and I’m doing the same with the bar. We have 23 cocktails on the menu in New York, we’ll start with 17 here. They’ve been purposely chosen for diversity and not being too overwhelming. As it stands now I’ve got three stirred, 11 shaken, three built; there will be four whisky cocktails, three gin, two vodka, two rum or cachaca, two brandy, two Champagne and two agave. We have another 17-18 that we can make based on the ingredients I know are available but we’re opening with 17 to keep it easy on the guests and for us to find out what works well. I’m really looking forward to using the local ingredients and changing things seasonally but first, we’ll stick with what we know.
Anything else you’ve had to adapt to?
I’m learning a brand new language; I’m having to think in mls, grams and kilograms – it’s a new way of thinking but I’ll adapt like the marine I am.
On to the site, how long did it take to find it?
We’ve been looking for sites for four years. I’ve no evidence of this but I guess when you first start out your business plan changes depending on the size of your venue. However, if you’re an established place like Employees Only you can’t just open with a carousel bar or horseshoe bar, it’s got to look and feel like EO. So it took us a little longer to find the right space but we’ve got it and it’s great. If you think of EO as a racing car – we’re just putting different wheels on it.
Where can we find you?
We’re on Amoy Street, right down the road from some great existing bars like Spiffy Dapper, Sugarhall and Jigger & Pony; we’re a short walk from 28 Hong Kong Street and up the road Operation Dagger and Nutmeg & Clove, Tippling Club, Cufflink Club – we’re within walking distance of some great places.
So what impact do you hope to have on what has become an already vibrant drinking scene?
We’re going to be different from all the other bars in town, we feel the market is right and we can deliver something unique with our product. We’ll have the same ethos as EO NY – that means we’re going to be a bar and restaurant for industry people and take care of our own. I want to be different in my style but at the same time respect what Singapore has created and who they are, we’ll be respectful of the way things are run and be as humble as possible – after all, we’re going to their house.
What does it take to be a part of the team?
I don’t want to tell people how to drive but I’m looking for people I can steer in the right direction so they can be successful in whatever it is they want to do – whether that be in the bar or out of it. Whoever we do take on, I want to be invested in their lives – not just a boss or a colleague, I’ll do whatever I can to be a friend as well. That’s what Igor and Dushan Zaric did for me. It’s a bar cycle of life and I’m happy to be part of it.
Any female bartenders?
Like the original Employees Only, we don’t hire bartenders – we never have. We only hire Apprentices who have to earn their stripes. Here in Singapore, I’ve hired six Apprentices and Michelle is one of them.
Describe what the opening means to you?
All the money I’ve been saving, all the knowledge I’ve gained from listening to those I respect, all the learning of different styles – it all comes together in this. I’m sad but happy, nervous but excited. Put it this way: you can make your free throws 100 times out of a 100 times on the basketball court but if you don’t make it in the game, the point doesn’t count. We have all the practice under our belts, all the support, now its time for us to make that shot.
Employees Only Singapore opens mid-June. Find it at 12 Amoy Street, Singapore 069932. Follow them on MySpace.com/employeesonlysg