This is part two of Nancy Levine's interview with Sean Kenyon, the bar manager at Steuben's. You can read the first part of Levine's interview with Kenyon here.
What do you think of bartending school? I am not a believer in generic bartending school as a way to get into the business. I think that you need to pay your dues in a restaurant or bar and earn the opportunity to get behind the bar. That's where the practical training comes in and learning begins. I do believe in "higher bar education." Programs such as the B.A.R. 5-day, BarSmarts, Drinkwell and the Court of Sommeliers are great ways to continue learning and raise our craft to another level.
What are the most important components for running a successful bar? Personalities. You can teach skill, but you can't teach someone to have a personality. Also, the cooperation from the back of the house is key. I don't know what I would do without our chef, Brandon Biederman. He helps me with syrups; we're making our own bitters, so he's spent countless hours pitting individual cherries for our house rye cherries, and he is a great source of information when it comes to flavor pairings. He gets to be the official taster for all new cocktails.
What's the best line you've ever heard to get a free drink? I worked at a nightclub that was frequented by a few cross-dressers. They thought it was fun to make out with the young college boys who hung out there. One night, after a long makeout session with one of the "ladies," a college kid came to the bar and said, "I'm from a farm in Tennessee. I haven't kissed a girl or been laid in three years. So the first action I get, I find out afterward that SHE is a HE. Now I need you to buy me a drink, because SHE asked me to take HER home and I'm going to do it." I bought him the drink, and they left together. Next week they were back, arm in arm. I bought them a round. Ahhh, young love...
What's your strangest experience while working at a bar? So, I spent eight-and-a-half years as a manager at a gentleman's club in Texas. I saw a lot of funny, strange and shocking things in my time there, but this story takes the prize. One of our lovely ladies -- I'll call her "Sheri" -- approached me on the floor one night to tell me that another girl, "Kristi," was in the dressing room, sobbing and wailing uncontrollably. One thing you learn in the gentleman's club business is never to ask a crying stripper "What's the matter?" unless you have a couple of hours to spare. But apparently she was surrounded by about ten other girls trying to console her, which was keeping them in the dressing room, not on the floor working. So I go back to the dressing room, knock, announce my entrance (warning) and step in. There she is, bawling, makeup-streaked face, red nose, etc. I ask all of the girls to leave us -- except Sheri. When we are alone, I ask Kristi why she is so upset. She answers, "My customer asked me to fuck him for $200" -- and then she starts crying again. I attempt to console her by saying, "Kristi, I apologize, but unfortunately, it is part of this business that guys get the wrong idea and assume that they can cross that line. You've been a dancer for a couple of years. I'm surprised it hasn't happened before, and it will probably happen again. I'll throw him out and have a word with him." To which she replied, through her tears, "NO, YOU DON"T UNDERSTAND! LAST TIME HE GAVE ME $2,000!!!!!!" It might have been the only time in my life that I was utterly speechless. I turned quickly without a word, walked out of the dressing room, out the back door and into the parking lot and laughed my ass off for about twenty minutes before I was able to compose myself and return inside. We fired her, but I had to have the other manager do it, because there was no way I could have kept a straight face. Talk about depreciation. The customer thought it was worth $2,000 to have sex with her the first time. The next offer was 10 percent of that number...she must have been awful in bed.
What's the worst/best job you've ever had? My worst job was bartending at a bar that had male strippers three nights a week from 7 to 9. During that time, they only let women into the bar for the show. Unbeknownst to me, the dancers used the men's room as their dressing room. I walked in one day to the sight of three naked men stroking themselves while casually engaged in conversation. I said, "Oops, bad timing!" and walked out the door. One of the clothed men chased me out of the "dressing room" to explain, "It's cool, it's cool!," to which I replied, "There is nothing you can tell me to convince me that what I just saw was cool." And he explained, "No, no, they do that so they look bigger on stage, the guys masturbate until they are half hard and then they cut off the circulation with a rubber band so it stays that way." My reply: "That's your explanation as to why it's cool? You guys enjoy yourselves in there; I'll be pissing in the alley the rest of the night."
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Do you have any rules when you're tending bar? Mise en place: Everything in its place. My bartenders will tell you that I am extremely particular about where everything is: prep, backups, fresh fruits, bitters, etc. We must be set up for success every shift. As well, taste everything: Like a chef, we must control quality.
Bartending competitions. Love them? Hate them? Love them, and for some reason, I always seem to draw last, so I am good and drunk by the time I compete. But it's served me well: I've never placed out of the top four.
What do you do in your spare time? I'm an amateur boxer. I still train but no longer compete. Within the past few years, it's become less fun to be punched in the face. I've become a big fan of roller derby; my wife is a Denver Roller Doll, and it's a fucking blast. If you haven't been, you need to check it out.