Steve Schneider: from the marines to the bartending elite

22nd December, 2017 by admin

Having started out as a marine, veteran Employees Only bartender Steve Schneider has added new Panama-based hangout The Strangers Club to his ribbon rack. He tells Annie Hayes about how far he’s come – and where he’s going.

“It’s been a fun 15 years, I’ll tell ya,” Steve Schneider chuckles, shaking his head. We’re 52 floors above ground in the highest hotel bar in western Europe – Gŏng Bar at The Shard, London – where he’s about to begin the first of a three-night residency as part of the bar’s Star Bartender fixture, demonstrating the fast-paced, highly accurate, no-frills style of bartending he has become synonymous with. “In the States, the more you make, the more you make, y’know,” says Schneider, meaning the more drinks you serve, the more money you take in. “It was the style of bartending my mentors came from, the TGI Fridays flair bartender era. I never stopped, I just worked on perfecting that style.”

Dedication is a recurring theme throughout our conversation. A self-confessed “class clown” – “I won that distinguished title in high school, I’m very proud of it. Of all the awards I’ve ever won that’s my favourite” – Schneider grew up in New Jersey, across the river from New York City. Moved by the events of 9/11, he joined the US Marine Corps as soon as he turned 18, where he excelled. As life would have it, he was injured before he was able to see combat, requiring intensive brain rehabilitation. Dejected but not defeated, Schneider answered a ‘help wanted’ advert at a dive bar in Washington DC – a move that he credits as “the first step to recovery”.

“I didn’t really care about bartending at first, it was just something to do during my spare time, but you know what it did? It made me happy for the first time after my injury. I was depressed because I was injured and I couldn’t sleep much. Being up all night bartending and making people laugh made me really happy.” After winning a couple of competitions, Schneider headed home to New Jersey, where his best friend’s mother was dying of cancer. “I wanted to be there, so I took the first job that I could get,” he says – running the cocktail menu at a bar in the city of Hoboken.

He met some of the team behind Employees Only while working at an event in the bar’s home of New York City, and they told him about a rare opening at the venue. “We just clicked right away,” says Schneider. “So here I was, I’d been written about – and people didn’t write about bartenders back in 2007 – I’d had a couple recipes in a book, I’d won DC’s Fastest Bartender Contest three times, and I was a hot shit 23- going on 24-year-old kid. I bring my CV to the owners, and they take the resumé, they open it, close it right away and they go, ‘you’re a former marine; you’re disciplined. We could use a guy like you’,” Schneider grins. “They didn’t give a shit about what I did, they cared about the character, and that the other guys vouched for me.”

Employees Only Singapore

Dedication and discipline

Are there many transferable skills between the armed forces and the demands of bar work? “Dedication to team work and discipline,” he says. “And now as a bar owner, the ability to delegate and be a leader – not quite a boss, but a leader – work just as hard as the other guys in the trenches; develop a relationship with your staff so they respect you. Appreciation is another – in the military you have an appreciation for who came before you, and you’ll teach the others that come after you.” He likens it to the resurgence of cocktail culture. “That’s how [bartenders] got to where we are today. Some people honoured what came before us, learned about it, and now they’re tweaking it and passing on information to a new generation.”

Employees Only – which opened its fourth location in Hong Kong in June; the other two are in Miami and Singapore – is a prominent example of this working practice: slinging updated classics with few ingredients. “Our style is very different compared with everybody else’s, speed is definitely our forte,” says Schneider. “Drinks that have minimal ingredients, fairly straightforward.” He points to my drink– an Employees Only Gimlet, which comprises Plymouth Navy Strength gin and house-made lime cordial made from lime juice, agave syrup and kaffir lime leaf. “It’s two ingredients, it’s quick, the garnish makes sense – it’s a lime wheel, nothing out of the ordinary, you know.”

The format doesn’t end with the drinks, he adds, it’s also about “the vibe, the energy, the lighting, the bartenders who have been there forever – I’ve been at EO for nine years and I’m the fifth-most-senior guy. Twelve out of 15 bar staff have been here over five years.” Having loyal, long-serving staff can only further define and strengthen EO’s unique bar style, and has been integral to the establishment of its international outposts. Schneider was tasked with opening EO’s first overseas endeavour in Singapore: a solo mission that he personally and financially invested in.

He tells me he was there seven days a week for six months, training a team of apprentices aged between 21 and 24. “Opening EO Singapore took a few years off my life because there are certain expectations that you have to reach. In New York, when a new person comes in they’ve got an established team to train them. It was sink or swim for me, I was taking on everybody.”

Though regretful about the implication, he likens the experience to training his puppy. “After work I would get home, I’d pass out on the couch tired and maybe a little drunk, and he’d start peeing on the carpet. I have a decision to make, y’know, do I get up and stop him and take his ass outside and correct him, or do I just hope that he won’t do it again?” Schneider laughs. “Bullshit! Guess what he’s gonna do tomorrow – he’s gonna pee on the damn carpet. You have to get up no matter how tired you are and train that dog.” But the months of stress and sleepless nights paid off. He recalls the day he walked in and everything was right: “It just happened overnight; it clicked.” Since then, he’s taken a step back and seen the bar flourish, a rewarding experience.

‘Darker, sexier vibe’

Not one for sitting still, Schneider embarked on his next project, Panama-based bar The Strangers Club, along with five of his EO bartending colleagues and two local partners.

He’s excited about the venture, which came about after a group trip to a rum distillery in the country. Spread over two storeys, the bottom floor is styled on a Latin-American neighbourhood bistro with natural lighting and pastel colours, while the upstairs lounge ­– slated to open in the fourth quarter of the year – has a “darker, sexier vibe”. “A lot of people are like: ‘Is this an EO opening in Panama?’ And it’s definitely not,” he tells me. “You can expect a similar style of drink-making and similar style of service, because that’s what we know. Going into a new market, we’re unsure of exactly what people want out there. We’re fairly confident they’re looking for something a little different than the typical Mojito, Daiquiri, rum and cokes, but it’s going to be a trial-and-error thing. We’re just going to introduce ourselves, throw a bunch of things at the wall and see what sticks.”

In the interest of supporting EO New York and The Strangers Club, the group is renting a condo in Panama, with plans to rotate between Brooklyn and Panama City on a bi-monthly basis. “It’s like the Solera system!” Schneider jokes. Until 2011 he’d never left the US, but a recent trip saw Japan become his 44th country. “Bartending is about getting to know people, the drink is a beast that you ride in on,” he explains. “When I travel, I like to sit down at a place that I feel comfortable in. If I’m in Japan and a bartender has been to New York, it’s like, ‘this guy gets me’.” It might be just a conversation of three sentences, he adds, but it goes a long way to understanding people, and “the more you understand people, the better you get at this job”.

Our time is up – there is a queue at the bar – but before he leaves, I ask Schneider what is the most important lesson he has learned. “Nothing is fucked,” he says. “Keep it going, keep your head up. You can always fix things as long as the doors are still open and as long as you believe in yourself. Nothing is completely, truly, totally fucked.”

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