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Moe Aljaff on building his Schmuck empire

After years wandering the globe, bartender Moe Aljaff finally settled down in Barcelona and opened ‘five-star dive bar’ Two Schmucks. Now his empire is growing, as Kate Malczewski discovers.

Moe Aljaff
Moe Aljaff, owner of hospitality group Schmuck or Die

Moe Aljaff opened Two Schmucks in 2017, transforming a run‐down taco joint into a self‐proclaimed ‘five‐star dive bar’ making some of Barcelona’s best cocktails. In the past year, that single space in Carrer de Joaquín Costa in the vibrant El Raval district has blossomed into something of a local empire: in June, Aljaff launched Fat Schmuck, a restaurant serving comfort food and laidback drinks. In October, late‐night party bar Lucky Schmuck joined the fold.

The two new venues sit in the same street as the original. They share its brash, fun five‐star dive bar spirit and, of course, the Schmuck name – a brand Aljaff and former business partner AJ White originally created as a reflection of themselves. “If you’re meant to go to work tomorrow, and you start work at 8am, and you’re here at the bar, and you get absolutely drunk and just don’t go to work the next day, then you’re a schmuck,” Aljaff explains. “We were looking for something where we could be 100% who we are. The schmuck spoke to us the most.”

Red light district

Aljaff’s path to the schmuck lifestyle began at 18, when he traded Sweden, where he grew up, for the gritty red light district of Amsterdam. His first job in the hospitality industry was handing out flyers for venues, then he took on a gig as a bouncer – “I’ve always been tall and very, very big,” he says.

After that, he worked as a barback at a high‐volume bar, all while embracing the rowdy atmosphere of the neighbourhood. “You had a lot of dive bars, a lot of underground music venues and so on,” he says. “It was chaotic and hectic, and I was drawn very much to that kind of atmosphere.”

He spent a year in India, then moved to Thailand, slinging beers and shots in dive bars along the way. “I’ve always travelled on a whim,” Aljaff says. “It’s always been like, ‘Alright, cool. Let’s go to the next place’. I don’t know anyone there, I don’t know the language. Fuck it, we’ll figure it out.”

Eventually his nomadic adventures led him back to Europe, this time to a café in Oslo, Norway. He was planning to save up for future travels abroad, but that changed when the café owner asked Aljaff to join the opening team of a new venture – the now‐renowned bar Himkok.

Working at Himkok was a turning point for Aljaff. Though he had been tending bar for five years, he says he never once made a cocktail during that time. “I learned everything about cocktails at Himkok. All the way up until working there, I had no idea such a thing as a bar industry existed.”

Fat Schmuck bar
Living large: Fat Schmuck

Aljaff became “mesmerised” by the trade, so it was no surprise that he threw himself into the first big cocktail competition that came around: Bacardí Legacy. “I was like, ‘Yeah, hell yeah, I want to do this’,” he remembers.

He ended up taking third place in the global contest, and says he particularly excelled in the marketing aspect of the competition, in which bartenders are given a budget to promote their signature drink. That was another pivotal moment: “It was the first time someone gave me a chunk of money and said, ‘Go and do your own ideas’. And that kind of unlocked something in my head where I was like, I never want to do anyone else’s ideas now. I just want to do my own shit. I never want to do anything other than be my own boss.”

Motivated by this vision of independence, Aljaff moved to Barcelona less than a month after his Legacy success. He made the trip with White, whom he met in Oslo, and the pair hatched a plan for a series of bar‐takeover pop‐ups in cities around the world – a project they called Two Schmucks.

“The advice I got was to create a brand where you just wake up, and you’re your own brand,” he says. “I created Two Schmucks, and when I wake up, I’m just that schmuck, you know.”

To secure sponsors for the pop‐up tour, Aljaff and White cheekily told spirits companies they had a bricks‐and‐mortar bar in the works. “We didn’t; we had nothing,” he says. But by the end of their travels, they decided that claiming four walls of their own was the next step.

They renovated the space where the Two Schmucks bar now stands on a tiny budget and with a DIY ethos, and the idea of the five‐star dive bar was born. “We told ourselves that there might be water dripping from the ceiling, and the floor might be uneven, and the electricity might go out a couple of times a day, but there’s two things that we can control: the service and the cocktails.”

Plenty has changed in the Schmuck world since the bar’s doors first creaked open, including significant refurbishments to the space in 2019. However, the biggest developments came out of the turbulence of the pandemic.

In March of last year, Aljaff and White arrived in New York City for a pop‐up tour titled ‘Schmuck 2020’, a parody of the US presidential election. They were set to travel the US in an RV, taking over an all‐star line‐up of bars along the way, but the tour was cancelled when the country went into lockdown a few days into the trip. The pair ended up staying in the US for two months, and Aljaff had a lot of time to think about the future. “The options for most hospitality businesses were pretty clear,” he says. “It was either you’re all in, or you fold.”

Two Schmucks bar
Seeing double: Two Schmucks
Hospitality group

While White left the business last year, there’s no doubt which option Aljaff chose. In December 2020, he opened Fat Schmuck as a pop‐up terrace; by summer 2021, it had evolved into a full‐on restaurant. A few months later, he completed the trifecta with Lucky Schmuck, which features karaoke, beer, Champagne and shots. His staff of six has grown into a team of 35 and counting; he has plans for a range of clothing; and his hospitality group officially has a name: Schmuck or Die.

Meanwhile, Aljaff’s original hole‐in‐the‐wall drinking den in Carrer de Joaquín Costa – a patchwork of his high‐end cocktail credentials and nomadic dive bar past – has taken on a new life, too. Last autumn, Aljaff handed over the reins of Two Schmucks to Pom Modeste and Juliette Larrouy, who recently launched their first cocktail menu at the bar.

His role may be shifting, but Aljaff is committed to keeping the Schmuck brand strong as it evolves. “When we gave up Two Schmucks to Pom and Juliette, it was like, you guys are the two schmucks now. You guys are the ones who are setting the tone, the music, the artwork,” he says. “I think that’s what it’s all about. To give it out, but then to work closely with them to explain the vision.”

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