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Courtesy Polite Provisions
Known throughout the international drinks scene, Erick Castro has helped elevate San Diego’s cocktail pedigree as a partner at Polite Provisions—our 2014 Bar of the Year. So what does it take to run one of the country’s top cocktail spots? Castro sheds some light on the experience, in his own words.
Opening my own bar has always been a dream of mine. I was in San Diego a few years back for a visit with Beefeater gin during Cinco de Mayo when Arsalun Tafazoli, co-founder of CH Projects (Noble Experiment, Craft & Commerce), reached out to discuss a partnership opportunity. I grew up nearby and lived in San Diego for years, so the partnership with CH Projects was like a match made in heaven.
At the time I had been working as a brand ambassador for more than two years. I was getting a little restless and ready for something new. As with anything in life, if you’re going to start something of your own, you have to really believe in it, and I can honestly say that everything Polite Provisions stands for was a culmination of my own passion and research. Traveling the world as a brand ambassador afforded me the opportunity to see and experience all of these incredible bars. I studied everything I could and took notes on what I liked and what I didn’t. From lighting fixtures and design details to bartender mechanics and techniques, I had a binder packed full of notes. So when Arsalun approached me in San Diego, I was primed and ready. Combined with CH Projects’ hospitality experience and eye for design, over the next six months we really made things happen.
As stressful as an opening is, I loved every second of it, but there was definitely a great amount of responsibility and, thus, opportunity involved as an owner. When you open a bar for someone else, you don’t have to deal with the meetings, lawyers and so on. Your role is to hire, train and implement a program. Mind you, that’s very grueling work, but it’s not as front-to-back as from an ownership perspective. The initial process of opening Polite Provisions was definitely a wake-up call as to how much work would be involved, but the kick in the ass is all positive because you realize that you have more control and are able to set the tone for the bar, which is harder to do from strictly a management perspective.
One of the most important aspects of launching a good bar is creating a family of employees where everyone is on the same page. Because of that, I put a significant amount of attention on the hiring, recruitment and retaining process. I wanted to make sure that everyone behind our bar subscribed to a common cocktail philosophy. I was less focused on pulling big-name “bar stars” and more interested in getting people who were passionate about hospitality.
Take Frankie [McGrath], for instance. He’s been bartending for eight months. A good story about him actually: I was moving into my place in San Diego. It was in the middle of August, and the city was hit with a monster heat wave. The moving company sent Frankie and his buddy to help us unload. His friend was totally beat from the 100-degree heat, but Frankie was chipper, smiling and maintained a great attitude the entire time. I thought to myself, “I wouldn’t mind hiring this kid; I bet he’d make a good barback.” So I did. He worked his way up, and now he’s on the latest cover of Imbibe!
I wasn’t overly concerned with hiring individuals who came from bartending pedigree. Much like Frankie, Amy [Laird], Matt [Wiliams] and Elliot [Mizuki] all started working with me with no bartending experience, and now they’re rockstars behind the bar in part due to their work ethic and personalities. I’m incredibly proud of them.
I believe the strength and secret behind Polite Provisions is bigger than me and bigger than the bar—it’s our staff. My philosophy is that if you hire someone with good energy and a positive outlook on life, you can teach then to make drinks and educate them on the history and culture of cocktails. They can learn all of that, but you can’t teach someone how to have a good work ethic. If your upbringing failed to instill that in you, there’s no way I can ingrain that mentality through 60 hours of training.
It also helps if the bar is built right. We logged in countless hours ensuring Polite Provisions to be one of the most efficient bars you could work behind as a bartender. Because I was involved in building the wells from the ground up, it’s designed with pure bartending mechanics. The amount of cocktails we can crank out on a busy night is pretty unbelievable. The bar is designed to make you fast, so you’re not having to work against it. Our bartenders move laterally from top to bottom, which makes them much more efficient and extremely quick. Their motions are very intuitive. That combined with their skill and talent is what allows us to serve the volume we do.
I’ll end with a bit of advice for my bartending compadres who are looking to open their own bar. Get into management. It’s one of those things most of us don’t want to do, especially bartenders who make the fast cash every night. As a bar manager, you’ll take a small hit to your income, but I like to think of it as an arrow—you pull it back only to shoot yourself forward. Bar ownership is essentially management at a higher level. Get good at interviewing people. Learn how to hire, and at the same time learn how to let go of lazy employees. Learn how to drum up business on slow nights. Learn Excel and master menu design. The beauty of management is that you are learning on someone else’s dime. While you don’t pay the cost, all the lessons you learn are yours to keep and use in the future. So make it successful and make it profitable. That way when you decide to open your own bar, you don’t have to make all of those silly mistakes. Instead, you can come in and hit the ground running.