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Chris Cleary on the importance of brand education

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26/10/2021 Bartender at Clark Street Ale House in Chicago, Chris Cleary dives into his passion for bartending and how he works with brands to move products.

Chris Cleary stumbled into the world of bartending while working as a door person at nightclubs. Currently, a bartender at Chicago’s  Clark Street Ale House in River North, Cleary is hell-bent on giving his guests the best bar experience.

In our chat with Cleary, he shares with us his tips and tricks on how he went from serving in the Army to bartending, and how he successfully stocks his bar with the ultimate list of spirits.

Tell us a little bit about your role at your establishment.

Due to the pandemic, we run a bare-bones crew. We wear a bunch of different hats, host, serve, barback, back wait, tend bar, DJ, etc. Whatever it takes to show someone a good time, we do our best to do it.

What inspired you to get into bartending?

Bartending wasn’t the actual career plan for me. After my freshman year of college, because I wasn’t mature enough to handle it, I decided to join the Army. After completing my service, I was back in school and utilizing the G.I. Bill.

At that time, the monthly stipend vaguely covered tuition and the cost of living in Boulder, Colorado. I worked retail for a while, installing car audio components at Best Buy. Looking back, it was misery. I quit that job and decided to start papering bars and nightclubs, seeking a door person position. Once I found a job, I really became enamored with the comradery we had at that bar. Thankfully, I was promoted to daytime bartender shortly thereafter. I kept tending bar while back in school, but it wasn’t until I moved to Denver that I truly “caught the bug."

I was commuting by bus between Denver and Boulder from school to work to home. It gave me a lot of time to read texts but also I’d read the Denver Westword each week. Occasionally, they would run an Op-Ed written by Sean Kenyon. His opinions about removing the pretense and egos from the craft cocktail world struck a chord with me. As a new bartender, I often felt undereducated, inexperienced, and generally clueless about what I was doing. He’d write about how the quality of a drink wasn’t nearly as important as the ability to create a hospitable environment for a guest. The notion of choosing bartending as a career hadn’t really clicked until I read his philosophies and opinions about the biz.

In short, what inspired me to become a bartender is the convergence of several factors. Necessity, because it paid my bills for school and life. Comfort, working in bars reminded me of my military service in the sense that we all succeeded, failed, and bonded together. Lastly, albeit indirectly, guidance from Sean.

According to you, what are some of the most important skills for a bartender to have?

Patience and empathy are paramount in my opinion. People go to bars for a lot of different reasons. If you can read your guests, give them a laugh, give them an ear, people will come back time and time again.

What has been your most bizarre client request?

I’m trying to recall a singular bizarre thing. I mean, over a decade in this industry, I’ve seen or been asked for some weird stuff but it’s all kind of a blur trying to focus on just one.

Chris Cleary 

Can you share a funny story/moment from behind the bar?

I once watched a coworker accidentally light his hair on fire while attempting to pass a drink to a guest at a table.

He had to lean forward quite a bit to pass the drink. In doing so, his hair dipped into a candle on the table and whoosh! I swear it was like the fireball Xmas tree in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. He was okay, just embarrassed, and looking a little bashful for causing an ungodly smell in the small 40 seat bar. He wound up wafting burnt sage all over the room to remove the stink.

What is one spirit/ingredient that is underrated in cocktail making?

Galliano! I think it’s just absolutely lovely. But it gets overlooked or hidden on back bars. It’s got these lovely vanilla and anise notes to it that works for such a broad spectrum of cocktails. Use more Galliano people!

How can brands work with you to drive sales?

I feel that brands generally do a great job of educating the people that are on the frontlines of service. For me, it has always been helpful to engage in a trip or an event. Not only am learning more about the brand’s history, but I’m creating a memory. Those memories help me be more enthusiastic about what I’m selling, which generally drives a sale.

Can you give us an example of an ideal bar/restaurant drinks menu?

I think it depends on the type of bar you want to be. My favorite menus keep it pretty simple though. A few “cheap” beer options, a few craft beer expressions, a manicured wine selection, a few refreshing cocktails, a couple of boozy jammers, and some no booze drinks.

What are some of the things you look at when buying spirits for the bar?

Cost definitely factors in. Knowing the identity of your bar is important in choosing spirits. What is our concept? Are we a beer bar? Cocktail lounge? Nightclub? You can kind of bracket in your spirits when you know the general crowd for whatever bar concept you have and go from there.

Do you have any training programs set in place? And how do they help the team?

Currently, we don’t have established training programs but most of us seek educational resources on our own. However,  at places I’ve worked at in the past, we’ve done cocktail R&D, blind tastings, brand educational events, selected single barrel spirits, and attended distillery tours. Doing this always helped the team get on the same page about something and generally helped us create memories and stories to tell guests about them.

Chris Cleary mixing cocktails

How do you help bring in more footfall in the bar?

I’ll occasionally post to social media that I’m working or that we have a new item for people to try. The thing I like to actively do is just be a good ambassador for our place. When people come in, I do my best to make people feel welcome, cared for, and comfortable. Also, I visit other people’s places, be kind, tip egregiously, and invite them to see me some time. Lots of folks are open to new bar suggestions and ask their bartender for them versus trudging through bullshit on Yelp or Google reviews.

Does social media play a big role in your career?

I used to be much more active on social media about industry-related things. Posting photos of cocktails I made and such. So much of my life is surrounded by the industry that lately I’ve been trying to focus on posts that are non-industry-related. In fact, I’ve been annoying all the people on my follow list about my upcoming birthday! Haha.

Any tips for fellow bartenders?

Be kind, patient, and empathetic.  Learn about your products at your bar. Learn about products that are not at your bar. Read cocktail books. Try EVERYTHING. Check your ego. Be a good coworker to your work family. Dine out near work. Don’t be a Richard.

What are some drinks trends we can expect to see in the near future?

The no-proof movement is definitely trending and becoming more widely accepted. Personally, I love it. It’s nice to see better options for people that may be pregnant, on medications, or simply don’t drink.

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