For the fifth and final installment in my Spirited Pride series of conversations with talented LGBTQ champs in the craft cocktail world, I spoke with someone who has to be on the hardest working men in show business, Alex Day of Proprietors LLC. I'll let Alex explain for himself what this powerhouse team does.
JR: How are you doing?
AD: Doing good, little busy these days.
JR: You, or everyone now?
AD: Maybe for everyone, let's go there
JR: I think there generally is an air of over-busy-ness in culture right now.
Tell me what you're workin on and why you're so busy
AD: Well, our companies kind of interesting in that it does a lot of different things. The overarching thing is overseeing the properties we own and operate, and in Los Angeles that's Honeycut, The Normandie Club, The Walker Inn, and in New York there’s Death & Co. and Nitecap [Ed. note--Nitecap is about to open at its new location at 151 Rivington].
A good part of my day is taken up with trying to assist our management teams on anything they are working on – head bartenders working on new menus, integrating new technologies into their work, coordination on design stuff for equipment or new menus, trying to wrangle our operation into some semblance of order, PR conversations, all that kind of stuff. All the mechanisms to get a business to run, and to keep it on track.
And then we have a number of consulting projects, some more well known than others. For instance we're working with Chef Alain Ducasse on Skyfall and RIVEA in Las Vegas and we've collaborating with them for a little over a year, and that's been amazing and a very visual collaboration.
And a new project that's just opened on the top of the US Bank Tower Building, 71 Above, where my colleague Devon Tarby is training the staff right now, opening any day now.
Then we have other projects that aren’t very well known, mostly me designing bars for people, so doing a lot if infrastructure designs, laying out the equipment, and essentially trying to get more bars our there that are designed by a bartender and not a kitchen consultant who has no idea what a bar is these days.
JR: Wow, that is a lot.
AD: Oh! And we're writing another book-so there's that too
JR: Another Death & Co book?
AD: It is not..it's a more generalized book, it's with the same publisher...that's about all I can say about it right now.
JR: So what kind of advice or counsel would you be giving to a younger version of yourself, or someone looking to get into the industry in a big way.
AD: I think it's important to note that there's a certain amount of ADHD both in myself and my business partners, which goes a long ways in explaining why we do a lot of what we do
The biggest challenge over the past many years has been trying to navigate our desire to do more with being able to fulfil our obligations. We’ve committed to a ton and are responsible to a lot of people. It’s hard to keep up and we do to varying degrees of success.
So it has certainly been a very big struggle, trying to balance being present for our existing properties while pursuing some of these new opportunities, and that's the thing, there are always new opportunities, and we're in the incredibly privileged position where we have new opportunities come our way. If I were answering this question five years ago I would be saying we were doing a terrible job, constantly scraping after obligations and trying to react as opposed to being proactive to challenges that arise.
I would say within the past year we've found some ways of dividing some of the responsibilities within our organization and empowering people on the local venue level to make decisions because we trust them, and because we're hiring better than we ever did in the past. Or at least that’s our ambition. More work in progress.
And then on more of a personal level, we had to define what balance was for each of us. It was a big step for me to say a couple years ago that while I love being on a plane going off to some exotic place on a project there is a big part of me that crave some personal stability and really stating that for myself and for my business partners really allowed a chance to step back and say, this is what I can do, and this is what I'm willing to do for my profession, and I'm not going to sacrifice my health or happiness for anything. Dipping into my mid-thirties and having that sort of wisdom moment was more important me for anything else.
It's great to be ambitious, but that life/work balance is even more important. I think there's thing that are specific to this industry that are tricky in terms of that balance One of them is the outward appearance of business, like this conversation you and I are having, or Facebook. And the difference between that and actually being good at what you do. And I struggle with that myself
So, there's something to be said for having an inner conversation and saying, what am I truly capable of, and what am I telling people I'm capable of, cause those are two very different things.
JR: And in this landscape with social media and the explosion of press around bars and bartenders, and top whatever lists, and this perception of fabulousness and endless accolades....And every night you're “killing it”...it's this experiential hyperbole that leaves out the nuts and bolts and knife and fork work of running a bar and hospitality-that doesn't exist in social media
AD: No, it doesn't...and it's fictitious as well, there's absolutely a perception that people who are at the top of the game now are out every night enjoying it all, and are really involved in the nitty gritty social side of the community that, if you were out like that every night, it seems to me that would leave you pretty wiped out the next day…and every day that follows. I don’t know how you catch up or do good work like that. There's little discussion of the fact that you have to be up at a reasonable time --in my case, because we're on the West coast most of the time, I have to make sure things are going alright in the East Coast, 7 or 8 am. There's definitely a fissure between the perception of what it takes to be at the top of your game in cocktails and the realities of making it work.
I stepped back from being present in the evenings at our bars, and having an extreme amount of guilt for not being there in the bar, because that's what I'm supposed to be—but then stepping back and saying, you know what? Me working ten hours? That is often good enough, perfectly acceptable. And I need to find a way to communicate that with the people I work with and say, these are the times I'm going to be there, and try and stick to it. And if something comes up and I need to be there, absolutely, let's do that, but I need to find a way to make sure I get to bed at a reasonable time and get a reasonable amount of sleep. Otherwise you're going to burn out. And I see it all the time.
The people I know who are really successful-and by really successful I mean all around, not just in their accomplishments but in life-these people have so much structure in their lives it's insane. These people who are killing it professionally only, who are doing really well but have a chaotic personal life—I worry about them burning out, you know, the spark going towards the stick of dynamite and it terrifies me. It's one of the reasons I moved away from New York, to be honest, because I was worried I couldn't control that for myself. LA has provided a greater sense of balance, even it was just to hit a reset switch on my priorities.
JR: Well, it's funny to compare the late night temptations of New York City versus Los Angeles but as far as being in the cocktail world, there's clearly a bigger late night scene here. If you're in the bartending crowd here in NYC, it's always a party at 1 in the morning (and beyond) at some great bar with a great bunch of people and it's hard to make a different choice when the current is running in that direction.
AD: The industry in New York City is phenomenal. You can go so many great places and find great inspiration for this thing that we all love which is cocktails and hospitality and food-and you can seek inspiration on every corner and that is intoxicating. And that sort of opportunity was really challenging to me when I was younger and balancing that with finding opportunities for growth. Because I would find myself working a lot, grabbing a drink after my shift, and by one drink I mean probably more than one drink, and waking up at an hour that I wasn't particularly happy with, and not being terribly productive, and then that's a cycle. I was very worried that cycle would become my life, and it’s just not for me.
JR: There's a Virginia Woolf line where she says something like, you can't write the day after a party because your values change. And I think after a night of serious high grade revelery your values tend not to be focused on actionable tasks that further your bigger goals and dreams.
AD: I think Kingsley Amis would have something to say about that!
JR: Cause he finds hangovers productive?! If that—we can all find hangovers productive from time to time, but on a regular basis not so much. You know how it goes-you work so hard, then you go out for this massive lap of socializing and unwinding and then half that hangover, to me, is a social hangover. It's exciting, but you're depleted, and when you have a lot of brass tacks work to do the next morning it can be hard to slip back into that mode
AD: Yes, and even if you're not in an executive position—if you're young and just getting into it, or not even young, but just getting into this industry—if you see this whirlwind of nightly events and think that you're required, that you have to go to every cocktail comp and go out to all these bars and keep pace with a certain level of both socializing and drinking—you feel that’s your only entree into it—and I think that's bullshit. And I certainly felt that pressure and struggled with it TK and I don't think that's a responsible thing to put out there, telling people you have to do X, Y & Z in order to be successful in this industry because, frankly, there are no real rules in this industry, that’s what makes it so exciting to be a part of. If you want to find your own way and be successful, you can....And the reason I harp on this stuff so much is because I think it's dangerous to feel obliged to take another person’s path. It stifles creativity and vibrancy. It puts you in a pattern that may not be healthy. The industry being so young in this big, international, way, we’re just starting to see some of the repercussions of unhealthy behaviour and it scares me.
JR: We're in the middle of the seething Danger Zone of abuse and reckless social behavior as well—self abuse. There's a lot of occupational hazards in this business.
AD: It's not just drinking it's not just lack of sleep, the thing that makes a lot of people successful is their work ethic. That work ethic can drive you into the ground in this industry, in a way that other industries have built in mechanisms to protect against. Again, we have no rules, which is both exciting and dangerous.
We’ve had so many times when key members of our teams (and ourselves, too) have burned out. It’s those 12 hour plus days stacked on top of each other and you find yourself at the end of the week exhausted—and then you go out. So then there's a vicious cycle that happens with a certain character trait of a person--which is a good trait, it's being driven to work hard, do good work, and make people happy—and how that can then combine on itself to become a negative--to where you feel compelled to continue entertaining your peers and colleagues even at the end of a marathon week
JR: I mean, I've completely experienced this across the aisle, so to speak. I'll be at a drinks event or bar launch, and then you wind up on a 3 bar tour, and you have this sense that it's compulsory—and while I'd never say it's not fun, you definitely have to answer to yourself the next day when you're trying to get work done...But that It's kind of a communal delusion. I gotta keep going, I gotta be on the team. And I don't feel that way anymore.
AD: I worry about how hard it is to have that conversation with people who don't feel that way—it is very normal in this industry for people to stay out very late, and for you to say otherwise, suddenly—I don't think it's a malicious thing—it's not this way for me in LA, I've tried made it very clear, I go home and see my partner, we make dinner as often as we can, and I'm in bed as early as I fucking can be. Probably because I’m getting old. But in New York, for me there's a very different expectation, and that is, that, oh, just one more bar, it doesn't really matter—and it's like this fervent need. And unless someone's hit the wall and is like, ooh, I don't want this for myself anymore, then it's really hard to explain to them why you don't want that anymore. Nor can you really explain to someone who doesn't have the weight of responsibility on their shoulders that requires them to be up and sober the next day—why you need to go home. And that's another tricky thing in our industry, we're taught to be hospitable and accommodating, and even with each other we find ourselves coddling dangerous behavior with that same instincts that makes someone a great hospitality professional.
JR: If you're wanting to go for it, go for it, by all means. But for me the tricky part comes in when you wind up “going for it” when you can't really afford the repercussions the next day. Another writer and I were recently talking about constantly being at this series of cocktail and spirit events and the challenges at maintaining what I like to call “hull integrity”. He shared a recent decision, which surprised me, which was, more or less, to not drink when he didn't feel like it. And I was surprised because first of all I'm happy to have a drink much of the time—but then I realized I do that all the time! When I've got to go to a party and am not in the mood and then have those requisite couple of drinks to get in the swing of things... and I think that's dangerous, for me. So my takeaway was, if you're not in the mood for a drink right then, don't drink it! Suffer the slight social discomfort of being someplace you may not really be wanting to be sober. You'll live. And taste whatever you need to taste, but that's it! Not exactly a groundbreaking revelation for most, but it was kind of a big deal for me. Because I am at these events all. The. Time.
AD: Which all says a couple different ways this can happen. We often give guidance to those we’re training and mentoring —say you're going to a Negroni Week event, it is a professional setting, act accordingly, represent yourself and think of all the future opportunities you may want to pursue—your behavior is important at the event. And look at some of the industry pros—look at Dale DeGroff as he navigates an industry event—it is magical, he has complete control. Or, for that matter, Jacob Briars. I was in London last year at the Bar Brawl competition—and he kept coming back to our station and saying, can I get the non-alcoholic one, and I realized he was barely drinking throughout the whole thing. Effortlessly.
JR: Yes, I've been with him in similar situations—and he's the most fun guy at the party.
AD: he's so good, he's a genius. But he maintained his presence and involvement, that he was still involved, he was still involved, and I was like, oh, you can do that...because MY natural instinct is to prohibit myself from these events and environments to just eliminate that temptation—but somebody like Jacob illustrates that you don't have to go for it at these events. He’s an example of someone who has seemingly found the balance between the social requirements of the industry and the pressure of a huge job.
JR: That's just such a good pro tip—get a non alcoholic something and have it in your hand, then nobody even thinks about it, you don't have to be self conscious about not drinking..it's a great tip and I wish I'd figured that one out ten years ago.
AD: But let's not pretend drinking isn't fun! And there are plenty of circumstances where it's great.
JR: We're definitely agreed on that. You going to Tales?
AD: Yup, I'm gearing up now!
JR: But it's nice to be there Sunday afternoon at Bachannale [where flocks of bartenders descend on this ramshackle outdoor wine bar and tear through staggering quantities of rose in a mass collective exhalation after the rigors of the week)
JR: You guys up for any Spirited Awards?
AD: We're not. We were on the long list for a couple of things but we didn't make it to the final rounds.
JR: Ah, who cares anyway, right?
AD: I honestly don't care for the most part. I love what it does for a staff culture to be nominated and to win, as a business owner I love what it does in terms of bringing people through the door. My ego feels real nice when our team gets recognized for something we’re proud of. But it's not part of our company ethos to focus on winning awards. I’d rather live my live focusing on something else: doing good work.