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One of the notable trends I’ve witnessed with regards to food service since sheltering in place has been how the beverage industry is being affected. Wine shops, distilleries, and restaurants with a liquor license that didn’t anticipate the high demand were swiftly updating their online sales presence. Cocktails to-go are now a standard at many establishments.
However, with the decline of patrons sitting indoors on a barstool, the need for additional bartenders also decreased. It left me wondering about this segment of front-of-the-house staff who possess a unique skill set – one that typically multi-tasks between cocktail provider, server, busser, cashier, and even psychologist.
The Orange County Bartenders Cabinet, founded in 2009 as a collective of hospitality professionals, convene on a regular basis to network, educate, and share ideas in a collaborative setting. Its name is a riff on The Farmer’s Cabinet newspaper, which published the first reference to a cocktail in 1803. Through interactive discussions on quality spirits, techniques, and trends, OCBC empowers members to incorporate what they’ve learned into their routine to not only express themselves creatively, but enhance the overall guest experience.
Additionally, they’ve built a community of peers to confront emotional well-being and mental health issues that can occur within the industry. Schedules that run late into the evening and constantly being on ones feet are a couple of the concerns that can take their toll on a bartender’s quality of life. The cabinet provides a family of support to address those needs that otherwise go unaddressed.
Since March, they’ve adjusted by conducting distance learning. A blend of virtual tastings, guest interviews, and social Zoom calls have kept members in touch during this unprecedented time. In the future, they plan to expand membership and events to include individuals not necessarily employed in the industry, but still passionate about spirits.
I reached out to OCBC’s membership to learn how the pandemic is affecting them personally and professionally. Three of their board members responded to my inquiry, with points-of-view that offered insight on the current situation: Greg Bayer, the bar manager of Haven Craft Kitchen + Bar in Old Towne Orange; Felicia Chavez, a bartender at Gracias Madre in Newport Beach, and she’s a certified sommelier and certified Specialist of Spirits; and Sam Holeman is general manager for Surf City Still Works in Huntington Beach.
What have been your thoughts about the situation we’re in?
Greg Bayer: “During this COVID-19 period of ‘stay at home orders’ and crazy economic times, (it) has really created a great deal of stress and uncertainty of the unknown. The most important thing is to stay positive and stay safe. With my wife and I expecting our first child, staying positive and using best practices to stay safe have been a focus of my daily routine during this period.”
“Prior to the first shutdown with the panic buying, I witnessed grown adults fighting over meat in grocery stores and I had a regular (patron) cry at my bar top because she had no food at home and the restaurants were on the verge of shutting down. When you face the unknown, it’s important to be a good member of our community. Sometimes it’s the small things that make the difference at the end of the day.”
Sam Holeman: “The situation that we are in right now is crazy. It’s unfortunate seeing what this pandemic has done to the world, especially the hospitality industry. One positive that has come from this is that I’ve seen first-hand how tight-knit the restaurant industry is in Orange County. All the free food that Heritage Barbecue, OLEA, Social Costa Mesa, and many others gave out, and the free beer and spirits that Brewery X and Surf City Still Works gave out have been greatly appreciated. It’s been really awesome to see.”
Do you continue to craft cocktails during COVID?
Felicia Chavez: “I’ve been really into refreshing, lower ABV (Alcohol by Volume) cocktails at home. I’m obsessed with vermouth and using it as a base for spritzes!”
Bayer: “I’ve been able to continue my craft during this COVID period. With some of the extra time, I’ve taken the opportunity to read/revisit cocktail books that influenced my bartending such as The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morgenthaler and resume studying for my Certified Spirits Specialist from the Society of Wine Educators. On the practical application side of things, I’ve been playing around with some different cocktail techniques and just trying to keep that side of my skill set sharp.”
Have you pivoted from your previous employment?
Chavez: “Yes. I’m kind of a reverse story, I guess. I’ve pivoted back to the bar! I’m happy to be working for Gracias Madre now. Great (bar) program– it’s an agave paradise! I was working for a distributor for the last few years and was laid off in April.”
Holeman: “I did pivot from bartending. For three months I went over to Surf City Still Works, a local distillery in Huntington Beach. We made hand sanitizer to give away for free to the public, as well as sell in bulk to companies and people that needed it. It was a great experience being able to provide our community with much needed sanitizer. Then I took over as GM for the restaurant, bar, and bottle shop that will be opening soon after life can go back to normal.”
Aside from the monetary aspect, what do you miss most about working behind the rail?
Holeman: “I definitely miss the friendships the most. Both with staff and guests. We all work so much that we have become a family. I miss the laughs and smiles that were shared every day, and now cherish the memories that were made even more. I can’t wait to get behind the bar again and have fun.”
Bayer: “So many things that I miss about working the rail of my bar top, but the thing I miss the most is interacting with whiskey lovers and sharing my passion for a well-crafted whiskey.”
Have you done anything for your well-being as a result of COVID?
Chavez: “I’ve gotten outside! In the downtime, I took a socially-distant road trip with my best friend. Nothing was open, so we had no choice but to appreciate the scenery. I really connected with nature – it was breathtaking, and helped with mental well-being for sure.”
Holeman: “For my well-being, I have done everything I can to stay active. I’ve been going to the beach and have started playing basketball. Even just walking around the neighborhood to get out of the house. Also, I went back to college and am about to finish my Bachelor’s Degree in History from Cal State Fullerton.”
How do you think this will affect the future of this industry?
Holeman: “I think that right now it’s affected it negatively, but that positive can come from this. It’s been unfortunate that so many restaurants have had to close, and will continue to close. But I’m hoping this means rent on buildings will be cheaper, which will lead to the startup cost of restaurants/bars being less. This will give young, intuitive chefs and bartenders a chance to start a business and share their unique vision. It could be a great opportunity for chef-driven restaurants to come into the scene and really change the Orange County dining culture.”
Bayer: “On the technology front I’ve benefited from handheld POS (point of sale) units, touchless payment options, automated online ordering, and an increase in social media to communicate with our guests. Also, Zoom has been a large part of our bar community, continuing to socialize and educate during a period where real life meetups have become impossible.”
The serving of an amuse at the beginning of a meal is a restaurant’s way of previewing what’s to come. A single bite to represent their culinary viewpoint. Below are “bites” of topics currently on my radar.
Cocktails by Ings, and Other Side Hustles
Inga Tantisalidchai has tended bar throughout Orange County, and is currently part of the team at OLEA in Newport Beach. However, the lack of bar patrons equated to fewer shifts scheduled. She made up her mind early into quarantine to continue being productive: “I have really pushed myself to focus more attention on branding myself and the cocktails I create. Aside from utilizing social media, I branched out to consulting on special events and creating cocktail party favors for guests to take home and enjoy.”
She is currently a brand ambassador for Papas Pilar rum, generating content and original recipes incorporating the spirit. One of her recipes, Newport Sunsets, will be featured in a Dine Newport Beach article. In a few months, her project with Empress gin and DRNXMYTH (a company specializing in fresh bottled craft cocktails) will be available for pre-order. And when she’s not managing projects, you can find her a couple of nights a week at OLEA serving her monthly Cocktail Journal special. These include a card explaining the inspiration behind the cocktail. To say she’s keeping busy is an understatement. Find her online at Instagram account Cocktails by Ings.
Seoultown Supper x Gunwhale Ales Perfect Pairing
Cooking at home has taught me that I had a fondness (and most of the ingredients) for one certain cuisine. When I eventually become too busy to cook nightly, OC meal prep service Seoultown Supper will be in my back pocket. Founded by Chef Debbie Lee, it’s a weekly delivery featuring comforting Asian fare, with a focus on Korean eats.
A finalist on The Next Food Network Star, Lee was previously diagnosed with Type II Diabetes. Her founding meal service Mind Body Fork launched in 2013 to offer conscious cooking incorporating local ingredients. Seoultown was created to provide her part-time kitchen staff additional hours during COVID. I tried a selection of dishes recently, and found myself getting second helpings of salmon bibimbap (a rice and veggie bowl), shrimp and scallion pancakes, and KBBQ chicken.
Sweetening this Seoultown deal, they’ve collaborated with Costa Mesa craft brewery Gunwhale Ales. Having a tall glass of water with pork belly fried rice doesn’t always cut it, so now you can also order their Surfbird golden ale or Across the Stars pilsner to wash down supper. I’m admittedly partial to Gunwhale’s raspberry thyme gose, Whistlebang. If you’re looking for a break from turning up the heat in your kitchen, plan ahead and support local with this duo. Note: dessert is on your own.
Laguna Playhouse Wine Club Wants to Keep Audiences Hydrated
While theatregoers wait for performances to include audiences again, one venue has found a way to help patrons pass the time. McClain Cellars and Laguna Playhouse worked on a duo of wines for the theatre’s 100th anniversary. Ghost Light Chardonnay is a named after the light that is placed on stage and left on throughout the night to banish evil spirits. Nuanced French Oak is balanced by green apple and pear in this refreshing vino. For fans of red, Curtain Call Cabernet Sauvignon is ripe with fruit and ideal for both dessert and carnivorous meals.
Shout Out to Poppy Street Popup
Thanks to a trivia contest (and someone who made me aware of this social media account), I became the lucky recipient of a special pizza. Run by Nicole and Ryan Wilson, Poppy Street Popup is a modest online market of sweets, pizzas, and one salad based in Corona del Mar. If this is sounding vaguely familiar, then you are probably familiar with the Wilson’s connection to Five Crowns. The original chef at SideDoor, Ryan was actually one of my earlier interview subjects. Utilizing their home garden and the extra time currently at home, Nicole is the pizzaiolo who crafted the squash blossom, prosciutto, and burrata meal.
A plum galette and chocolate walnut chewy rounded out lunch. While this is strictly a take-out kitchen as of this writing, I could easily see this delicious concept populating the patio and garden area of Five Crowns. My pizza’s combination of tastes won me over as much as the slightly blistered crust. I’ll definitely be back for more. FYI: The parking lot for Five Crowns is also a designated pickup location for Harvest Boxes by The Ecology Center. These weekly selections of organic produce are available as a one-time order or ongoing subscription (with the option of every other week). Consider them a sound alternative to in-person and online grocery shopping.
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.