Interview: bartenders Scott Baird & Josh Harris (Bon Vivants + Trick Dog)
3010 20th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
There are a lot of talented bartenders in San Francisco, but there might not be a duo that’s having more fun behind the bar than Scott Baird and Josh Harris, business partners in Bon Vivants and Trick Dog, the bar they own with Jason Henton, which is tracking towards a January 2012 debut. On July 6, we met at their second-floor office in the Mission district, where they discussed their background, their approach, their future plans and more.
How did the two of you team up, and why are you such a good fit?
Harris: We met first because I did an event with a couple other guys at 15 Romolo, and Scott had just taken over 15 Romolo before it did an aesthetic transformation. We did an event in there and we kind of hit it off a little bit and made some drinks back and forth and a few months later, New Year’s Eve, we ran into each other and he was getting ready to make the change at Romolo and he threw out there that maybe I could come and make some cocktails. So I ended up going to work there one day a week in the process of him building the bar. And I had another job at the time. We’d drive to the East Bay to get some lumber, and on the drive back, that car time we realized we had similar sensibilities about a lot of things.
Then I got a potential consulting opportunity. I picked him up at the airport and it seemed really exciting to me. Consulting was something that I’d never done before, and I was confident I could do it, but it was definitely my initial foray into that world. I picked him up and I was like, “I have this opportunity. I can do it by myself, and maybe make some more money now, but we could do it together, start a company, and make more money in the future. Without even thinking twice, he’s like, “I’m in.” We did that project and we named the company, and I think within two months, we got hired to do Quince, and then we flew to D.C. and did a project. It was really, really exciting for us, and still, none of these experiences do I take for granted. Still, when you get something like that, somebody calls, it’s like, yeah. [slaps his hands]. That’s so cool.
What’s the goal with Bon Vivants?
Baird: To be on vacation at some point and drink pina coladas on the beach.
Harris: One of the strengths of what we’re doing thus far is being able to be nimble as far as the types of projects we take on. We’ve got to do some things, and are working on a lot of things now, that are potentially very exciting to us, outside of the realm of people who just say that they have a cocktail consulting company. At the very beginning of this…essentially we’ve been trying to come up with our elevator pitch for two years, and we haven’t been able to do it. Cocktail consulting company doesn’t do it because looking down the road five years, to where the company could end up, five years, ten years, we didn’t want to limit ourselves by putting that label on it. I feel like we have a bunch of different irons in the fire in a number of different arenas, aside from just us going into a restaurant and helping out, and that’s exciting for us. We also have the brick and mortar side to what we’re doing, and I think Scott and I are both really excited about wanting to do that in other places as well.
Now with Alex Straus, you’re going to be able to work on the Los Angeles market?
Baird: We’re definitely going to try and unify California. It’s been split down the middle, especially in this business, for a long time. We’ve got Alex down there, on the ground hustling, while we’re hustling up here. We’re doing a party down there, we can do the same party up here, an hour flight away. It’s just sort of a continuity thing, keeping California moving in the same direction. You don’t do exactly the same party for L.A. as you do for San Francisco because San Francisco isn’t necessarily as much fun as L.A. But L.A., you don’t give them the same drinks as San Francisco because they don’t give a shit. It’s kind of a thing, but being nimble, as Josh said, being able to balance that, being able to work both, the brands are getting what they need, and the people are getting what they need, and the state is becoming more fluid and together is always a win, win, win for everybody.
What was the moment where each of you knew you’d work with cocktails and spirits for a living.
Baird (to Harris): Go for it man.
Harris: I remember having a conversation with my dad and my dad’s always been really supportive of what I do, but I was kind of on a more academically inclined path, and my dad’s a lawyer, and that’s kind of what I was going to do, and I remember kind of moving along and getting to this point. We started this company, and we just started to gain a little bit of steam, and I remember standing in my dad’s backyard with him and having this conversation. This is definitively the moment when I’m telling you that this is no longer what I’m doing, but this is what I do. And he was cool, and he was really supportive of it. It was really liberating. I really love what I do. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else.
Was there an epiphany moment for you?
Baird: I always wanted to be close to the kitchen. I’m a cook. It just happened. The bar thing happened. I love people. And I love the interaction. I love the hosting, the conversations, and the ability to change someone’s evening. That’s one of my favorite things about the job. And I love the food component. The bartending is one foot in each world, because you’re able to talk, and you’re able to control the creation of flavors and put together experiences for people a la minute. I had a conversation with a guy who taught me how to bartend. He’s a French guy, and he’s older than me, and he’s owned places in France. Now he’s here. He said, “You’re probably not going to get rich doing this, but you’re going to have a very rich life. People get born, people get married, people get divorced, people are going to die, people are going to come in and have their first dates. There’s going to be all kinds of experiences in between, and you’ll be a fixture in their lives in your place.” That’s probably one of the driving things for me.
What’s his name?
Baird: Olivier Said. I worked for him at Cesar in Berkeley.
Considering your connection to the kitchen, how will that translate at Trick Dog?
Baird: It will translate. Our cocktails are fairly culinary technique minded. We like to make things from scratch. We like to make things that you can’t buy. If you can think of it, then you can make it, is the way that I feel about it.
Harris: Also, our whole design of cocktails from the ground up was always with that lens on. When we’re thinking of cocktails, assume it’s not spirit forward. We go into another territory with it. We use, like, the pickled plum juice from this pickling liquid we made. It always goes there. It’s exciting. I definitely fed off that with you. (to Baird) A lot of our bonding in the beginning of our relationship was me having an idea for something and not knowing how to do it and me going to him, and he’s like, “This is super easy. Let’s do it.”
What’s an example of a cocktail you made recently and what was your inspiration for it?
Baird: That’s a tough question for us.
Harris: The last one that I came up with, that I was excited about, I called the Green Thumb. It was an ounce and a half of white Neisson rum, half ounce of Fino sherry, half ounce of Cocchi Americano, and a half ounce of green chartreuse with a homemade grapefruit bitters…I think it’s like a grapefruit coriander bitters, which is pretty subtle. The whole concept came about because a customer came up who likes to get adventurous with me, and he was like, I haven’t been drinking for awhile, and I want you to do something simple with rum. In that moment I realized that 99% of the time that somebody asks for a rum cocktail, you grab an aged rum. It’s one of those things that happens, and I particularly don’t like rum agricole, so I knew this guy likes to get weird with me, so I grabbed this bottle of unaged white agricole. There was a garden system in New York – we were just there – called the Green Thumb Gardens. I was thinking about wanting to make this Green Thumb cocktail, so I was thinking about bright, earthy, grassy, funky rum. The cocchi and the chartreuse, and the chartreuse is kind of that tinge of green. The fino sherry was the balance between the cocchi and the chartreuse, and it actually came out really well. I was excited about it. So that was the Green Thumb.
Would you say that Olivier’s a mentor for you?
Baird: No. I was lucky. I had a lot of people to learn from. He taught me components, and he taught me how to move fast, and he taught me how to talk to guests. I’d never seen anyone work a room as well as him – well, I’ve seen a few people – but he’s good at it. He taught me it’s not just about the drink. It’s a much bigger thing when making a cocktail. There’s a performance to be had here, there’s a mentality. You put on your game face when you get to work. It’s not just making drinks. If you think it’s just making drinks, you’re in the wrong job.
Do you feel like you were always well suited to that performance aspect?
Baird: Yes. You have to be. You’re going to succeed in this business and you’re going to excel, you can’t just be a drink dork. No offense to the drink dorks out there, but if you’re just putting your head down, and you’re not talking to guests, and you’re not being open and warm and including them into your world or making them feel at home – especially if they’re by themselves – I’m not sure why you’re bartending. You might be better suited to be a cook. Just get on the line and be creative back there and not talk to anybody, and that’s fine.
What was your very first night like behind the bar?
Baird: Fun. It’s always fun. I was 21 years old. That was a long time ago.
What was the bar?
Baird: It’s the only time I’ve been fired, actually. The Albatross in Berkeley, California.
Harris: I was fired from my first bar job too.
Baird: Yeah, the only time I’ve been fired in my life. You can’t give 21 year old guys too much power behind the bar. It’s never a good idea. They’re going to abuse it. Or girls. 21 years are never ready for the power to have keys to close bars. It’s never smart.
What was your first night behind the bar like?