Houston native Yael Vengroff is a vaunted bartender who started at notable Manhattan cocktail bars Tailor, Painkiller and Pegu Club before relocating to L.A. She’s currently the bar director at sister establishments The Spare Room and Genghis Cohen and developed “skyballs” for Seattle’s rooftop Mountaineering Club. In 2018, Tales of The Cocktail Spirited Awards named her American Bartender of the Year.
COVID-19 has decimated bars. During the pandemic, Vengroff has been working with Overproof on their CompanyToast initiative, which lets businesses treat employees working from home to virtual cocktail-making classes from top bartenders. Experiences include cocktail kit deliveries. Proceeds benefit bartenders, many of whom have been unemployed during the crisis.
I recently traded emails with Vengroff, who had some interesting insights into her formative years as a bartender and what her craft may look like moving forward.
Josh Lurie: What initially drew you to bartending, and what were your first impressions? Also, where did you first bartend?
Yael Vengroff: I was drawn to bartending by the power, the authority. I began as a cocktail waitress at a neighborhood sports bar in the East Village called Common Ground. When I was younger, I had no idea what future Yael wanted to do (and still don’t, might I add), but I knew that I wanted to do “something great.” In my mind, that was so synonymous with knowledge and power, and the bartenders at Common Ground had both. After about a month of cocktailing trivia nights and Friday happy hours, my intention was set. I was going to become a bartender.
JL: What advice would you give an aspiring bartender, given the COVID-19 crisis and unprecedented uncertainty?
YV: Do everything you possibly can right now that is the opposite of what we do. It is far too easy to get sucked in and blended amongst the homogenized tendencies of our industry and our community. Remember to feed what makes you, you. And if you don’t know what that is, you better be using this time to find out. No pressure though! Don’t put too much pressure on yourselves. Learn to balance the drive forward with the need to recover and regenerate. There exists an equilibrium for all of us.
JL: What aspects do you miss most about bartending?
YV: Our team. They’d probably tell you that they are stoked that I get to take a break right now, but I’m not sure they understand how integral their beings and futures and talents and strengths and weaknesses are to me and to our establishments. I miss the problems and the issues as much as I miss the successes. Our clientele is too transient for me to miss them, but I do miss taking care of people; I miss being needed. Oh, and I miss our DJ’s a lot. 😉
JL: In your Overproof quote, you say, “The pandemic is challenging every aspect of our occupation as bartenders. The new world will look radically different from the old one, so we must pivot.” What are some realistic pivots you can make at The Spare Room and Genghis Cohen in particular that seem sustainable? How do you envision bartender-customer interactions moving forward, barring a COVID-19 vaccine?
YV: I’m no expert, nor am I the proprietor of either of these establishments. My bosses, Marc Rose & Med Abrous are leaning towards the more conservative side of things in terms of reopening in order to consider every possible facet of what the “new normal” looks like for our guests. My boss Marc said the other day, “It’s not only about making sure our guests are safe, it’s also about making sure they are comfortable.” In doing so, we have spoken largely about moving to service formats that are more interactive for the customers. This makes a lot of sense for our venues considering we are naturally built on group play and experiential environments. What does this mean? We will most likely be moving towards solely reservations-based service in the beginning where we can take an order for a group “package” to be prepared in advance (yet still fresh of course) of your arrival so that it can be presented sealed and sanitized and simultaneously allowing us to use less staff during service. In an ideal world, we would love to bring an entire team back, but it just does not make sense initially for us unfortunately if we are to keep our team and our guest safety in mind. Additionally, no idea is too “out there” at the moment, so I would urge everyone to pursue any form of out-of-the-box thinking. We don’t often get to take that route, but it’s so obvious that we must go down that path right now!
JL: What types of bars would you say are best positioned to survive and possibly thrive? What are some key design or operational elements that may give bars better odds for success?
YV: Bars with any kind of outdoor square footage/seating I think will be very successful right now. Your neighborhood establishments with a no frills attitude and pricing will do well right now. Bars that drive to serve the community and the neighborhood (not necessarily the bar community), I do hope will be supported and succeed right now.
JL: What are your favorite aspects of CompanyToast as a platform for bartenders during the crisis?
YV: I think that it’s wonderful for bartenders to develop performative skills for themselves and their trade outside of social media. Your social media audience is cheating. The strangers that you present CompanyToasts to, that is an opportunity to hone your own social abilities, educate, engage, and make a difference.