The Hawaii Food and Wine Festival offered bartending titan Julie Reiner an opportunity to come full circle. She grew up on Oahu before getting in a bartending groove, first in San Francisco and later in New York. Reiner opened Flatiron Lounge in 2003, added Clover Club to Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, in 2008 and debuted island-inspired Lani Kai in SoHo to end 2010. We spoke after she taught alongside fellow bartender Francesco LaFranconi at the festival’s farm to glass mixology class.
What was your very first night like behind a bar?
I think it was in college, at a place called The Pub. It was a beer and shot kind of place.
Where did you go to school?
I went to Florida State University.
What did you major in while you were there?
General communications: PR, marketing, advertising, that sort of stuff.
I imagine that still helps.
Oh yeah, it’s come in handy. That’s for sure.
Do you have a first cocktail memory, good or bad?
Growing up here, I used to drink vodka and Slice on the beach. I don’t know if that was a cocktail, really.
You mentioned mangoes and vodka earlier.
I had this huge mango tree in my backyard. My mom would make mango margaritas for she and her friends. I’d pass them out on a tray. I wasn’t old enough to actually drink, but I was a part of the ceremony. I got that whole thing. I helped her to garnish them and pass them out. It definitely gave me a basis for tropical flavors and fresh ingredients from a young age.
At what point did you know you’d work in bars for a living?
I started out cocktail waitressing here in Hawaii when I was 18. I went to college and bartended in college, and I waitressed. Then I moved to San Francisco and I got a real job in marketing, and I hated it. I had been in the service industry since I was 18 years old. I think I was 25 or so at that point, and I was just bored to tears. I really loved how everything is different every single day in the restaurant/bar world. You never know who’s going to come in, what sort of interaction you’re going to have, what sort of drinks you’re going to make. It’s just exciting and different. I sort of left that job and went back to bartending and cocktail waitressing.
At which place?
In San Francisco, it was a place called the Red Room and Asia SF, which was an Asian drag queen bar, and I was the only born female to ever work there. They still call me Mama when I go back in there.
Then I moved to New York and was still bartending, but then I started managing a lounge, where I started getting recognition for the drinks I was doing. At that point, I was sort like, huh, this is definitely a career path.
That was at Flatiron?
No, Flatiron was my place that I opened. It was a place called C3, and it’s now called North Square. It’s a tiny little bar in the West Village that I started managing and putting out seasonal menus. That was where I first started getting written about.
What’s the biggest challenge to operating more than one bar?
There are a lot of them. Staffing and training are always a challenge. Things breaking all the time. It’s always different. Management and getting good people who are passionate about what they’re doing and what the vision is and who execute your vision, because you’re only as good as your front lines. You’re only as good as the people that work for you. I can’t do it all by myself, so I have to get people and train them and that they care. That’s probably the biggest challenge.
What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work behind one of your bars?