Employees Only’s Igor Hadzismajlovic on How to Expand Your Bar

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(image: Emilie Baltz)

In pricey, cutthroat New York City, bars and restaurants often have an extremely short lifespan, turning over in a matter of months. (They say you’ve made it when you last five years.) But for those few proprietors who perfect the formula, long-term success can pay off exponentially. Such is the case of cocktail icon Employees Only, which this year celebrated its 12th anniversary of traditions: creating excellent cocktails, fostering talent through a rigorous apprenticeship program and serving soul-warming chicken soup after last call.

But what’s the next step for a group of five extraordinarily creative bartenders who’ve been soaking in their success (and tons of booze) for the past twelve years? Rapid expansion seems to be the answer: The crew has just opened an outpost in Singapore, with Miami slated for this winter and Austin in 2017. Heading up the Asia effort is Sarajevo-born bartender Igor Hadzismajlovic, one of the five founders of the original EO. Opened just a few months ago, the Singapore location is already breaking sales records week over week. We chatted with Hadzismajlovic about how they chose Singapore as their first foray beyond NYC and how they’ve translated their brand to win over a totally new audience.


EO Gimlet at Employees Only

Congratulations on the opening of Employees Only Singapore! What made you feel like Singapore was the next destination for such an iconic New York institution?

Thank you! Logistically, there are two primary reasons: It’s an English-speaking country and known to be nurturing to foreign businesses. Personally, it’s also very diverse, which I love. Like New York, you have people here from all over the world, so that element makes it feel like home to me.

I also haven’t seen a cocktail scene grow as quickly as it has in the last few years here, so you could say the market was ripe. This year, we saw bars like Operation Dagger, 28 HongKong Street and Manhattan in top positions on the World’s 50 Best Bars list, which says a lot considering how small the city is. The scene has attracted top bar talent from all over the world, as well a devoted audience that is discerning, loves to drink and is increasingly seeking more sophisticated bar experiences (and willing to pay for them).


Employees Only Singapore

In just a few months, you’re already breaking sales record week over week. To what do you attribute the success?

There has been a lot of buzz pre-opening here within the industry as well as with the general public. Bringing a 13-year-old concept from New York simply brings a natural caché, as well as high expectations. I would not go as far as calling it a success yet, to be honest. Everybody is hot the first year; it’s your second and third years that clearly indicate your place in the market.

How much would you say you changed the original Employees Only program for an audience in Singapore? What local flavor, if any, did you incorporate into the Singapore menu?

We definitely took advantage of the local ingredients that are so readily available here: kaffir lime leaf that we use in our EO Gimlet, coconut milk, etc. A lot of our kitchen staff is Southeast Asian, so the EO staff meal on our late-night menu is often a local dish, like our Wagyu Ramly Burger [a Malaysian style burger wrapped into a delicate egg omelet that has a cult following].


Last-call chicken soup at Employees Only

I noticed that you still serve the last-call chicken soup. What elements are core to the Employees Only brand—things that will never change?

We have incorporated the same apprenticeship program from New York, and it has translated beautifully. Two of our young barbacks (one just turned 21!) just received their white apprentice jackets in the last few months, and we couldn’t be prouder of them.

The bedrock of EO is really our style of service—that’s something that will never change. We can be warm and have fun with our guests while still executing perfect service. Pretense is something you’ll never find at EO.


Employees Only New York

What trends or advancements in liquor or bartending are you noticing in Singapore that are not happening in NYC?

I’m pretty astounded by how detailed, creative and original the local garnish game is here. Other than that, it’s a given here that every cocktail bar, even the low-key ones, have a serious “ice program.” Both are admittedly a challenge for us to keep up with.

Have you hired any local Singaporean bartenders? Any up-and-coming talent from the city we should know about?

All of our hires are local bartenders that started off as EO apprentices when we opened. We have been truly blessed since we only had one drop off from our original team. That’s remarkable even in the States, but here it’s kind of unheard of here in Singapore. It’s a country with a 1 percent unemployment rate, and people change jobs like socks.


Employees Only Manhattan

If I had to single out a single apprentice on our team, it would be Abdul Aziz. He’s not the most obvious choice to be honest; he’s not the fastest bartender, multitasking does not come naturally to him, and he can easily get flustered. Yet he is the only one who has not called out of work once in the past six months and is always the one asking for more shifts. I have a special kind of admiration for guys like him.

What was the biggest challenge of opening in a foreign country, especially one with such a different culture?

I was lucky enough to partner up with my first bar mentor, Josh Schwartz, who spent last six years running various nightlife venues in Singapore. He has cut his teeth thoroughly with the local F&B scene, so thanks to him everything was logistically a breeze. Our biggest challenge was actually cultural. For those who have never been here, Singapore is a very civil, polite and soft-spoken society. We had to make a conscious effort to lose some of that New York City hardness and edge that inevitably stays with you after New York has been your home for so long. Let’s just say I don’t use the F-word nearly as much as I used to.


Employees Only’s Ginger Smash

What was the easiest or most enjoyable part?

All of our hires are basically in their early 20s. It gives me a lot of warm, fuzzy feelings watching them grow before our very eyes and seeing them being proud of something we created almost 15 years ago on the other side of the world.

Before the opening, there was a cry in the bartending community that some of your hiring materials for female cocktail servers contained misogynistic and sexist overtones. Members of the EO team have already addressed this at length, but for you personally, what do you think was the learning lesson here?

Always let your publicist do the talking. Secondly, be receptive and respectful to feedback. We had already hired a female bartender at the time, but the controversy only reinforced our decision.


Employees Only’s Old(er) Fashioned

With Employees Only Miami and Austin set to open shortly, how is the EO team divvying up the responsibilities?

My partner from New York, Billy Gilroy, is overseeing the Miami venture while I focus on Asia. Jay Kosmas, our Austin-based partner, will spearhead our efforts there.

What advice would you give to an already-successful bar, maybe in New York City, looking to expand abroad?

Be open-minded and humble. Even if you’re going into a new market with a brand name, don’t assume that the name recognition will bring you success. Approach any opening with the frame of mind that no one knows who you are and has no reason to give a shit about you, and build your guests’ trust from there.


Employees Only’s Billionaire

Will you continue to expand after that?

I’m looking at other markets in Asia but currently focused on making Singapore as successful as possible.

What’s your favorite drink on the menu?

The EO Gimlet by far—house kaffir lime cordial, navy-strength gin, large cube. Boom!

Series & Type: Bartenders OnlyBar Talk
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