One Marine’s Rise at a Legendary New York Bar

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Steve Schneider: Employees Only’s not-so-secret weapon.

Ten years ago, sipping an Old Fashioned in a beguiling speakeasy was still an uncommon ritual.

So when Employees Only, a well-hidden restaurant and bar churning out exquisite steak tartare and classic-inspired cocktails, opened in New York’s West Village, the curious instantly fell for what lay beyond the entrance’s mysterious curtain.

The brainchild of barmen Dushan Zaric, Jason Kosmas, Igor Hadzismajlovic, Henry LaFargue and Billy Gilroy, Employees Only has thrived through the decade, dispensing camaraderie, well-made quaffs and 4 AM bowls of chicken soup.

The beauty of Employees Only | Mezcal shoots to kill in the Ready Fire Aim.

Leading the cast of colorful drink slingers these days is principal bartender Steve Schneider. Young and ambitious, Schneider is often glimpsed wielding his signature custom-made hammer. (Yes, it successfully pulverizes ice, but he’s quick to point out it doubles as a symbol of strength).

Schneider was also one of the stars of Doug Tirola’s 2013 documentary, Hey Bartender. In the film, viewers learn of Schneider’s gripping past: A promising U.S. Marine, his career was tragically cut short when, in the midst of training, an accident landed him in a coma. A future in the military was over, but after joining the Employees Only team in 2008, a career in the bar biz was just beginning.

On Becoming a Bartender: “I was severely depressed and on eight different types of medication when I came out of the hospital,” recalls Schneider, who, while stationed in Washington, D.C., made drinks at a Georgetown dive bar to alleviate his fast-accruing debt. Amid all the pouring of “disco shots,” he discovered “it was the only thing that got me away from my pain.” Soon, the New Jersey native’s high-volume skills had him winning charity bartending competitions, and a chance encounter with a wine writer garnered him a coveted slot whipping up cocktails at an event alongside bar celebrities like Tony Abou-Ganim, Julie Reiner and Jim Meehan.

Take heed, drinkers.

On Being a Company Man at Employees Only: As soon as Schneider scoped out Employees Only and saw the bartenders working in sync amid a sea of “ten different bitters on the bar,” he decided he would work there. When Hadzismajlovic scanned Schneider’s resume, he took note of Schneider’s years as a Marine. That impressive discipline earned Schneider a spot at the bar, where he started on the lowest rung, working his way up to his current position. “I gave it all I had, and still do,” says Schneider.

Biggest Change in Employees Only Guest Drinking Habits: “When I first started we cut a shitload of lemon wedges because guests were ordering a ton of vodka and sodas,” admits Schneider. “Now it’s lemon wheels we are mostly cutting, because our guests want to drink more complex cocktails.”

Steve Schneider is a man with a cocktail-making plan. 

The Poison: Employees Only bartenders pride themselves on the art of the free pour. Jigger-less libations range from the easy-drinking Amelia (Aylesbury Duck Vodka; St-Germain elderflower liqueur; blackberries; fresh lemon juice) to the can’t-take-it-off-the-menu Billionaire Cocktail (Baker’s Bourbon; fresh lemon juice; EO Grenadine; absinthe bitters) to Schneider’s own smoky Ready Fire Aim (see recipe).

The Magic of Hospitality: “You need to stay fresh, and the way we do that is by feeling out what the crowd is into and molding our style to them,” Schneider explains. “A bar can last a long time if everyone working wants to be there. We can’t make everyone happy but when we open the doors today we always say,  ‘Let’s try our best.’ From 6 PM to 4 AM the next day, I’m a different man, holding the keys to my favorite bar in the world.”

Alia Akkam is a New York-based writer and managing editor of Hospitality Design.

(Photos courtesy Paul Wagtouicz)

Recipes: Ready Fire Aim
Locations: New York
Series & Type: PeopleRaising the Bar
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