Business Beatdown: Giving Yourself a Fighting Chance

Camden Cocktail Lounge Las Vegas
The Camden inside the Palms Casino Resort. Image: Anthony Mair

Eric Hobbie, who earned the title of Nightclub & Bar Bartender of the Month back in February of 2017, doesn’t call himself a mixologist. He’s a bartender who has given himself the label “intoxicologist,” a nod to his mischievous nature and understanding of showmanship behind the bar. His résumé includes several world-class venues, including Sam Ross’ The Dorsey, Giada Las Vegas, Carnevino and Charlie Trotter’s.

Hobbie’s current gig is truly impressive. He’s the property mixologist at the newly renovated Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. On top of that, he put his stamp all over the cocktail program at Camden Cocktail Lounge, the resort’s new cocktail bar. The space formerly occupied by the legendary ghostbar is has been taken over by the stunning Apex Social Club, and Hobbie’s notable fingerprints are all over that menu as well.

Some bar and nightclub owners and managers reading this may wonder how they can relate to the operations inside a famous casino. After all, the Palms has undergone a half-billion-dollar-plus renovation. It’s a valid question.

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While the budgets of casinos, hotels and resorts may be much larger than the budget of the average operator, the nuts and bolts are still similar. A hotel bar still has to nail their concept, buildout, hiring, marketing, promotions, cocktail and food programs, and costs. Because so many are ultimately operated by huge hospitality groups, they have many aspects of operations down to a science.

Read this: How to Pull Off an Incredible Grand Opening

Hobbie had a front-row seat for a massive renovation and rebranding. After all, he designed the cocktail program for the entire property. The opportunity he was given was due in no small part to the Palms’ commitment to hiring the best candidates.

“The Palms put forth a great effort in gathering some of the best talent in the business to create and implement a new approach to drinking, dining and socializing,” says Hobbie. “The Palms grabbed some of the tops dogs in Vegas to be a part of the makeover.”

It’s imperative that owners, operators and managers connect with their community. That’s a given. But it isn’t just important because support from the community means loyal guests and steady revenue. Connecting with the community and being recognized as a positive presence within it leads to access to top employee talent. The hospitality industry labor talks—they know who the best bosses are.

“When hiring I look for two things,” Hobbie says. “One, being passion, which I think is the biggest quality to look for. Next would be personality, which comes in a close second when looking for bartenders. Knowledge can be taught behind the stick—personality and passion has to come from within.”

Read this: Stop Whining About Hiring

The Camden isn’t just another cocktail bar. Anyone who has worked with Hobbie or watched him work knows he’s always seeking to take things in new different at higher and higher levels. He respects the classics, of course—a bartender isn’t a bartender until they’ve mastered the basics and hospitality. But he has earned the right to experiment.

A higher level of service and cocktail building requires a higher level of skill behind the bar. Hobbie had zero intention of dumbing down his menu. The program is what sets it apart from other bars in the area, and it’s what required careful planning in terms of training.

“What sets us apart from the rest is certain techniques and show aspects,” explains Hobbie. “We use liquid nitrogen to muddle fresh herbs. What this does is freeze the essential oils and chlorophyll in a state where when applied in our cocktails, it provides a freshness unmatched to any other fresh herbed cocktail on the market.”

When a bar goes to great lengths to differentiate itself from the competition through advanced techniques and a flair for top-level entertainment, team training needs to start long before doors are opened for the first time. The Camden was no exception.

“We began training months in advance. We needed everybody to feel comfortable applying these new techniques behind the bar,” says Hobbie. “We started training with [a] basic knowledge of classic cocktails and spirits, but quickly got into the program we were going to be implementing. We are very proud of the product we put forth every night. We will always be at the cutting edge of the next level, whatever that might be, whether it’s using a new ingredient or a new technique.”

A massive part of the success of any cocktail program—basic or bleeding edge—is how it’s executed by the bartenders. And while that certainly comes down to training (training Hobbie believes should come months before a new venue opens or a new program is launched), Hobbie believes there’s another element to its success or failure: ownership.

“[The advice] I would give to independent operators when trying to implement craft cocktail programs and training a team on it would be to make the team own the program and give them a voice every step of the way. I told my team for our seasonal rollout I want them all to sit with me collectively, to bounce ideas off one another,” advises Hobbie. “No one person is stronger than a team. You have to build family behind the bar. We did a great job hiring.”

There’s a theme emerging from Hobbie’s advice, experience and knowledge: hire the right people. Successful operators focus on hiring the best possible candidates and cutting the dead weight or cancerous employees. They’re also real leaders, nurturing their employees’ careers in this industry. Not only does that approach to leadership and management slow or stop turnover, it makes recruiting top talent simpler.

Read this: Stop the Turnover Bleeding

When it comes to implementing any program—whether it’s launching with a grand opening, it’s seasonal or it’s a refresh for an existing establishment—it’s advisable to avoid using gimmicks for gimmick’s sake. Today’s guest wants to be entertained but they also want their experience to be authentic.

“The cocktail program at Camden is approachable with over the top presentation. From our glassware to our garnishes, we put everything in place for a reason. There are some smoke and mirrors, but it has purpose and all ties in to the cocktail itself,” says Hobbie of the Camden. “Apex has a smaller cocktail menu but still brings a flair most cocktail bars lack. Using fresh and popular ingredients on the market, we are able to put forth a product in a high-volume setting that most cannot achieve in a lower-level setting. The view at Apex is also unmatched in Vegas.”

As many operators, bartenders and mixologists have discovered, guests will eagerly try most new drinks or food if familiar elements are present. Take some guests too far out of their comfort zone and they’ll shut down. They’ll either fall back to their “usual,” safe order or decide the program isn’t for them. That’s the last thing any operator needs because that guest isn’t likely to return.

Of course, as any operator knows, the best-laid plans created by even the best in this business can go haywire. This business doesn’t suffer fools or reward missteps. A fantastic candidate can become toxic. A “can’t-lose” promotion can lose. A winning concept can fail to resonate with the community. Hobbie has been there.

“You can plan ‘til you're blue in face. Speedbumps are inevitable. You have to run with punches and adapt quickly, says Hobbie. “Every venue is different—nothing is a perfect science in this industry. It’s how you deal with the situations that arise, that’s what makes or breaks you. It’s not how hard you can hit, it’s how you handle being hit and keep fighting back.”

The operators who last hire well, train their way to an empire, and make their guests feel comfortable and welcome. And when the inevitable sucker punch from this industry comes, they shake it off and start swinging.