To the uninitiated, the bar business seems like a fairly straightforward proposition: Make drinks, sell drinks and bank a ton of cash. In reality, it’s far from a simple business. There are many moving parts, and potential profits can slip through the cracks in a heartbeat. Few people have a better grasp of what it takes to be successful operating a nightclub, bar, tavern, neighborhood pub or cocktail lounge than Willy Shine.
A veteran bartender and beverage manager with nearly two decades of hands-on experience, Shine has forgotten more about the bar business than most of us can ever hope to know. The co-owner of Contemporary Cocktails Inc., a full-service beverage consultancy based in New York City, Shine has been mentored by industry gurus Steve Olsen and Dale DeGroff. Shine and business partner Aisha Sharpe rank among the most highly sought after consultants in the trade.
“The most influential piece of advice we received was from Steve Olsen,” Shine says. “He looked us directly in the eyes and cautioned us to never compromise our integrity. I think that one moment forged the backbone of everything that we’ve done since. Any measure of success we’ve enjoyed in this business to this point we can attribute to that one admonition.”
For beverage operators who find themselves overwhelmed just maintaining day-to-day business, no less dedicating the time necessary to refine their drink offerings, better train their staffs and lift their businesses to the next level, Contemporary Cocktails is the one-stop solution. Shine and Sharpe are genuinely gifted mixologists who were trained by the best in the business. Their cocktails have been showcased at venues such as the Royalton Hotel, 1534, The Breslin in the Ace Hotel and Goldbar in New York City; Living Room at the W Hotel in Miami; Beso in Los Angeles; The Pearl in Nantucket Island, Mass.; and Tao Beach at The Venetian in Las Vegas.
Shine and Sharpe bring more to the table than just their drink-making prowess. “We do everything from developing an operational timeline and professional beverage business plan to facilitating the roll-out of a new business concept. We also recruit, hire and train bar staff and implement a beverage program and inventory-control system designed to prevent loss and maximize profitability. It’s like we join your management team and institute overlapping best practices.”
Shine started in the business in the early ’90s as a bar back in Boston. After two years in architecture school, finances compelled him to drop out and begin bartending full-time, which he did for nearly nine years. In 1999, Shine left Boston for Nantucket Island.
“I arrived with a bit of an enlarged ego as I had made quite a name for myself in Boston,” Shine says. “I definitely thought I was the cat’s ass. As it turned out, it’s a small island, and it was really rough finding a bartending gig. I ultimately swallowed my pride and took a job as a server at a local pub. Eventually, I landed bartending jobs at The Boarding House and The Pearl. They were a balance of beautiful design, incredible food, great bars and a lot of fun.”
Shine left Nantucket Island in 2003 and moved to New York City to develop the beverage program at The Biltmore Room in Upper Chelsea. After several years, he helped open BED, a two-story, 8,000-square-foot venue (now closed) with industry icons Dale DeGroff and Dirk van Stockum. It was there he also began working with Aisha Sharpe and Steve Olsen.
Although Contemporary Cocktails Inc. has grown into a full-time endeavor for both partners, Shine keeps his skills honed by bartending on Friday nights at a small cocktail bar called 1534 on Prince Street in the Nolita (North of Little Italy) neighborhood of New York City.
Working as a consultant brought with it a new learning curve.
“The biggest thing we had to learn is to interpret what clients want when they don’t even know themselves,” Shine says. “Or when they don’t know how to describe it. Or when they do describe it and we need to read between the lines to give them what they think they are describing. It’s a very interesting process. The worst part is when a client hires us for our expertise and doesn’t want to hear what we have to say about what needs to be done.”
According to Shine, one of the downsides of being a beverage consultant is that when he goes out socially he finds himself watching the bartenders and their drink-making techniques. He accepts it as an occupational hazard.
“The biggest mistakes I see inexperienced bartenders make has to do with the process of making a cocktail,” he says. “They need to begin preparing a drink by using the least expensive ingredients first, then the modifiers and spirits. The last item added is the ice. This will prevent the ice from over-diluting the cocktail. By starting with the least expensive ingredients first, if you make a mistake you can start over without wasting the premium ingredients and losing money.”
Shine insists all of the bartenders he works with complete the BarSmarts online bartender-education program and Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR) classes. He contends the difference between being a good bartender and a great one is huge: “A great bartender is capable of creating a genuinely amazing experience for every guest that walks up to his or her bar. When it comes right down to it, that’s what separates the ordinary from the extraordinary.”
What’s on the horizon for Willy Shine? “I’ve always wanted to develop a business that encompasses both my love of architecture and bartending. That said, I intend to grow our company to the point where we’re designing, building and operating bars, restaurants and lounges nationwide. I see us partnering with a large hospitality company and being their beverage arm from start to finish.”
Fortunes have turned on less. So if you’re in need of professional beverage-management advice, Willy Shine is but a phone call away.