When Erika Mullett of Brooklyn’s on Boulder Street tells people she’s a tasting room manager, they’re not sure it’s a real job.
“It’s really funny — most people are like, ‘What is that? Is that even a thing?’ They think I just sit around and taste things all day,” she said. “That would be fantastic.”
Mullett joined Brooklyn’s, the speakeasy-themed tasting room for craft gin distillery Lee Spirits, early last year after working at The Blue Star and The Principal’s Office.
She talked with the Business Journal about what she really does at Brooklyn’s, what makes a great bartender, and what we should know when we’re on the other side of the bar.
What do you do?
I run Brooklyn’s — I set up events, I handle all of our private parties, I put together our classes, I train the staff on hospitality and cocktail service, I do payroll, I do the order to keep us up, I do the decor in Brooklyn’s. I love all of that, but probably my favourite thing is the creative menu side. [Bartender] Nate [Windham] and I do that together; I’m involved in creating all the cocktails and putting together the menu. Our menu is really interactive and I think that’s super fun, because you’re not always going to get a chance to talk to the bartenders… So we try to create the menu as if you’re having that experience of being right next to the bartender. We have that little graph that asks your personality and how you’re feeling right now, whether you’re feeling playful or adventurous, or playing it safe, and then you can pick a cocktail that gauges you. We have another chart in there that tells you all the flavored gins we have and then which direction you should take it in, and then a chart that shows all our staff at Brooklyn’s, who loves which cocktail the most.
Is changing the menu an ongoing process?
Since I started in early 2016, we’ve changed the menu at least six times, and I’ve never worked in a bar where we changed the menu that frequently. It’s partly [because] we work with one product — that’s gin — and incredible as that is, it could also get redundant. Nate and I tend to get bored with our cocktails — we make it, it’s great, and then we’re like, ‘Oh, we’ll make something else.’ We want people to come in and try our gin as many different ways as we can possibly think of — to be able to go home and recreate it, and to be inspired. A lot of people think that Brooklyn’s on Boulder is a bar, and we’re not a bar, we’re a tasting room. It is a little confusing, but our whole principle of Brooklyn’s is to be a playground for Lee Spirits gin.
How did you start out as a bartender?
I’ve been in the restaurant world for 12 years and bartending for four. I started at the Blue Star training with Nate. I served with Eric Harry [Nicol] at Blue Star and he was in the process of opening The Principal’s Office and I said, ‘That sounds like an amazing idea — if you need any help let me know.’ He actually thought I was serious, so he took me up on that. I was his wingman, and we opened The Principal’s Office together.
How did you come to the Springs?
My favorite line — I followed a boy. Will and I graduated from culinary school with bachelors degrees in culinary arts… We were moving out of our place, so we had some friends in Divide, Colo., and we rented a house up there. When we first got out there we were going to take a year to take it easy, and then get back into our careers pretty hard. For him it lasted one month, then he got a job at The Blue Star and worked six days a week. For me it probably lasted three months… then [I got a] job working at a jail as the kitchen manager, cooking for inmates. I worked at the jail in Divide for nine months. That took the whole ‘I’m cooking for pleasure, I’m cooking for elegance in food’ — like I’d traveled to France and England, I went to Gordon Ramsay’s Michelin star restaurant where they tipped the toilet paper and all of that fanciness — to working at a jail where now, all of a sudden, instead of eating for pleasure, we’re feeding them for substance. It was a complete switch over of my love for food. Now I’m feeding these guys because I have this 17-cent-a-day budget, and they just need this amount of calories and this amount of fat.
Seventeen cents for the day? How do you do that?
Buy everything in bulk. When we moved out here I didn’t have a driver’s license because you don’t need one in Philly — you can go your whole life and get anywhere without it. Moving out here, the drive to the Springs was quite a haul. Even though Will was doing it, I took a job that was close to our house, something I could easily get to. Yeah, it was depressing.
Did you take anything useful away from the experience?
Absolutely — I took a lot from it. I still to this day will think about that. One of the things I realized was I’m pretty naive as a person, and a people-pleaser. So working at a jail and having inmates as your employees, you have to separate yourself really hard from that. And the biggest thing I learned was not to judge people, because they all have a story. Every one of those inmates was in there for a reason, but it’s not my place to judge them. …For me that was the hardest thing. I had to take a step back and realise we all have lives we’ve come from and we make decisions based on what was presented to us. I keep that today, in bartending, because people will come in and if they’re having a rough day and they’re like, ‘This martini sucks’ — which has never been said — and what I teach my bartenders today is that nothing is personal. Create this bubble, wrap it around yourself when you go into service; anything that happens, it repels off. We are here to make people’s life better, we’re not here to take it personally and be like, ‘Oh man, that person was mean to me, now I’m in a bad mood.’ No. It’s not about you. Figure out why he’s in a bad mood and try to help him, and if you can’t, then that’s not your goal this evening. Your goal is to facilitate a service, and that’s it.
What qualities make a great bartender?
For me, it’s being empathetic and caring about people genuinely. It’s very easy to go through the motions of being a bartender, being a server — you do your job, serve what you need to serve, collect your tips and go home. I think a lot of people get into it and that’s it… But if you go into service and you remember people’s names, and you remember what cocktails they like, and you remember what trips they’ve taken, all of a sudden you’ve created not just: ‘I’m coming to a bar to get a drink.’ What I try to create is, for people to not be able to have a drink without thinking of me. If they’re somewhere else I want them to be like, ‘Man, this would be a little bit better if Erika was here.’ That’s a little bit narcissistic; I’m aware of that, but that’s my goal. I want people always to want to be with me drinking a drink and having me serve them.
What should people know, from the other side of the bar?
If you ever get a drink, be honest if you don’t like it… I recently had someone who was struggling through it and I called her out on it and she was like, ‘Oh, no it’s fine, I want it,’ and I said, ‘No listen, tell me and I’ll adjust it or get you something completely different.’ We all have our palates… Eighty percent of taste is the olfactory — you might not be able to taste something that we put in there to complement the cocktail, or it might be made different to the bartender who made it before. Our goal is to make people happy, and we can only make you happy if you’re honest about what you like and what you need.
What do you do in your spare time?
I work out a lot, I snowboard, I love reading and I hang out with my boyfriend. And then my main thing I do, which is probably a little embarrassing, is I hang out with my cats. My cats are the best. They allow me to remember to take a step down and relax, and that it’s ok to sit in a chair and do nothing if there’s a cat on your lap. If there’s no cat on your lap, you have to get up and do something.