Do Vancouver Bartenders Have Commitment Issues?

A profession that used to be about setting down roots now sees its best and brightest wandering like insatiable nomads.

September 22, 2015

By Neal McLennan / Photo: Rob Dobi

David Wolowidnyk’s workday starts around 9:30 a.m., when he enters his bar, records his arrival time, and sits down to write out a detailed list of what he intends to accomplish that day. The routine varies slightly from day to day, but it can generally be encapsulated by imagining Wolowidnyk gazing at his spiritual domain and wondering, “How do we make today better than yesterday?”

Around 3 p.m., he’ll take 15 minutes for a quick staff meal, then change into his uniform—black pants and a crisply laundered dress shirt—and by 4:30 the doors are open and he’s ready for service. For the next five hours (or more, if it’s busy), he’ll work without a break. If it’s a slow night, he may duck out after the last reservation has ordered its first round of drinks, which might get him home by 9:30. If it’s busy, more like midnight. And then he wakes up the next day and repeats. He’s exercised this rigour for the past decade-plus for one company: the city’s Toptable Group, owner of West (where he spent 10 years) and CinCin (to which he transferred last year), among others.

In years past, tenures like Wolowidnyk’s were the norm for elite bartenders. The legendary Harry Craddock spent almost two decades at London’s Savoy. Colin Peter Field, the head barman at the Ritz in Paris, has been there since 1994.

But in Vancouver, it’s tough to think of a barkeep other than Wolowidnyk who’s a fixture anymore. Among the top dogs, he is the exception.

The norm looks more like Jay Jones. With his succession of high-profile positions and ever-present moustache, he may be the most recognizable bartender in town. His skills at preparing a drink and making every customer feel special have garnered him accolades from around the globe. But in the 19 years since he picked up his first shaker (at Cactus Club in Richmond), he’s held down jobs in no fewer than 11 bars—12 if you count two separate stints for the Donnelly Group (and many more if you include various guesting spots). Recounting all the tenures, he chuckles. “I suppose it could be perceived as being a little mercenary, but it’s really not about that. For me, I think I just needed to keep challenging myself.”

At his first Donnelly gig, he wanted to see if he could bring high-end cocktail culture to a high-volume operation. (He could.) At the Loden, he wanted to acquire some high-end hotel experience. At the Shangri-La, he had the time to concentrate on local and international bartending competitions. If anything, he’s proud he’s made so many different stops. “I’ve worked in over a dozen venues, including casual restaurants, brew pubs, lounges, nightclubs, wine bars, saloons, hotels, fine dining, and sports arenas—all very intentionally—to not only satisfy my personal interests in experience and challenge, but equally importantly to reach a broader demographic with better drinking and better hospitality.”

Lauren Mote may have fewer entries on her resumé than Jones, but only because she hasn’t been at it for quite as long. Since 2007, she’s made stops at Lumière, Goldfish Pacific Kitchen, Chow, Hawksworth Catering, the Refinery, and, most recently, Uva Wine & Cocktail Bar. And while she agrees with Jones that challenge is a major motivator, when it comes to moving around, she thinks there might be something else at play. “These days, everyone requires a ‘bar program’ to stay in the status quo, and people throw money to poach and pull people from other bars.”

She’s right, of course—you can open a casual Italian spot in Vancouver, but you’d better have someone who not only knows how to make a Bicicletta properly but knows the cocktail’s history as well. Or you’ll get scoffed at. And Mote knows the lure of a sweet gig first-hand: She was happily running her very successful bitters company, Bittered Sling, when Uva came a-calling and made her the proverbial offer she couldn’t refuse. As a result, she essentially has two full-time jobs right now.

Until recently, Jon Smolensky was in the same boat. By night he would tend bar at Hawksworth, but his days became increasingly taken up by his growing import company, Sovereign Canada, a company he started five years ago when he and his pals couldn’t source the ingredients they needed for their cocktails. If anything, he was made from the Wolowidnyk mould: He had been at Hawksworth since the day it opened, and but for the success of Sovereign, one gets the impression he’d love to still be there. He sees the transitory nature of today’s barkeeps through a much more business-driven lens: “With everyone opening new restaurants, new bars, and new concepts, bartenders are lured away by opportunity, money, or oftentimes sweat equity. As a result, there are an increasing number of hired guns out there.”

Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing, however. The institutional bartenders who remain dedicated to a single roost are admirable and occasionally brilliant, but there’s no better place to get a terrible cocktail than a hotel whose bar staff haven’t turned over since Joe Clark was prime minister. The upside of the current condition is we live in a city where you have to go out of your way to get a bad drink. And it’s clear that it’s never been a better—or at least a more lucrative—time to be a bartender. Your services are in demand, you can negotiate advantageous terms (ownership stakes are not uncommon), and if you’re lucky you can join the ranks of Josh Pape (Wildebeest, Bufala, Supermarine), Tannis Ling (Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie, the upcoming Kissa Tanto), and Nick Devine (the Cascade restaurant group), who stepped out from behind the bar to become successful restaurateurs.

For his part, Wolowidnyk seems unmoved by the lure of greener pastures. “I’ve never seen the point in moving on if I enjoy where I’m at.”

We say goodbye and he goes back to his inventory. It’s now 1:30 p.m., which means the staff meal is around the corner, then service, then home. He’ll see his regulars, apprentice his younger co-workers, and not send a drink out that he’s not proud of. And then he’ll wake up and do it all over again.

 

Lauren Mote (above, far left)
Years Bartending: 15-plus
Stops: Lumière, Goldfish Pacific Kitchen, Chow, Hawksworth Catering, the Refinery, Uva Wine & Cocktail Bar
Mantra: “I love to be out there, performing”

Jay Jones (above, second from left)
Years Bartending: 19
Stops: Cactus Club Cafe (Richmond), Big River Brewing Company, Araxi, West, Nu, Salt, Donnelly Group (twice), Loden Hotel, Pourhouse, Shangri-La hotel, Rogers Arena (Aquilini Investment Group), Vij’s
Mantra: “Where is going to challenge me next?”

David Wolowidnyk (above, second from right)
Years Bartending: 20-plus
Stops: Lucy Mae Brown (general manager), West, CinCin
Mantra: “Hey, it’s great to see you again”

Jon Smolensky (above, far right)
Years Bartending: 14
Stops: Steamworks, Brix, Hawksworth, Sovereign Canada
Mantra: “I know I’ll be back behind the bar in the future”

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.