Can we all have a bit of what Steve Schneider is taking? Talk about a man obsessed with his craft, no sooner have we got our heads around the exciting news that he’s partnering up with another of our faves, Shingo Gokan to open The Odd Couple in Shanghai, than we get news that he’s spreading a little of the Schneidy magic back home in Jersey.
In his latest venture Steve takes over a bar where he worked 13 years ago, the Elysian Cafe in Hoboken. We spoke to him in Berlin earlier this week ahead of him taking over the reins.
All of your projects have a special meaning to you but your new one is more personal than most. Tell us why?
When I came back home after being discharged from the military and working in Washington DC, the first job I got was in a fine dining restaurant in Hoboken. I was absolutely terrible – I was a foul-mouthed, know-it-all former marine chewing tobacco behind the bar. Needless to say, me and fine dining didn’t work out… Instead they shipped me off to their sister restaurant in Hoboken. It was the Elysian Cafe and I remember the first time I walked in I thought to myself – holy shit, this is the most beautiful bar I’ve ever seen in my life. That was 13 years ago and I’ve felt the same way about it ever since.
What’s so special about it?
It’s an historic place, dating back to 1895 – the site is the oldest continually operating bar in the city. Frank Sinatra grew up a few blocks away, it’s one block from where the first game of baseball was played and the movie Sleepers was filmed there. But what I love about it is, it’s a real neighbourhood bar. What stood out the first time I saw it and still stands out now for me is the look and feel of the place. It used to be an old man dive bar – really dark and run down but when Eugene Flinn took it over around 20 years ago, he remodelled the place, stripping it back and returning it to its former glory. It really is something very special.
Elysian Cafe photographed by RC Concepcion
You worked there 13 years ago, how did it come back into your life?
My mom lives in Jersey so when I moved to New York, I would meet her every month or so for a catch-up at the Elysian – it’s only six minutes away from Employee’s Only by train and it’s easy for her to get to. Every single time we met I’d tell her that I wanted the place – and it’s fucking happened!
You said that you’d like to own it but did you really think that it would happen?
Not at all, it was a pipe dream. I wanted a bar that looked just like it, with the beautiful ornamental ceilings, tiled floors and relaxed elegance – very few places give you that feeling when you walk into them.
Somewhere along the line Eugene told me in passing that he’d probably sell the place when his kids finished school. I remember looking at his kids – they were like 9 years old at the time and I thought, are you kidding me? That’s never going to happen but lo and behold! They grew up!
How did it finally come about?
A year ago I was in Rhode Island and caught up with one of the bartenders I used to work with at Elysian. He mentioned that Eugene had sold the fine dining restaurant, so of course I wanted to know if Elysian was for sale as well. To cut a long story short, I asked around and found out that yes, Eugene was selling Elysian but Travis his chef, was looking to buy it. The only problem was he didn’t know anyone and didn’t have the money to buy it. So Travis and I hooked up – he lives in my home town and we knew of each other but hadn’t worked together – we clicked right away. He’s got good energy, is super motivated and hungry, he really wants it but he’d never done anything like this before. We had a conversation about everything going on there, what we would like to do and how much we both loved the place. He’d already calculated how much it was going to be and I told him we had it. In one afternoon we did a handshake. That was a year ago.
Amazing stuff. So what’s been happening in between?
It takes time to get everything right. Mostly we’ve been dealing with lawyers – the thing is they don’t give out licenses anymore – you have to buy them, so they’re very, very valuable. The license is worth more than the restaurant itself.
Neighbourhood restaurant/bars don’t come much prettier than this: Elysian Cafe exterior
Now that the license is confirmed (congratulations on that by the way), how is it going to work?
Travis will be the main owner; I have a 20 percent stake – it’s a retirement plan for me. I’ll be there every quarter for a month and it means that I get to go home and see my parents The place already makes money – it does really well. I’m just going to tighten up the costs.
The last time we spoke, you mentioned that you had discovered your love for spreadsheets, has this changed?
Well, we paid back our investment in nine and a half months after opening in Singapore so my numbers are pretty good. Even though I work behind the bar three to four nights a week, I know I don’t have to bartend anymore – these days I’m taking a different approach to business. By the end of the year I’ll have ownership in seven different places.
What are they and how do they differ?
I have a stake in three different Employees Only’s – it’s small in New York and Hong Kong but pretty large in Singapore. Then there’s Stranger’s Club in Panama, Papi’s Tacos in Singapore (I’m just an investor there) and the new venture with Shingo Gokan in Shanghai.
How do they differ? Well, Employees Only Singapore is my baby – that’s the one that got me started, where I carried everything on my back. EO New York is where I cut my teeth, where I became famous. There I came into something that was already built and had to maintain but Singapore I had to build from the ground up.
Panama is like the bachelor party, it’s me and my old bartender friends. There are no investors, which means we don’t answer to anybody. We go there a couple of months a year, have a good time and do whatever we want – that’s going really well. For the first year we were operating on one floor but around November time we’ll open the second storey which means we’re going to start bringing in a lot more money.
Lastly, there’s the Odd Couple, the new bar that I’m opening on 15th November with Shingo Gokan in Shanghai.
Steve Schneider means business
How did that one come about?
I’ve always wanted to do something in China but it’s difficult and I’ve always admired Shingo – we’ve guest bartended together all over the world. We first met at Bacardí Legacy: he thought I was the craziest guy in the room and I thought he was the coolest. We’ve always had a mutual respect for each other and it grew into a friendship over the years.
We met up during Singapore Cocktail Week this year and in passing, I asked him what he had going on – we both had projects but I said: “Let’s do something together man – I want to be your waiting room.” I told him that he could have as many secret doors as he wanted and I would be the waiting room; the high volume bar where people spend time before they get in to experience Shingo’s bartending style. He asked if I was serious, which I was and 10 days later, he had a space, a concept and we’re off to the races! It’s in a prime, prosperous area of Shanghai and I can’t wait for it to open. People have teamed up before but they’re not as unique as Shingo and I. We plan to open all over Asia and I will be his waiting room everywhere.
You’re not messing around! What have you learned about yourself since branching out from New York?
I know I can do this. Before I left for Singapore I didn’t know whether I could do it or not. It took years off my life but I’ve done it. [And to prove it, he shows a photo of himself two months after EO Singapore opened. To say that he’s a shadow of the person sitting in front of us today is an understatement].
Having learned what you have from opening bars in the past two years, what are your plans for Elysian?
I’m taking a very fun approach – I want it to be fairly stress-free. Obviously, I have my concerns – I’ve never spent this amount on anything before in my life but I just look at myself in the mirror and say I can do this.
It’s a neighbourhood bar, it’s blue collar, the people are wealthy and they want nice places to eat and drink. We’ll give them that. I don’t want to go in and change things – the decor will remain the same and as far as I’m concerned, it’ll be business as usual. What I will be doing though is making sure that it’s 100% reliable. The first thing that I’m going to do is ask the staff a simple question: what do you think? And I’ll listen. I’ll also work the bar and see how it feels, as well as going through the numbers and tightening things up. For now, I don’t want to change what’s being served, I want to change how everything is being delivered. I want the place to be reliable with good beer and wine and great cocktails.
You’ve got a lot on your plate, how will you be dividing your time?
I don’t have to be in Singapore as I’ve created little monsters there who just want to pounce on my shifts! It’s great though as we’ve pretty much got the same team as we did when we opened and they are way more organised than me and it means I can get on with other things – like Elysian and The Odd Couple.
Where’s your happy place?
Singapore. The quality of life is so good, so is the emphasis on healthy living. It’s nice to be home in New Jersey but the last couple of times that I’ve been back, I felt like I was going back in time. However, with my stake in Elysian, I’m actually going home in the best possible way. But right now, Shanghai is my focus.
How does the Steve now compare to Steve from 13 years ago?
Back then I was treading water. I had tons of talent but lacked maturity and leadership. That’s what EO gave me – direction. I was accurate, had brilliant ideas and lots of energy, plus I was fast as hell but I didn’t have that leadership. I was coachable, I was capable but I didn’t have a mentor. Once that happened, everything fell into place.
That ceiling though…
What are you most looking forward to with the Elysian project?
That I get to go back home with legitimacy. I’ll be able to talk to the young kids who might not think that they can do this, whatever ‘this’ is and show them that if they apply themselves, they can do whatever they set their minds to.
Other than that, for me this is a chance to cut my chops as a business guy on my own. EO gave me so much opportunity to make something of myself. Now it’s time for me to prove myself outside the EO umbrella. This is a greatest hits album – eventually we’ll be serving all of the cocktails I’ve made. It makes sense: if you go to a Journey concert and they didn’t play Don’t Stop Believing, you’d going to be pissed off, right?
Why should anyone come to your bar?
For the history. It’s a neighbourhood bar – I’m not going to try to make it something that it’s not. I want to show the town what I’ve learned in the time that I’ve been away, I want to make my parents proud.
And what’s next?
I’ve gone from bar back to bartender, then bar manager and bar owner, the next step is to be a building owner – I want to own the whole freakin’ building, I’m tired of paying people rent. Jerry Thomas made a big fuss about earning more than the Vice President; I want to make more money than the President of the US – that’s my plan for the next four to five years. Watch this space!
Elysian Cafe, 1001 Washington Street, Hoboken