The last time we spoke to Steve Schneider, he’d just taken over the reins at Elysian Cafe, the neighbourhood bar where he started bartending all those years ago. Now he’s back in New York with big news about the place where he really honed his craft. We spoke to him to get the low down during lockdown.
So Steve, before we get down to the big stuff, what have you been up to during lockdown?
On a personal level, I’ve been really looking after myself. I haven’t been drinking, I’ve been cooking from scratch and working out a lot – I’m pretty jacked now! I’ve had some ups and downs but hasn’t everyone? Overall though, I’m good.
I’ve also used this to time to get off social media which has been awesome. I’m in the real world now and it’s great.
Good stuff. So what brings you back to New York?
Thirteen years after starting at Employees Only New York as a stocker, I’m now one of the partners.
That’s amazing! How did that come about?
Part of the deal when I left EO New York as bar manager to set up EO in Singapore was that I had a very tiny percentage of EO NY. Since then I’ve been in negotiations to have more responsibility and a little more equity in relation to NY. Over time, I was able to acquire more and now, after a year and change of negotiating, I’m a partner!
Mazel tov! When did you get the big news?
In early March. I became a partner three weeks before the pandemic hit, so I look like the dumbest business person in the world right now! Joking aside, I wanted this so bad, I’ve worked really hard. I’ve made some wise investments and bad investment but I’ve learnt a lot. Right now I’m really looking forward to sharing my learnings with the immediate people around me.
As a partner what will your main focus be?
I’m going to be in charge of the bar. It’s been a few years since there’s been a partner present here advising on cocktails, bar training and all of the stuff that EO was built on by the owner bartenders who are working here back in the day – they taught me so much. Some people have moved on but Billy Gilroy and Henry LeFargue are still here in New York, along with Eric Lincoln, a more recent partner. However, their attention is on the operation and administration side of things while my focus will be on the bar.
That makes perfect sense. How do you see it working?
Me being close to the bars is what we need for our 16th year in business. If you count me and a few part-timers, there are 20 of us who have been here for over 10 years. Ten years! That’s longer than a lot of other places have been open.
I’m going to leave the older members of the team alone – they’ve put in their time and they’re too busy to train people. I’m going to leave them to get on doing what they do best. Instead I’ll be focusing on the new folk who have come into the business and I’m really excited to be working with them.
Will you be teaching them old EO ways or EO Mark II?
A bit of both. EO has always been defined by its staff and I want to keep it that way. But I don’t want to take a bunch of apprentices and turn them into me, I want to turn them into the best versions of themselves, so I’ll be providing a platform for them to do that. Again, I don’t want to tell them what to do, I’m not going to be driving, I’ll be guiding. In the last few years I’ve stepped back, I’m no longer in the spotlight – I’ve become kind of reclusive, letting people do their job and being there for them. Someone tagged me on social media a few weeks ago saying Steve Schneider hasn’t been relevant since 2016! The funny thing is, from 2016 to now I’ve gone from zero to six bars.
So not relevant at all then! Seriously though, if you could sum up in a word what you hope to bring to such an established bar, what would it be?
I don’t want to use words like ‘facelift’, ‘improvements’ or ‘change’ – the bar is great, the people are great and we know the kind of machine we have here – I just want to add more to our already existing awesome product. I also want to honour the fact that we’ve had people here forever but I want to embrace the newer staff, to teach them to be better than us. My aim is to be a part of building the future and helping others along, respecting what we have here and inserting myself wherever I can. I guess the word I’m looking for is ‘elevation’.
EO NY has yet to open. Do you know when we might be able to get back in to experience that special brand of magic that the world needs right now?
The good part about having an established brand for so long is that we have our core clients who know who we are. The downside is if we can’t produce that product – how far are we willing to pivot? We’re built to go fast and I don’t want us to whimper back into business – I want us to come back decisively.
Short term we could make a few bucks by selling drinks outside but it’s not worth it. We’ve got a reputation – good or bad – and we have to stick to the plan and be patient. There’s a safety concern, obviously and I want people to be unafraid when they come back, I don’t want them to feel like they’re being judged for being in a high volume bar.
Do you ever miss being a bartender?
Honestly? Some days, yes. As a bartender you walk in, do your job, make your tips and go home. My job now is to take the money that goes into the register and try to keep some of it, to make sense of it and think of ways of getting more in the register. It’s a different spin but it’s something I really enjoy and I’m really good at.
What do you think that we’ve been given this time for?
For me, I got a much needed break and rest. It’s been a chance to recharge. I think the planet said chill out everybody. It’s been tough but I’ve tried to be optimistic.
Lastly, being a partner in six bars aside [as well as EO NY, Steve has equity in EO Singapore, Papi’s Tacos in Singapore, The Strangers Club in Panama, The Odd Couple in Shanghai, and the aforementioned Elysian Cafe in New Jersey], how, if at all, have you changed in the last four years?
My swashbuckling days are over! For me it’s not about winning anymore, it’s about going the distance. When I was younger, I just wanted to win. Now I plan to go all 12 rounds.
Adapted from an interview in Issue 35 of The Cocktail Lovers magazine available today. For bartenders wishing to receive a complimentary digital edition, please drop us an email us at email@example.com and we’ll send you a code to redeem your free copy by return.
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Photo credits: portrait shots, top: Jana Yar, Ensoff Photography; middle: Joanna Lin; interior shot: Emilie Baltz