Dave Purcell, Beverage Director of Winston House, has been working behind the bar since 2006.
He currently oversees the beverage program at Winston House, a 90s dive bar inspired drinks menu served in an exceptional atmosphere of casual acoustic interludes, full-on concerts, or sometimes sweaty dance parties complete with a disco ball. We asked Purcell about running a successful bar program and for advice on coming up with a bar theme that boasts something for everyone.
Talk to us about your background in the industry.
I started in 2006 in NYC, right along with the shift in the modern craft cocktail movement. By the dumbest of luck, I was working at the rooftop of the Gramercy Park Hotel when Danny Meyer’s USHG took over the management of the space. This provided an intense, accelerated, and really academic approach to hospitality and how to educate ourselves. It made working in a bar or restaurant feel professional rather than casual. Then I moved to LA for film production and had to basically beg the bar manager at one of Julian Cox’s bar programs to let me work there. I immediately understood the value of what I had and doubled down on the experience of acquiring knowledge. Little did I know that I would move on from the entertainment industry and fully into F&B.
I couldn’t believe how much more I valued the casual, intimate, and honest interaction I was having with guests of the spaces I worked at, than the sterile and perfunctory role I was playing in what I thought was a creative pursuit. Los Angeles is not a forgiving city for the aspirations of film/creative types, though there are the lucky ones. Between 2012-2014 I was on the opening team of four restaurants/bars, then finally settled down in one spot, moving from the new-guy-bartender to the General Manager of Melrose Umbrella Company, then did my masterclass at the NoMad Hotel in Downtown LA as its opening Bar Director. Lots of movement and very little boredom. Now working with the LocalLA group, I really get to utilize every bit of what I’ve gained in the last 15 years, and, truly, how to scale it to what is in front of us.
Tell about Winston House. What is the drinks program like?
Winston House is almost an experience more than it is a place. It really takes all kinds, and our hope is that it offers something for everyone. The back bar is small but well curated, especially towards our choice of agave spirits. Our wine list is eclectic and thoughtful, leaning towards more Spanish influence than French, but aware of our California roots. Beers are familiar styles from unfamiliar brands, things that will taste like you’ve had them before, but can’t quite put your finger on where. The cocktails are meant to be inviting and classic, but with our nuanced twist on the themes. Names like “Baybreeze,” “White Russian,” and “Sunrise” are comfortable and nostalgic, though our execution is unique and playful. While the drinks take a lot into consideration, they can’t be too serious. I don’t want someone sitting down and spending any more time than 3 minutes with our menu. There’s nothing to decode. Order on instinct, and it will work out, I promise.
What type of experience can guests expect when visiting?
I think one of the main draws of a new spot is that it is unpredictable. At the time of this interview, we have been open less than two months. We have already pivoted and made changes that wholly effect our service style and will continue to do so. We have so much fun variance based on what day of the week it is or what type of music is being played, or what is happening in the rhythm of the city, that the expectation isn’t set yet. It’s invigorating (at least at this point!). The pulse of the night changes so much and the guests’ energy is so positive, so sometimes the nights just gain their own momentum. I think the main appeal of our newness is this potential for anything to happen.
Tell us 4-5 things a bartender can do right now to advance their knowledge and skills.
If you aren’t already, ask to see a weekly product mix report. While you may feel like you know what’s selling, and you’re not wrong, truly look at the mechanisms the managers are putting into place. Are they making changes based on these reports?
Ask “why” of everything. I pride myself on the fact that if I ask something to be done a certain way, I always offer a reason why we do it one way over another. If you understand the root of why you do something the way you do it, then you have grounded basis for advancing that idea. Another way of looking at it – don’t limit yourself by thinking there is only one “right” way to do something. There are always other angles and opinions, and not all methods work universally.
Go to places. Now that things are becoming less dire, go see what people have been up to. Support other spots and bartenders and see if they have come up with something creative that will help the way you work. The rising tide lifts all boats.
Read. Bartenders who have had some successes write books and relay their experiences. Grab “Bartender as a Business” by Jason Littrell, “The Japanese Art of the Cocktail” by Masahiro Urushido and Michael Anstendig, and “The Cocktail Codex” by Alex Day, Dave Kaplan, and Nick Fauchald. All offer very different perspectives on the business and the craft from people with decades of experience. Read interviews with bartenders in online periodicals. With all these outlets, you may not agree outright with everyone’s style and ideologies, but you’ll find something of value in either challenging these opinions or unearthing something new from their experiences.
Tell us some of your most used skills/which one is your specialty?
Problem solving. At the end of the day, nearly everything a food and beverage person does revolves around the math of solving problems, or rather finding solutions. Whether it is taking an order, curating a better experience, fixing the broken piece of machinery, or streamlining a mechanism that isn’t working, the person who can think for themselves and offer solutions is the one that will be valued and succeed. I ask my staff to come to me with solutions rather than problems for whatever scenario they are facing. It helps me stay on track with what I’m doing and gives the staff member the opportunity to gain trust and lead by being thoughtful. I believe problem solving is my top skill and is largely part of why I excel at what I do and love.
Give us 3-4 tips to running a successful beverage program.
Mindfulness. Being mindful overall will help improve everything, whether in little increments or in large sweeping swings. Impressing upon the importance of a program’s vision, how we are perceived when behind the bar, mindfulness of sharing a space, and being aware of the value of someone’s time all fall into this category. A little bit of mindfulness in how you place a glass into a glass rack can shave off seconds in someone checking to make sure its full or save a glass from breaking due to being double stacked. Being mindful of how long prep may take and how large your sprawling menu is growing will help you wrangle in your labor cost and keep your staff happier. Mindfulness is my big one.
Partnerships. Pick your partners well. Pick someone you like with a product you believe in. Be open and honest with what you are looking for, what you need, and what you think. There are hundreds of brand reps in each city whose job is to meet hundreds of people like you. If someone meets your passion, understanding, and standards, then their time is just as valuable as yours, and they will never waste it. Be respectful; everyone is just trying to do a good job.
Versatility. Always keep your principles but be ready to change how they are enacted. Being precious about what’s yours serves its purpose but understand that you are a collaborator working with teams. Other people’s hard work is just as involved in your work. Keep your integrity, but respect the same of others.