When your bar regulars includes the likes of Dave Chappelle, Drake, the Kardashians, and Lady Gaga to a name a few, it’s the job of Justin Campbell, Bar Director for The h.wood Group, to make sure everyone is happy.
Justin Campbell is a seasoned beverage specialist with over 15 years of experience in bartending, bar management, and running high-end cocktail programs. As the bar director for The h.wood Group, whose nightlife hotspots include The Nice Guy, Delilah, Poppy, The Peppermint Club and Harriet’s Rooftop, bar patrons often include the likes of Janet Jackson, Jay-Z and Beyoncé and Drake. When celebrities flock to venues to getaway and not worry about paparazzi or gawkers, it’s Justin Campbell’s job to make sure their drinking pleasure is on-point.
Chilled sat down with Justin to talk about his start in the industry to crafting cocktails for A-listers to tricks of the trade for developing and running successful, high-end cocktail programs.
Talk about your background in the industry.
The service industry is the only industry I’ve ever worked. I started bussing tables at 14-years-old under the table. I continued on to serving, working in the back of the house on the line and eventually bartending throughout high school. My mother bought me a “How to Bartend” infomercial DVD that I watched. One day during a shift, somebody got sick and I was asked if I could bartend. I was only 16-years-old, which wasn’t legal, but I was able to show that I was worth the risk and became a permanent bartender. I’ve been in the industry ever since.
How would you describe the beverage program in your group / bars? How many properties do you oversee?
The bar programs at The h.wood Group venues all vary drastically and that is something I am grateful for. Having to design menus for upscale, fine dining, taquerias and sports bars keeps me very busy and keeps the creativeness flowing. I am given creative freedom with the concepts and I love that. We have 17 properties open now throughout the United States with more than 10 slated to open in the next year.
What is the inspiration for the drinks you create?
I find creativeness with my cocktails from my childhood. I grew up very close to my grandmother, and she had this big beautiful garden and I was free labor. She would constantly be cooking dinners, pickling vegetables and making her own jams. This had a huge impact for me because I grew up learning and using fresh, local ingredients. I also understood from a young age about not being afraid of getting dirty and that hard work paid off.
The h.wood Group not only owns a lot of bars but a lot of bars that attract A-list celebrity clientele. Is there any difference in creating a cocktail program for the jet set crowd versus a working-class crowd?
I think the trends of bartending have changed throughout even my somewhat short stint behind the stick. When I started out the bar scene, things like Cosmos, Appletinis and “flair bartending” were the norm. Now, craft cocktails have been a huge trend and are really transcending into amazing, out-of-this-world use of tools and ingredients. The thing that hasn’t changed is the goal of making a well-balanced cocktail. A balanced drink transcends all those bells and whistles. Creating a cocktail list that is delicious and approachable wins the hearts.
Talk about some of the celebrity regulars and how they play into your cocktails.
They are more than just celebrities, they are family. We have great celebs who are dedicated regulars because we live in L.A. and the hospitality we give them. They want to come out and have a nice dinner, great drinks in a comfortable atmosphere and that’s what we provide them. It’s no different than any of our other clientele.
Are the challenges running this program different from other programs you’re worked for because of the nature of the high-end venues and celebrity clients?
I think our double-edged sword is having a product that is in such high demand. We have beautiful spaces with a great culinary team and staff that understand high expectations for quality hospitality, so our seats are constantly filled with our friends, family and community. It becomes challenging to accommodate everyone, but we definitely make it work.
How knowledgeable would you say your guests are when it comes to handcrafted cocktails?
In this era of social media, everyone has access to Yelp. I think everyone has an opinion to what is good and what is craft and now have a forum to voice their opinions. That’s why every guest is so important. The knowledge of consumers is growing so rapidly in the food and beverage scene, it’s amazing watching it transform.
How much craft goes into your drinks versus making a good vodka drink that is quick and easy to make?
There needs to be a good balance of making a great tasting drink that’s quick and easy along with having dimension and flavors that spark interest. The trick is doing the work on the back end. Spending that extra time sourcing the best ingredients, choosing beautiful glassware, making syrups and tinctures, infusing spirits and of course, pretty garnishes. Most of this work is done though a prep team and they are the real unsung heroes.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on the cocktails for our new restaurant Alice. It is going to be in the Jeremy Hotel (soon to be the 1 Hotel West Hollywood). The concept is a seasonal marketplace with casual café in the morning and upscale dining at night. Tons of organic, fresh produce and farm-to-table concepts. The cocktails are still being created, but I’m sure you’ll hear about the menu soon.
Is there any advice that you can offer when it comes to running a successful beverage program?
Treat your bar-backs like gold and look for the opportunity to promote them; ask your back-of-the-house to taste your drinks for balance; educate, educate, educate; and be humble. Oh, and never make a big deal out of making a drink you think is bad because if it were your mother, you wouldn’t be happy if she was treated poorly because she ordered what she likes.