Underneath the giant disco ball, amidst the vast, multi-level interior awash in funky jazz music, next to the rows of clear glass vodka bottles backlit in cool hues of volcano red and electric blue, Gary Koh tends bar.
For three years, he's been a familiar face at Blue Martini (5455 E. High St., 480-638-2583), serving up cocktails and conversation to the City North bar's upper-crust clientele. While Blue Martini has arguably the highest ratio of smoking-hot female employees to floor space of any bar I've ever seen (seriously, it must be seen to be believed), Koh manages to stand out, employing a managerial style to help both the business and needy drinkers.
How did you get into bartending?
I got in when I went into my second year at Longwood University in Virginia. I started at a place called Charlie's Waterfront Cafe, which was a full-service restaurant that switched over to a bar scene at 10. That was 1996. After I got my degree in business management, I just carried on with it.
Have you used your degree at all?
You apply a lot of it to this scenario. You use a lot of what you learn because of the scope of what you do running a business like this. There's a lot more involved than if you were just one piece of the company. You're doing marketing, you're doing human resources, you're doing inventory. So I can say I've applied that knowledge.
How'd you get to the Blue Martini?
I was at Martini Ranch previously. My roommate, who was from Florida, told me they were building a Blue Martini up in City North and I should go check it out, because apparently they're the hottest thing going right now in Florida. I said okay, came here, applied, and got the job.
Well, I did it in college. I guess I'm kind of like everybody else that fell into the trap of "cash is king." You make good money -- I know I made some killer money last year. My brother goes, "Wow, why am I working for Sprint in the corporate department and you're doing what you're doing, hanging out with girls and getting four days off per week, and you're making almost as much money as I am?" And he's been there for six years! So you fall into that trap. At the same time, I was trying to pursue a professional golf career after college. I figured bartending would help me pay my bills. So I made a definite income at night, and during the day when I was playing in events I could either make money or not depending on how well I played.
Did you ever go pro?
I had my pro status, yeah. I played in some events; I went to Korea for a year and played over there. Once I got to Arizona, I dabbled a bit, but I also bartended a lot. At that point, I was kind of weaning myself off of it. I entered into a few events and thought about getting back into it full-time, but it never really transpired. So I immersed myself into the bar scene.
Do you miss it?
I still play a lot. I don't miss the competition at all. I guess when you love something so much, like I loved golf my whole life, it affects you a lot when you don't perform. For two or three days you're just unhappy. That was a lot of what it was like for me. I don't miss that, and I'm back to enjoying playing now. I got my amateur status back, so I still play in these small, fun events occasionally.
What was your best finish?
Tied for 27th, I think. It's not anything to write home about. That was four or five years ago, and that was the time when I kind of looked at myself and said it's time to rethink this.
Are you trained in mixology?
I've never had a passion for that side of bartending -- the science of alcohol. It was more the business side of it that intrigued me. You have some bartenders that enjoy the mixology part of it; you have ones that enjoy the money part of it; you have others that enjoy the social aspect of it. What's kept me in this business is knowing how everything is filtering through -- keeping liquor cost in mind, or knowing how to approach a guest if they ask for something, or thinking about how these specific things are going to help the business in a certain way. That's how my brain works, and I like thinking that way because it keeps me from being an android behind the bar. I'm thinking about the economics of the drink-making.
Sounds like you have a very managerial brain. Ever think of putting it to use as a manager of a bar?
I have worked as a manager in the past. But when I went to Martini Ranch, I decided I wanted to take a break from that and just tend bar, and figure out what I want to do after that. Three years later, I'm still bartending and still trying to figure it out. I think that's what we all do when we're still here after a long period of time. We're still trying to figure it out.
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What do you like most about bartending?
It's fun; it can be exciting at times; it's very flexible. But most of all, I'm not having to look over my shoulder or report to anybody. I enjoy my freedom. I think that's why I've stayed in it for so long: people just kind of said, "Okay, he knows what he's doing. Just let him do his job." If I were micro-managed, it would be pretty tough for me.
What do you like least about it?
A couple of things. The long hours, the late nights. You know, you're not going to bed until four in the morning. Your first few years into it, you're a kid and it's fine. I'm 34 now; after ten years, going to bed at four in the morning kind of wears on you. Certain clientele, too -- the ones that believe that you're there solely to work for them, and they treat you condescendingly. I've learned in my years to stop that right away and let them know that I work for Blue Martini, not for them. It gets wearisome over time, getting these people who think because they have a Rolex in their drawer they can come here and think they're better than everybody else. That's not the case at all. Treat us right, and we'll treat you right.
Any particular customers stick out in your mind?
I've seen some wild things. A few months ago, there was a lady in here that was so drunk -- I hate to say that she got drunk here -- but she was intoxicated, and having a conversation with a gentleman in front of my well. She was wearing beige pants, and you could tell that she had pissed herself. She was still holding a conversation with this guy, and he didn't notice. Everybody behind the bar couldn't believe what was happening. There was a puddle on the ground when she walked away. It was amazing.
You get a lot of stuff like that?
Oh yeah. You probably get about one person throwing up per night. If you don't, you feel very successful. That happens everywhere.