Having served drinks at the Cork & Cleaver for 32 years, Tom Crowley could be considered as much a part of the venerable Phoenix steakhouse as the front door. So when a motor in the produce cooler short-circuited, creating a smoldering fire that caused major smoke damage to most of the restaurant, perhaps no one was more deeply affected than Crowley. But the wizened bartender landed on his feet -- while workers start the rebuilding process at the Cork, he's mixing it up at 1889 Saloon (5009 E. Washington St., 602-273-7378), the dim, Western-themed watering hole inside the Stockyards steakhouse.
How'd you get your start at the Cork & Cleaver?
When I got out of high school, I was going to college at ASU and started working at what was then called the Bombay Bicycle Club. I worked there for about five years. What is BJ's today on Stetson initially was called Dutch John's. It was a college bar; that place was jumpin' back in the day. Then I went over to the Cork & Cleaver. The guy who was the GM there was an old friend of mine. He told me there was a bartender who would be leaving in a month and asked if I'd come down, wait tables for a while and get behind the bar once he was gone, and that's exactly what I did. Now I probably couldn't even wait a table, to be honest.
Was bartending what you always wanted to do?
It was really something I just fell into. I really enjoyed it, really enjoyed the interaction with the people, and after I graduated I just kind of stayed there and stayed with it. I got more shifts, more authority, and just sort of got locked into it.
Being at the same place for 32 years, what challenges do you face?
You really have to develop friendships. The Cork & Cleaver initially opened in 1964, and that was kind of one of their underlying codes: make friendships with the customers. I socialize with many of those people outside of work.
How has it been here so far?
I'm learning some new things and facing new challenges. It's a much bigger bar than the Cork, so there's a lot more running going on. It's a fun challenge. There are other things you just need to get to know: different kinds of liquor, registration stuff, different formats. It's just challenging, but it keeps my interests. Sometimes it's frustrating, figuring it out, but I get through it. I'm thankful for the job.
Do you have any regulars you brought with you from the Cork?
This is only my fifth or sixth shift, so now that I've kind of finalized my schedule, I'm hoping to contact some of those people so they can come by and say hello. There was a big group in last night who normally book their holiday party at the Cork & Cleaver every year. The owner told them I was working over here, so they decided to come visit and had a real nice time.
After 32 years, you've obviously built up a lot of wisdom. Anything you'd like to share with rookie bartenders?
My wisdom would be just realizing that people are people. Ninety percent of the people I meet are nice people and fun to get to know. You're going to bump into that five to 10 percent occasionally, but they would be the same five t 10 percent you'd run into at a grocery store or in any industry. It's part of the job. My advice is to enjoy it; enjoy the relationships. It's about starting conversations, looking people in the eye when you talk to them -- that's how you build a relationship.
What makes a good cocktail?
Each one is different. Of course, the average customer wants a strong cocktail. It's all in the balance of the mix with the liquor. I always free-pour, so it's not like I'm doing exactly 1.5 ounces. When you free-pour, people who see it seem to enjoy it more. I spent years using the measuring jigger, but pretty soon when we'd get really busy, I'd forget to grab it. After a while, I just never bothered with it. I just free-poured a Jack and Coke that for that guy right over there -- he was the one who was just teasing me. That's usually a good sign. Tonight's the first night I've ever seen him, so if he's comfortable enough to tease me, that's usually a good sign you've developed a relationship.
What do you find that most bartenders do wrong?
I think a lot of them are too uncomfortable or too cautious when talking to their customers. You have to be able to read people. A lot of bartenders don't try to make conversations with customers and they're too busy looking at their phones to see what kinds of text messages they have. I never have my phone on when I work, if I even bring it at all.
What is a bartender, besides a person who makes the drinks?
A good bartender obviously knows how to make a lot of drinks and is willing to make them the way the customer wants. The best do it with a happy attitude that makes people want to get to know them personally. It's not rocket science; it really is about personal connections, and that's really what I've learned to enjoy about this.
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How much longer do you think you'll stick with it?
Hopefully a long time, honestly. Particularly after what's happened with the economy, I'd guess that I'll be around a very long time.
Having been around for 32 years, what are some major changes you've witnessed in the industry?
You know, the liquor laws have had such a negative effect on the industry. Arguably, they've allowed the taxi industry to grow, but people are now afraid to have even a small number of drinks. A guy like you could have two drinks, and on that second one you have to think twice about driving yourself home. With the economy going south, disposable income being less available and the liquor laws, it's getting pretty tough to be behind the bar. I'm not advocating drinking and driving at all, but I think the rules have become so stringent that it's shrunk the parameters of the cocktail industry.
When the Cork & Cleaver reopens, you think you'll be tempted to stay here?
You know, after 32 years, the Cork & Cleaver has kind of become my home. I was frequently accused of being somewhat of a fixture at the Cork. It remains to be seen, but I would suggest that I'd likely be going back. But the guys have been extremely nice to me here, and like I said, I'm learning something new.
Come back tomorrow for a drink recipe from Crowley.