There are few things more attractive than a good accent -- the more masculine and foreign-sounding, the better. Sean Snelling, a native of Australia, has one of the best around. Having successfully managed Merc Bar in Phoenix, Snelling recently returned from a four-month hiatus in his home country to man the helm at Primebar (15037 N. Scottsdale Road, 480-822-6200). As bar manager at the Scottsdale Quarter urban lodge, Snelling entertains customers and fellow bartenders alike with his infectious brogue and love of all things boozy.
How'd you get your start?
I'm from Sydney. I figured working would be a good way for me to stay out of trouble. The bar that sponsored our rugby club put out an announcement that they were looking for some people. I figured that would be a good idea -- stay out of mischief and put a bit of cash in my pocket. As it turned out, it didn't work out that well because you're always trying to play catch-up when you get off work, so you actually just concentrate the mischief. Another thing that was a little counterintuitive about that idea was that everyone in the bar industry doesn't look as frowningly upon the mischief. It's a little more encouraged than it is in normal society. They always say, "Find something you love and then find a way to get someone to pay you to do it." I love talking, and I love alcohol. So, it found me. It was only a matter of time.
When did you come to the states?
I came over here six or seven years ago. My little brother was here playing baseball in the major leagues, for the Mariners. The plan was to go play rugby in Seattle and try to catch every game I could. When my brother got injured and came down to Arizona to do rehab, and I changed my plans and came down here instead. I got to see him do some cool stuff -- he won a ring the other year with the Phillies. I got to see him hit back-to-back home runs in Anaheim. I got to see him hit Randy Johnson for a double on Thursday and Curt Schilling for a double on Friday.
So what made you stay?
I was having so much fun, I didn't want to leave. The plan was to have one year off, and I just sort of stayed. You know; if it ain't broke, don't fix it. When I came here I didn't want to do anything serious. I had just graduated -- I went to school to become a mining engineer. I really wanted to get away, because I had done that for a little while and I just decided I wanted to have fun. When I got here, I realized you can actually make pretty decent coin bartending. The only real problem is that I have to put up with mom every now and then on the phone asking me when I'm going to use my degree and when I'm going to get serious.
Before you came to Primebar, you were at the Merc Bar. What was that like?
Love that bar. One of the coolest bars I've ever set foot in. The coolest thing about it is when you set foot in that door, you're not in Phoenix. You could be in Paris, you could be in London. You're somewhere else. There are always people to watch, there are always conversations to be had. I remember the first night I worked there, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and Wayne Gretzky walked through the door at different times, and I walked out of there with $700 in my pocket.
What do you do at Primebar?
I'm one of the bar managers, so I get to go behind the bar a few nights a week, and I get to manage the bar other nights. I like it because it's the best and worst of both worlds. You get a sense of ownership, but at the same time everybody comes to you with their problems. I have a lot of fun. There aren't many people that can say they jump out of bed for the job they have. I can't see myself doing anything else really.
Do you ever have any bad days?
Don't get me wrong; there are days and moments -- especially in a corporate environment -- when you have to deal with stuff. There are always stresses. But a bad day here? Like I said, I used to be a mining engineer. I've been on mine sites when people have died. I've been on a site when a guy got caught in some equipment and he ended up needing his legs amputated. A bad day on a mine site -- that's a bad day. A bad day behind the bar, what's the worst that's going to happen? You have to comp someone's drinks? Smile?
So you plan on doing this for a while?
Oh, I'll flog this horse as long as it'll run. Occasionally, I get delusions that I might be able to open up my own bar one day. But that gets too real. You have to keep it simple.
If you could build your own bar, what would it look like?
Oh, God. Don't even ask me that sort of question. More importantly, I could never own my own bar, because it would fail! I would give away the house. I want everyone to be my friend. I would never be able to make a dollar. I would just want everyone to be happy, and what makes people happier than alcohol? Not much.
Do you ever miss Australia?
Yeah, I do. I went back for four months. There was a small part of me that wanted to stay. It was good to go see the family. But Phoenix has kind of grown on me. You know, you don't think you like Phoenix, but it just sort of grows on you. When I was back in Australia, I was like, I think I miss Phoenix! I couldn't believe I said it. I love Arizona. Phoenix is vanilla. You know? It's beige. You could have chocolate mint, or raspberry, or anything special like that, but there's always vanilla.
Do you make up any original cocktails?
The drink list we had a skeleton for, but we worked with the recipes and tweaked them. You could say I had a little touch on them. I've put cocktail lists together before, and I enjoy that part of it. But it's not my absolute forte.
Guest interaction. You could say I don't really know a lot about running a bar, because nobody really knows anything. You just sort of have a good idea. Cheers was one of the longest-running TV shows in history -- you know, "sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name." That's what I pride myself on -- making people feel at home. Whether that means asking them how that paper I saw them writing at the bar last week turned out, or asking them if everything worked out with that speeding ticket they got. You just remember those little things. It's more than just somebody coming in, saying hello and having a drink. It's actually getting involved with them. I really enjoy that interaction.
What's your best crazy customer story?
I've met two kids that I went to high school with at the bar. They were literally in my year, in the same classes. I didn't recognize them. I had no idea. I guess that shows you it's a very small world.
Oh, God! All right, here we go. When I worked over in Tempe, this guy would come over to the bar on his electric scooter. He had some sort of handicap, but he was a really nice guy. He'd usually come over and have one beer -- a Corona -- then get back on his scooter and go home. But this one day he decided to have two shots of Jager and two Coronas, and he fell off his stool. And then he tried to get back on his scooter, and he literally ran over a few people trying to get out. He comes back and yells at me, "Shaun, I can't find my phone!"
Keep in mind; he had had two shots and two beers. I called his phone, and his pocket started ringing. I ended up having to tell him I couldn't let him drive that thing. I took the keys from him and offered to give him a lift home when I got off. This other guy Zach and I got him into my truck, and we put his scooter in the back. I drove him home, but Zach was on the scooter in the back of the truck, as we're driving down university at 4 p.m., and he's treating it like he's on a float, waving. I guess the reason I love that story so much is because I consider both those guys my friends. That's not the first time I've driven a guest home, and it won't be the last. But when I talk about getting involved, that's what I really mean. God, that was one of the funniest days of my life.