Words by: Ian Cameron
The Employees Only co-owner won the Green Card lottery and left war-torn Yugoslavia in 1996 for New York, arriving with $2000 and little else. Some 15 years on, Employees Only was named World's Best Cocktail Bar at Tales of the Cocktail in 2011. How'd that happen, then?
It was an inauspicious start to a new life. Dushan Zaric's first job in the Land Of The Free was as a bouncer at a strip club in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. He landed the position courtesy of some dubious connections with Serbian criminals that knew the club's Russian owners. Wearing a tuxedo, it was his job to maintain order in the club and, at 4am every morning, drive the strippers home.
"That kind of ruined it for me. Some of them were seriously disturbed or addicts and some would have their kids with them in their dressing rooms. I was asking myself if I was on the right track. It was very hard."
Still, it was better than the alternative. The bitter ethnic conflicts that epitomised the Yugoslav wars of the early-1990s, ended with the creation of three new nation states but their starting point was a decimated populace, with millions displaced, a battered geography and fledgling economies.
"It was unimaginable. I had seen the war and it was unbelievable how people could turn against their neighbours. A lot of my friends died - from all three nationalities. I'm Serbian but I had Croatian and Bosnian friends."
He knew the consequences if he had joined the fighting. "I was lucky to be able to have a wise father who told me not to respond to the call-up," says Dushan. They called but I didn't go. Luckily, it was all so disorganised so if you didn't answer your call no-one would really look for you."
Dushan had other ideas. Before the war, he had been in a band and the prospect of trying to kick-start their lives in the post-war environment wasn't just appealing, it was unrealistic when people were just focused on surviving. "We had had two records out before the war, but now there were no resources and I was ready for a new life. My girlfriend went to New York and went in for the green card lottery, and applied on my behalf. And we got selected - less than one per cent of US immigration comes from the lottery, but we were chosen."
One of his fellow band members was already in America, and he picked Dushan, now 26, up from JFK in a beaten-up Volvo station wagon. "You could see the street through the floor. It was humid and hot, and he had the radio on. Van Halen came on and he turned to me, grinning: 'Welcome to America'."
He might have been starting a new life, but the going is tough for immigrants - no-one to fall back on, few friends, no family, no history, but Dushan managed to eek out a living at the strip club. Living in Queens he had to take three trains to get to the southernmost part of Brooklyn. Was this how the American dream is meant to be? The wealth and glamour of Manhattan seemed as far away as ever. Ironically, it was in one of the island's more salubrious parts that the next part of Dushan's destiny would play out.
"After a while I met a bartender who was working in the Upper East Side at an Italian restaurant. He said there were all these very wealthy American customers with a bunch of French and Italian restaurants. He said I should give it a try, that there were good cash tips."
Up to this point, Dushan's bar experience had been on the Greek islands in his college summer holidays, pulling pints and serving shots of mixto tequila. "So I really didn't know anything. I needed to learn, and my Albanian friend - they posed as Italians at the restaurant - agreed to train me, though they wouldn't hire me as they only hired girls. So I would drive the strippers home at 4am, grab a few hours sleep and then go train as a bartender at 9am."
Welcome to America? Welcome to the world of Bay Breezes, Cosmos and Kamikazes, of Grasshoppers and Rusty Nails. He had no money at all for socialising, but one night, pooling dollars with a friend, they decided they would check out the city's hottest night spot (their $40 got them two beers, plus tip). Pravda was an underground caviar and cocktails bar that boasted a line around the block, a beautiful clientele and, the thing that Dushan was suddenly more interested in, a fresh juice beverage programme with drinks served by bartenders in white uniforms. The Rainbow Room, pioneer of Dale DeGroff's own fresh juice programme, had closed already and Pravda's approach to drinks and service came as a revelation to Dushan. "That was really the point at which I realised I could make this a career. It was hottest place for years."
Now he was on the bartending grapevine, Dushan's big break came in 1997 when the jungle drums beat for the opening of Amy Sacco's Lot 61, a trendy bar renowned for its modern art - so you could have Daiquiris with Damien Hirst, so to speak - and attracting an A-list crowd. He was finally able to quit his job as a bouncer.
"I was hired to be a waiter, but it turned out the bar staff she hired were fired they were stealing their asses off, so suddenly I was bar-backing and bartending at the same time. Because of my training, the bar fell on my shoulders and I was quickly asked to become bar manager.
"One night, Amy was booked by Giorgio Armani for a party where there were 600 celebrities. His designers redecorated the place to his specification and the next thing I knew there was Liz Taylor, Robert De Niro and Bruce Willis asking for drinks. Bruce tipped me $50 for a vodka on the rocks. It was a real wow moment. I regularly walked home with $400-500 in tips."
From war-torn Serbia to this, Dushan was experiencing total culture shock, and sometimes the contrasts were manifest. "It was a time when our Wall Street customers were doing loads of blow - everyone was skiing in New York. There was even a special ledge in the bathrooms."
This being the mid-90s, regular people were drinking one thing, and one thing only: vodka. Rappers were drinking cognac and coke. Single malts were "window dressing" and as for gin: "I never made a gin drink in those days."
But as he began to understand the intricacies of bartending, essentially becoming more and more familiar with the classics and classic style, Lot 61 began to bore Dushan and, having been badgering the GM at Pravda for a job, increased his efforts to score a position back there. Four months later: success. "Peter McNally [restaurateur Keith's brother] called and asked if I wanted the job. I called Amy and she was really supportive. She knew I would learn a lot from the most influential operators in the city. They had recently hired Dale DeGroff to train us and to this day I still regard him as my Yoda. It's almost like a spiritual thing going on.
With Dale training us and learning about the lineage of bartending, learning not just about drinks and service but how the best bartenders started as bar-backs and worked their way up, it became a legitimate professional in my mind." With that philosophy, Dushan would rise to become group head bartender across all the McNally's restaurants.
Becoming a seasoned service industry worker, it was while he was at Pravda that Dushan uncovered a harsh truth about the industry - all those late nights make it hard to maintain a social life of your own, particularly after 9/11, when venues would close early and the atmosphere was generally very subdued. Amid this atmosphere in late 2003, while they worked at Pravda, Dushan and several co-workers, including Jason Kosmos, Igor Hadzismajlovic, Billy Gilroy and Henry LaFargue - the latter a veteran McNally employee), figured out there was a gap in the market and that they could conceive, build and operate a bar for bartenders, waiters and other industry workers - a bar that would open and close later than the rest. They worked for a year conceptualising everything.
On 5 December 2004, 71 years to the day after the repeal of Prohibition, Employees Only opened in the Village, just at the right time to become part of the new booming renaissance in cocktail culture. Milk & Honey had already opened and Julie Reiner had opened Flatiron Lounge a month before. Employees Only sported a sweeping bar designed so that anyone sitting at it could see everyone else there - this was designed to be a truly social affair. The team lucked out when the Daily Candy website wrote a glowing report on the first day, describing it as the perfect bar, and it's been busy practically ever since.
A novel aspect of the operation was EO's team of resident psychics - the neon light advertising their presence has a pseudo-speakeasy theme about it. So what did they see for the bar's future in their crystal balls? "Ha, everybody was saying different things. We started with three psychics, though we have only one now. One of them said that by 2009 we would be millionaires, and although I can tell you now that we are busier than we ever were, that totally hasn't happened - at least yet."
In the meantime, Employees Only has previously been rated as the highest grossing cocktail bar per square foot in the US - despite it occupying only 1,600 square feet, its barmen make 138,000 cocktails per year, a figure independently corroborated by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, not including spirit/mixer serves. On the menu, just as many wines as cocktails, which fall into the classic and classic-inspired school, with a focus on good quality ingredients and enough homemade stuff to look interesting. Bartenders go through two-year apprenticeship programmes. Fundamentally, it's about having a good drink that you don't have to wait ages for. Dinner's available until 3.30am for hungry workers after their shift.
On our own visits to New York, Employees Only is distinguishable for one particular thing: sure, the drinks are good, the service is spot on, but mostly, it's about the atmosphere, a relaxed sense where nothing is taken too seriously, of a sense of fun that you don't necessarily get in spades at other more hushed or hallowed cocktail venues. It's an attitude that's led by Dushan himself, he the possessor of the world's biggest smile. "If Milk & Honey is jazz, we are more like a rock 'n' roll band," he explains. "For me it's about being comfortable, classy and fun."
It's a formula which won the bar its Tales of the Cocktail accolade last year as World's Best Cocktail Bar, beating off stiff competition from 69, Colebrooke Row in London, Barcelona's Dry Martini and Tokyo's Bar High Five, and won the Word's Best Drinks Selection category. It was also shortlisted for Best American Cocktail Bar, Dushan himself was shortlisted as Best Bar Mentor, and his book, Speakeasy, written with Jason Kosmas (the foreword written by 'Yoda'/Dale), was shortlisted in the Best New Book category.
Nearly ten years on, Dushan is rightly regarded as something of a veteran of the Manhattan bar scene. He's seen it change along with himself, so there's a chance to ask some searching questions: Is there a typical New York bartender? "Yes," he says, "but it depends when. When I started there was the typical '90s failed actors with gelled hair. I knew a lot of them. By the 2000s we were slowly starting to get the professional bartender, with waxed moustaches and suspenders. Now that's all over the place and the new thing is about getting excited about obscure ingredients.
"I'm blown away by the creatively educated, smart people with college degrees that bartending now attracts. It's really refreshing to see the trade evolving so beautifully."
What's the new generation good - and bad - at? "They're really good at the theoretical knowledge, they read all the right books, they play with techniques. What they're lacking in is basic mileage behind the bar, and mostly they are lacking senior co-workers who have a lot of mileage themselves that they can learn from by example."
What are the skills required for success today then? "I've never seen anyone more humble than the greatest bartenders. Jim Meehan at PDT is about the most exceptional and most humble bartender I know and that says it all. Most of the kids coming through forget about humility and hospitality as the foundations for your job. It should be all about the guest: as long as they are sitting down and we are standing up it's what they say that goes and making them happy that counts. That's something I learned way back in Greece.
"Don't assume they want to know about cocktail culture and don't force your knowledge on them - it's your job to provide an environment where they become intrigued and ask you for your guidance."
This all sounds strangely familiar, and Dushan acknowledges that he follows the Gaz Regan school of 'mindful bartending'. "It's about taking the chance to learn, enrich and open yourself up. Happy bartenders make happy drinks and make more money. When you are content and don't want things to change, your service and attitude won't be angry or sarcastic or annoyed. The difference is felt at the ends of the night when you look at the takings.
An equally successful second bar concept in the shape of Macao Trading Company emerged in Tribeca in 2008. Fronted by a red light on the street, it boasts two floors of Portuguese/oriental escapism complete with a basement speakeasy in the vein of an illicit opium den/brothel.
Dushan, now 42, faces the prospect of spinning off his brands into something bigger. In fact, Dushan's about to become a national - and possibly international - phenomenon.
"We are about to start work on Macao Los Angeles, maybe this year, and if not, 2013 - my wife and I have been planning to move to southern California for some time. We're working on a location for Employees Only in Las Vegas and we've also had talks about opening Employees Only in Singapore."
Next up is a line in premium well spirits - under the name Company 86 Noise and Spirits Company - '86' being the idiom for 'no-longer available'. It is launching a vodka, rum, gin and tequila in litre packages designed to sit in speed wells. First up is Aylesbury Duck vodka, made with Canadian winter wheat. Next will be Ford's Gin made with the help of Pernod Ricard's Simon Ford, to be made by Thames Distillers. Cana y Brava 'wild cane' rum, grown in Panama, with an iron-rich soil will then follow with No Mames, a 100 per cent agave blanco tequila.
Quite the entrepreneur, Dushan's mini empire might not be the rock 'n' roll lifestyle he wanted as an idealistic youngster, but then again it's definitely not the lifestyle he would have led if he had not left Yugoslavia, and he's certainly not complaining. "I am profoundly grateful for all the opportunities I have had. You come from Europe, so you've got this emotional separation, and you've come from an environment when people are still dying of ignorance and hatred, and a few months later I was face-to-face with film stars.
"The war forced me to look for another outlet for my life: I couldn't have picked a better one."