Words by: Tara Garnell
Joe Stokoe moved to London in 2002 from Yorkshire to explore what London had to offer, landing on his feet with a job at Milk and Honey. Bartending, he claims, was never intended to be his trade but now he's carving out a successful business as one half of consultancy firm Heads, Hearts & Tails.
As a fairly hyper 21-year-old, listening to jazz for eleven hours a night wasn't necessarily where I thought I'd start out career-wise, but the rigour of Milk & Honey was an excellent primer for the future. When I joined the team, the bar had only been open for six months. Sasha Petraske and Dale DeGroff were around a lot and I drew on their experience. I stayed at Milk for a year-and-a-half before moving to Trailer Happiness: if Milk & Honey felt like school, then Trailer felt like college. Looking back, Milk & Honey probably wasn't geared for me but it was an amazing opportunity.
Through working at Trailer Happiness I met Henry Besant who was working at The Lonsdale at the time. In 2005 he approached me to join a team of bartending heavyweights he was gathering to undertake the opening of a new site, All Star Lanes, with Gregor de Gruyther and Kai Weller. All Star allowed me to expand my back-of-house knowledge as I went from head bartender at the Holborn site to group bars manager. I oversaw the opening of each new site and as the group grew my role was to oversee trainings, hire staff and coordinate the bars. After four years though I had itchy feet so I threw caution to the wind and stepped out on my own.
I did quite a bit of event work, a number of pop-ups, including in New York, then back in London Chris Jepson, my former GM at Milk, asked me to work with him at The Box. Looking back now The Box was pretty debaucherous (but that's all I'll say). For an operational perspective the challenge was to put together a team that could make a tasty Old Fashioned in a club environment. A lot of bartenders probably wouldn't want to work there: you're under a hell of a lot of pressure, it's one of the busiest bars I've worked in and the pace would go from 0-100 in no time at all. You're only trading for four or five hours a night so there's only a small window in which to make as much money as possible.
Charles Vexenat and I once liberated a couple of directors' chairs and a megaphone, set them down in Old Compton Street and pretended to make a movie. It was in Soho and that was actually how I first met Paul Mant. I seem to remember sitting on the same chair in the middle of a tube carriage later that night... Heads, Hearts & Tails seemed a natural progression for both Paul and myself. We'd known each other for a long time and had found that we approached work in the same manner, so going into business seemed logical. We both have the gift of the gab and the fact that we can bounce off each other means that it's easy to collaborate.
I've never found bartending to be a chore and I believe it should be as enjoyable as possible. Taking our knowledge and experience of the industry - both good and bad - and applying it to multiple projects at once seemed a better fit than moving into management or brand ambassadorship. We do quite a bit of brand training and training sessions and the next step will be to find our own client base and build relationships with them. One project we're working on is Bounce, a new table tennis-themed bar in High Holborn, opening in September.
Knowledge is creeping in as the most important element in bartending but without etiquette it can fall flat. Both Paul and I both come from the same era of bartenders, one which focuses primarily on the customer. I was running a training session with Henry Besant in Sweden recently on global drinks trends with seven separate presentations on drinks that are being made around the world. The main point for us, throughout the presentation, was emphasising that a bartender should be personable and a host foremost.
I see a strong link between bartenders and chefs, except bartenders have a sense of humour. Cocktails and spirits will always follow what happens in the food industry and I think in the last few years we've seen a huge leap in the quality of the offerings. A couple of years ago it was difficult to define what good British food was but London especially has seen a glut of exciting and groundbreaking offerings in the last few years. I think that the advent of the pop-up has played a huge part in bringing new ideas and influences to the public. One of the reasons I enjoy playing a part in these events is the opportunity it gives to test out an idea or concept with less risk, or create a menu which focuses on one thing and really get it just right.