Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe
“I worked at this for four years,” says Igor Hadzismajlovic (“Haji-Smile-Ovich”), ensconced at the “dragon table” in his brand new Employees Only on Amoy Street, Singapore. “I was looking for the right space. It had to be a shophouse, and it had to be the right street - it couldn't be on Club Street. It had to be close to the CBD but not in it.”
Singapore might seem an unlikely location as the first new opening for the veteran New York speakeasy yet, Hadzismajlovic says, it had a lot of appeal – and not only because he can play his sport of choice, beach volleyball, year round. “This is a very affluent city,” he says. “People here drink and there's no corruption like there is in other Asian cities or elsewhere in the world. Everything here is very straightforward.”
Steve Schneider, the legendary bartender who'll be manning the stick in Singapore after a handshake deal sealed with slivovitz and rakia, Bosnian style, chimes in. “When we got our employment passes it took about ten minutes.”
Singapore's celebrated efficiency works for Hadzismajlovic as well. “I've never seen a bureaucracy so organised and so functioning as this one,” he says. “And the transport. Try getting from point A to point B in Jakarta – it's like mission impossible. Here you can get ANYWHERE in 15 minutes.”
Employees Only Singapore opened in June 2016 on a quite epically tight turnaround. “I landed, signed the lease and we opened 74 days later,” Hadzismajlovic says, still sporting a sharp suit and trilby in temperatures around 30°C and sweatbox humidity. That's barely two months to transform a traditional Chinese shophouse into a NYC-style speakeasy, adapt the menus, train the staff, source products and ingredients, and whip up an appropriate buzz.
“In New York, the core was still there so I just learned it, perfected it and managed it all,” says Schneider. “Coming here, you have to build from the ground up. We're not coming over with no name, no pressure. We're here with a big name. So I'll be damned if it's not exactly how I want it.”
Singapore presents its challenges on the food front. Despite the national obsession with food and eating out, space is at such a premium in the tiny city-state that all produce is imported, meaning chef Julia Jaksic has had to compromise on her local food focus. Whereas in New York she sources ingredients from farms within a 100-mile radius, here she's thinking continents: “I'm trying to be as local as possible, to use local stuff within South-East Asia and Australia,” she says.
Yet despite the challenges, the place is buzzing – even early on a Tuesday night – with tables for dinner Singapore's most coveted reservation. It's all a far cry from Bosnia, where Hadzismajlovic grew up, part of a generation whose lives were shaped for better or worse by a war so ugly and complex that most participants would struggle to explain the long history that set neighbours to killing one another.
Hadzismajlovic avoided most of the conflict that left his mother with ongoing PTSD by studying as a refugee in nearby Croatia. But in 1996 the war in Bosnia ended. “For me as a refugee in Croatia that meant I was either going to have go to back home or I had the chance to go to America and apply for refugee status there,” he says.
New York offered more prospects than war-torn, bombed-out Sarajevo. But even with friends and family in the city, it was terrifying. “It was very intimidating,” Hadzismajlovic recalls. “That first time crossing the bridge from Queens to Manhattan I was like 'What the fuck am I doing here? How am I going to fit in here?'”
He started with a job installing air conditioners for $50 per day, then began working in restaurants to pay his way through film school. “Then I had a full-time job, a full-time Brazilian super-demanding girlfriend and full-time school,” he says. “There were too many full-times in my life so I had to drop something and I dropped school. And in the meantime I fell in love with the bar.”
Dale DeGroff was a formative influence. “It was amazing to see what a career he'd made out of bartending because I didn't know it was possible to make such a career just out of serving drinks,” Hadzismajlovic says. “He was so inspiring, so eloquent, such a gentleman. I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”
And he liked the world of the bar. “It's fast-paced, it's fun - I like drinking. It's easy to meet people and it's great money, especially in the States,” he says. “If you work in a fast-paced bar you can work three nights and make really good money. It's flexible for taking time off - if you cover your shifts you can travel. Not many jobs have that combination.”
It was at Pravda, Keith McNally's iconic late 90s bar and restaurant, that he met the guys who would become his partners in Employees Only NYC – and Joshua Schwartz, his mentor and backer for Employees Only Singapore. (All five of the original partners have the opportunity to open their own versions of Employees Only: Miami and Austin are also on the cards, while Hadzismajlovic can already envisage opening another branch once Singapore is up and running.)
Around the turn of the century he both lived and worked with Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric, all as bartenders at Pravda. “Every Sunday night, we'd throw a dinner party and invite 12 other people to our house. Jay would cook, Dushan would make drinks, and I would kind of do everything else, whatever helped,” he recalls. “We had such fun every Sunday we were like, 'I think we should do this for a living, man!'”
It took three years from that first concept to opening Employees Only NYC in 2004. The trio brought on Henry LaFargue, a veteran bartender who'd opened Pravda, and Billy Gilroy, who had experience of opening restaurants and raising money, bringing the number of partners up to five.
Impressively, the five have lasted twelve years in business without falling out. “You should always have an uneven number of partners,” Hadzismajlovic counsels. “You don't want to go over five because then it gets a little too convoluted.”
And, despite being in a business known for egos, they remain friends. “We talk, we email, we FaceTime, we're best man at each other's weddings, we've lived together,” says Hadzismajlovic. “It's a brotherhood. I don't see it just as a business partnership.”
The name came about almost accidentally. “Finding a name for a bar or restaurant is very hard, to find something that defines you,” says Hadzismajlovic. They were considering a space with a secret bar area out back, marked with a sign saying 'Employees Only', when they realised the sign could contribute the name. And, duly, all the owners worked in the bar – Hadzismajlovic even stepped in as dishwasher on the opening night.
Longevity in the fickle, fashion-obsessed bar world is hard to achieve, and Employees Only NYC has both locked down critical plaudits and made a tonne of money pretty much since opening in 2004. Part of the art lies in timelessness, and much in painstaking attention to detail: Hadzismajlovic, for all his amiability and ready laugh, is both a perfectionist and highly competitive (at school, he hoped to be a pro sportsman).
Employees Only Singapore is an evolving project, with its starting point as close as possible to the NYC original, and local distinctions to appear over time. “We're not going to rush it,” says Hadzismajlovic. “We want to stay in our comfort zone, make sure that we do perfectly what we do and create the bar, and then something new will come along later on.” At the moment, even without a fortune teller in the window, it's looking good.
Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina
New York and Singapore