RapidChat: Rob Hanks on GR's cocktail culture and the almighty Negroni

While most evenings you can find his smiling face behind the bar at Reserve Wine and Food, the current serving President of GR's Bartender's Guild, Rob Hanks, aims to elevate Grand Rapids' drinking establishments...one Negroni at a time.
While most evenings you can find his smiling face behind the bar at Reserve Wine and Food, the current serving President of GR's Bartender's Guild, Rob Hanks, aims to elevate Grand Rapids' drinking establishments...one Negroni at a time.

Rapid Growth: How did you first get started within the service industry?

Rob Hanks: I got my start as a fry cook at a fish fry joint on 28th street back in high school. It wasn’t really anything special, but that lunch rush really taught you to put your head down and get it done. I then went on to Vitale’s of Ada where I got my start in the Front of House as a server and food runner.

RG: How do you think the service industry evolved since then?

RH: I think that in the past 12 years the average consumer is not as concerned about quantity (to the extent that it used to be) as they are about quality. People are asking more questions when they come in and the whole idea of supporting local is something that I think Grand Rapids excels at. I think that it’s even evident by the expansion of the Fulton Street Farmers Market.

RG: What is your role within the GR Bartenders Guild?

RH: I am the Grand Rapids United States Bartender’s Guild chapter President. We are a collective of professional bartenders and service industry professionals that strive to raise the bar (no pun intended) of quality in a drinking establishment. I help coordinate educational events and tastings, competitions, and promote those who overall aim to elevate what we do.

RG: What are some things you have learned from your fellow bartenders?

RH: Definitely that we almost all have the same war stories. There is nothing better than sitting around a table full of bartenders talking about how their night went after a busy shift. It’s usually more trading ideas for drinks, or thinking of the most absurd idea for a drink, hashing it out, and coming up with something. You’d be surprised how often it kinda works.

RG: What do you think sets Reserve Wine & Food, where you currently serve as Bar Manager, apart from the rest?

RH: There are many things that I believe set us apart, all bias aside. The bar team spends months working on every recipe that we put on the cocktail menu and they are thoroughly vetted. Adam (the Assistant General Manager) and I taste through literally hundreds of wines a month to determine which of those are the highest quality for the price that we can find. In the kitchen, our chef team spends an equal amount of time thinking about their ingredients as Adam and I do about beverage.

Just because the farm we may get zucchini from for example also carries carrots, we may choose to buy carrots from a farm that we don’t get anything else from because they are superior. It’s that thought of not cutting corners that I think sets us apart. And don’t even get me started on the immense amount of knowledge it takes for our service team to operate on a regular basis— knowing where the food is coming from, how it’s prepared, which wine will pair perfectly with that dish, speak intelligently about the other 101 wines on the list, and on top of it all, knowing how to accommodate whichever new diet or allergy is around.

RG: How do you—as a bartender—stay competitive within this market?

RH: You have to challenge yourself, even if no one else is. We say that bartending on this level is a craft because you’re constantly trying to find a new way to improve upon what you’re doing. Rearranging your syrups and juices to be more efficient, finding the most beautiful part of a lemon or lime to garnish a drink with, understanding and honing in on your tools, constantly studying. I truly think that, whichever market you’re in, you have to be the most knowledgeable about whatever you specialize in. If you work with wine like I do, every vintage is a new opportunity to refresh yourself.

RG: What direction do you foresee the GR foodie industry heading in?

RH: We are seeing an influx of restaurants opening across the city, which is great. The average consumer of these places are becoming younger as each year passes and apartment building is built. With all of this I believe that the younger generation is going to be even more choosy than we are now. I see smaller places opening up that are catering to a specific style of food and focusing on that, rather than trying to appease everyone. It’s better for everyone if chefs and bartenders are allowed [to] and embraced for pursuing their passions and being able to share that with the community.

RG: Do you anticipate a craft spirit boom in Grand Rapids?

RH: My analogy is that through history we have had a progression of alcoholic beverages. We started with crude wines and beers through accident, then as time continued we dialed in on how to produce higher quality wines and beers, and then we realized that we could make it a bit better by distilling those things. I think Grand Rapids will eventually start distilling their breweries. History repeats itself.

RG: What is your drink of choice?

RH: The Negroni. Everyone who knows me, or maybe even doesn’t know me, knows that one thing about me. I’m the annoying guy scoping out the back bar looking for a bottle of Campari. It’s either that or a glass of Riesling, because it’s delicious.

Jenna Morton is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media. 
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