As part of this year's Cocktail Week, we're profiling an industry player who's been mixing drinks long enough to give good advice. Here now is our chat with Etro owner and 15-year industry pro Geronimo Villalobos.
For a few locals and Houston visitors, Etro might be the "place next door to Anvil," but for the rest of us it's where you go to dance to Morrisey, reminisce with music videos playing on the big screen or have drinks while neon lights illuminate the '80s new wave portrait over the dance floor. There's no other place like it in the area. So it's no wonder that when Villalobos started working there, he wanted to stay there. After 15 years in the bar industry, Villalobos now finds himself the proud owner of this Montrose establishment, and he's also looking toward the future with a radically different project in mind.
What first drew you to bartending?
I got into bartending by way of working in coffee shops back in the late '90s. I had a couple of good regulars that were bartenders and would tell me, 'You should get into bartending because you're fast at making a drink and great with customers.' It's been a train ride ever since. [Laughter.] I worked an odd assortment of humble bar gigs like door guy, security, sweeper, and barback before I started getting bartender shifts. And boy, I sucked at first. But I was a fast learner and I believe my work ethic helped me start getting good, high-volume jobs pretty quickly in some pretty posh joints around town back then.
How and why did you take on Etro?
A gentleman by the name of Reese Haisler came up with [the concept]. However, I have been a bartender for several popular '80s promotions over the years and was already familiar with the crowd. Long story short, Reese was ready to move on to other projects and was, respectfully, getting a bit burnt-out by the bar business. I had been working for him for a bit over a year. He knew I had love for what he created, and that I could take Etro to the next level. We worked out a deal, and it's been an awesome '80s party ever since. I have definitely put my own spin on things, but I have kept it as close to the original aesthetic of the space. I also hired a great video DJ, Marc Nicholson, as our resident DJ. The fact that he's not just a gun-for-hire but an actual lover of the music we play makes a big difference.
Do you have any horror stories you'd like to share? Any crazy customers who have given you a hard time?
MANY from my old bartending days. But none from Etro. It's actually one of my favorite things about my place. I've said many times before that no one really wants to get in a fight while listening to Depeche Mode or The Cure. We have what we jokingly refer to as "Etro fights." They are rarely physical—knock on wood. Angry words will be exchanged, but we find that most people want to be talked out of getting in trouble. We have been known for paying for a few cab rides.
Where do you go when you want a drink and need a break from work?
The Dirt. Though I do love eighties music, those that know me know that I'm an old school metal-head. And The Dirt serves it up right. I really dig that spot. Alley Cat is pretty cool, too. Very chill joint.
Do you have any advice for newbie bartenders?
Where can I begin? I'll keep it simple and short: Be efficient and knowledgable. Good customer service is a must, learn to always keep your cool, and when the shit hits the fan—and it will—leave it at the job. Do your best to never take it home with you.
Do you have any bar customer or employee pet peeves?
Probably too many. For a customer? Dealing with a person that is so annoying that they make people feel uncomfortable enough to leave, especially if they're sober... because then they have no excuse. They're just idiots. As for an employee? A thief or a bartender with a big ego but with bad work skills. In the end, your numbers or sales should do all your talking, not your mouth.
What's next for you in the industry?
I'm in the process of opening up a coffee house. It's called Campesino Coffee House. Look us up; I'll have a website up soon. Our Facebook fan page should be up any day now. It's definitely a labor of love for me, and something that's been in the works for many years. I'm happy to say that it's finally coming together. It is also a Montrose location walking distance from Etro. I'm hoping to have it open by the end of the year maybe early next year at the latest.
I'm a big coffee nut and just love what I refer to as coffee culture. Great coffee is definitely a foundation but the smells, sounds, aesthetic and interactions with friendly staff all add to the experience. I could spend many hours in one of my favorite coffee spots and not feel like it's a waste of my time. And I often have. It's funny how some things come full circle with me going back to the business I started in.
· Etro [Official Site]
· All Cocktail Week 2013 Coverage [-EHOU-]
· All Other Eater Interviews [-EHOU-]
Geronimo Villalobos [Facebook]