How to Build a Perfect Bar

It’s been nearly four years since Jesse Held and Jeff Erkkila quit their jobs to put fire and time toward the dream of opening a distillery and restaurant for their brand Earl Giles. OK, so they had to get new jobs, obviously, while this whole massive building was being perfected on Quincy Street in Northeast Minneapolis. And then, you know, the pandemic. So: no jobs, then jobs, no jobs, and then some jobs again. 

But delays, while frustrating, can be a gift. While Held and Erkkila kept focused on the dream, they had the time to really mull over what their bar should be. Because it’s more than drinks and rails and which straws to order. As veterans in the industry, they’d worked behind many a stick, but when you get to create your own bar for the first time, it’s really about mixing all your past experiences while setting a tone for your future. 

Held and Connor Green, who will be GM of the whole place, took me on a tour of the back bar in the new space which is about 80% done. “That last 20% is a heavy 20,” Held noted, “we’re getting tanks and suspending things from the ceiling, so we have some big things to get done before we’re ready for open next month.”

The bar top, on the other hand, is solidly installed. It’s hewn from one tree from South America, known as Monkey Pod. The entire bar top, the back bar top, and tap handles all come from a single tree, which Held says grows about 5 feet a year making it a more sustainable choice. 

As an L-shape structure holding down the center of the room, the bar will seat about 40 people. Green told me that there will be a lot of drinks on tap, coming from a nitro system, and most of those will be spirit free, with the spirit of choice added in the glass (btw, spirit-free is a full part of the menu, not a special NA section or designation, and drinks are drinks and not “cocktails” because that leads to a definition rooted in the past.) But, drinks will also be built by request, “there will be tins shaking” he assured me. Because of that, they’ve custom designed their bartender stations, known as the well or here: cockpits, to be efficient and bartender friendly. “Everything is hooked around you. So you’re actually increasing your capability of grabbing bottles without dramatically increasing your space or your footprint. Much of it can be customized to the bartender working that night, they can sub in cutting boards for drip trays if they like more surface to work on. And all of the garnishes are refrigerated.” What? No snacky olive bins within a drinker’s reach? The rails, which hold bottles that often awkwardly bang at the knees have been elevated, and a constantly running tool wash and shaker tin rinse is right at hand. Four mirror constructions of these cockpits are plotted along the 120 foot bar, meaning things are meant to go smoothly for both the bartender and the drinker. 

“Connor and I are big proponents of using technology and efficiency so that we can bring back the art of hospitality,” Held told me. “And not just at the bar top but walking through a space, feeling the acknowledgment of staff as you walk by them feels like you’re a part of the space, versus being kind of in the way. It’s about making sure our delivery drivers get water, it has to be a natural part of the way we live while we’re in here. It’s why we are combining all the positions into a cohesive front of house team.”

Servers will have the opportunity to take bartending shifts, and bartenders will be able to work the floor. “Now there’s different skill levels that will put people in different positions naturally,” Green mentioned, “but instead of having a team where we have six servers and only four bartenders, we are all now service, our staff is at ten people versus six and four. It allows the entire team to welcome people into these spaces as a whole versus, I’m a bartender.”

Which brings us to the question of tipping. Held and I have had long discussions about the various models out there, and he’s worked behind tipped bars, non-tipped bars, and considered every variation in between. “I don’t want to be a service charge house. And while we can’t tell anyone what to do legally, we hope to be a pool house.”

To clarify, the state of MN doesn’t allow employers to structure a tip pool with gratuities, which is why you see the “not a gratuity” language on the bottom of menus when a service charge is employed. If it’s “not a gratuity” the house can mandate what’s done with it. Many employers like Held want to foster a tip pooling culture in their new spaces, so that gratuities can be distributed among the whole team. But they are legally reliant upon the workers they hire to agree, set up, and mandate the system amongst themselves. This is confusing for everyone, and some workers love a tip system, others love a service charge system. Nothing is perfect, and I will continue to assert: restaurants are made of people, not systems, which means there will never be a one-size-fits-all answer. 

“I don’t think the service charge model works especially well in the Twin Cities, and there’s reasons why you get into this business as an 18 to 25 year old kid,” Held believes. “I think the tipping model is still tried-and-true with a lot of people who need to pick up a shift, just to make a car payment, or earn rent in week, right? Like those things I still want to have happen, and I don’t think you can do that with the service charge model. So we really would hope that everybody sees their value equally and it becomes a typical pool house.”

Green added that they also expect to pay higher than minimum wage, “We’ve looked at where it’ll be in the next couple years and we’re just gonna meet it there now. So we’ll pay higher than minimum based on different positions. Pool expectation is that there will be kind of a tiered system based off of the support staff receiving a higher hourly wage, and then a percentage of sales where the tipped full positions of server and bartenders will be splitting what they take home after they’ve tipped out their support staff, including the kitchen.”  

Will this help them win workers in a shortage? It’s a huge space. There’s 165 seats on the main floor, 40 at the bar, 70 upstairs in private dining, and an additional 80-100 outside on the patio. Lots of bodies needed. The restaurant and bar will be open for dinner six days a week, weekends will open at 11:00 for that brunch life. Mondays will be a day of rest for everyone. 

They still have a little over a month to keep fine tuning, and if you know Held and Erkkila, they may never be done tweaking and perfecting what they’re creating. The distillery portion of the space is still being installed, but the production lab in the back is already busy making tinctures, bitters, and ginger beer. Above, on the mezzanine, the Apothecary where new(ish) partner Nick Kosevich will be crafting, is just cement floors and beams at this point. 

There’s a lot of promise, backed with a lot of experience. Maybe that’s more hopeful than dwelling on the expectation that anything can be perfect. Especially in this industry. 

I know, we didn’t even talk about pizzas or pretty drinks this time. Stay tuned for an opening date and prettier pics to come!

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