Welcome to our feature, The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite tables.
Jason Rager, bartender at Holeman & Finch.
Holeman & Finch has become quite the hot spot, what with Owen Wilson stopping by and everyone from CNN to Epicurious lauding the elusive burger. Though the burger may get people in the door initially, it's the hand-crafted cocktails that keep people coming back. Meet Jason Rager, the man behind the bar, who makes the drinks and so much more.
What's your background? Where have you worked in Atlanta?
I tended bar in Athens for about two years before moving to Atlanta, as well as random odd bar gigs in between. Once in the city, I was on the opening staff of Publik in Midtown, and then helped open Victory [Sandwich Bar] in Inman Park. They were all great folks to work for, and great bars I frequent these days.
How long have you been working at Holeman & Finch? What's your favorite part of your job?
I've been here for 10 months. The most rewarding part of this job would have to be education; both from the ownership to the staff, and then the staff to the public. There are bars without any drive to further cocktail culture, and working in a house that promotes better drinking gives a great feeling. I love to make a drink for a guest, and then set him or her up with a recipe card and instructions on how to prepare it. What's even better is the look I get when I give them directions to where they can find all the ingredients to serve the drink at home. This is how people will change their habits. If one of our cocktails is being made 50 years from now, we've done our job.
It's 9 p.m. Saturday, can you walk in and get a table or a spot at the bar? If not, what's the wait?? When are you busiest?
Generally at 9 p.m. on a Saturday, you're looking at an hour and a half wait for the dining room, lots of folks standing in the lounge. That was anticipated though. We have a very large and food-friendly bar top, as well as surfaces to sit snacks on along the perimeter of the entire room. It's not necessary to get a table right away! People can come in, hang out, maybe share some snacks with their neighbor next to them while enjoying a cold beer or a sazerac. Our house is small, but it's a feeling of community that comes from the closeness, not annoyance.
The drinks at H&F are pretty complex and can take a little while to make. Have you ever had any truly impatient (to the point of rude) customers? How do you handle it?
It's funny you ask this. Atlanta was not conditioned early on for craft cocktails. This situation sets the stage for a great opportunity; to serve quality drinks at the speed of a high-volume restaurant bar. We come in hours before a shift in order to prepare for maximum efficiency. We prep gallons of fresh juice, crack egg whites into squeeze bottles, charge ginger beer in carbon siphons. We do everything short of sacrificing quality of taste or visual aesthetic. Sure, there are going to be those who get impatient, but that's present in any business. I've had a man order a drink twice (assuming I had ignored his order), before realizing he'd never seen a gin and tonic made in a bar without a soda gun. Once he tasted it, he certainly didn't seem so rushed.
Do you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist? Why?
I consider myself a bartender; a restaurant lifer, in fact. I've seen this word in debate before, and to me, it's a pretty simple concept. If those who did this great work 150 years ago called themselves mixologists, I would too. I've never heard a chef refer to himself as a plate-ologist; why should I be any different?
What happens if a customer doesn't like his or her drink?
If a customer ever has a qualm with what has been given, I ask him or her the questions required to make sure the next glass they sip from makes them want to drink deeply of it and satisfy their thirst.
H&F is a pretty classy bar. Have you ever seen a fight break out? What happened?
I've never seen a fistfight, but I have seen a light saber duel. One of our regulars challenged the owner. Being a man of substance and grit, he accepted. It was glorious.This house's honor stands.
What do you do when you're faced with people who are clearly underage? Do you take up fakes?
People who are clearly underage usually don't come here to drink. If they do, however (and especially if they're on a date), I'll smile, make them a delicious non-alcoholic cocktail, and allow them to look like a big-shot.
Do people ever try bribe you to get the special burger after the 24 have been allotted?? What happens then?
Often. Fortunately I enjoy working under a roof where neither income nor status holds any bearing. If you've got $10 to your name and make it on that list, I'll spot you the tax. You earned it.
What celebrities have you served? Do you take their order before other customers? What happens if the bar is packed and a VIP comes in??
To be honest, Holeman & Finch has become somewhat of a celebrity hot-spot lately. I've served the likes of Sean Brock, David Wondrich, Kevin Gillespie, and John T. Edge among many others. Usually when they come in, they have friends talking with them, so they tend to be patient. If it's packed and a VIP comes in? People tend to be bold and go talk to them?it's great to see a person meet a hero right in front of you.
What's the most strangest request you've ever received from a customer??
Once, while working a catering job, I had a customer come ask me who a man was. He was smelly, horribly drunk, and had cut her in line at the breakfast buffet. Not only had he decided against waiting his turn, but apparently also forgotten a plate. The woman exclaimed, "He just walked up, grabbed a huge handful of bacon with his dirty bare hand, and ate it! Right there in front of me! He ate it, and headed back to your little tent over there!" I paused, took a deep breath, and said the words that would later that day end my job. "That was the chef, ma'am. I'll go check if we have any fresh bacon for you."
At the end of the day, what's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job?
Confidence. Fear is a mind-killer. Coming in every day, ready for battle, you never know what's going to be asked of you. I consider myself a debouillard, and I ALWAYS get the job done. At the end of the day, we're winning this fight. Four years ago, Atlanta wasn't drinking how it does today. People come up to my bar and ask what fortified wines I have, or what my favorite amaro is when pairing with dessert. That's what keeps us coming back.