A Conversation with Bar Consultant Robert Freeman
We had a chance to chat with legendary bar consultant Robert Freeman ahead of Tales of the Cocktail 2018. Robert is teaming up with Mavenhal to promote their new “Shifter” Bar Bag. Each bag is handcrafted in the USA using only the best materials, including the first ever, durable waterproof laminated cotton duck canvas, and lined with 400 denier cordura nylon.
Every TOTC 2018 attendee will receive a special code upon registration which will offer a 20% discount toward the order of a “Shifter” Bar Bag. Learn more about Mavenhal Bar Bags at mavenhal.com, and be sure to say hello to Robert Freeman at Tales of the Cocktail where he will have a “Shifter” Bar Bag you can see for yourself.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Wichita then raised in a small town called Pittsburg located in southeast Kansas. I grew up hiking, hunting, and fishing. My mother and father were in the radio and marketing business so I would also attend concerts every other weekend. More recently, I have moved to Savannah, GA after living for over 10 years in several parts of Florida. I now have a small commute to where I manage the bar and restaurant Calhoun Street Tavern located in Old Town in Bluffton, SC.
What attracted you to enter the cocktails/spirits industry in the first place?
I had come home from a cross-country road trip where I had traveled 20,000 miles and visited 40 different states. Upon arrival home, my girlfriend at the time recommended that I involve myself in the bar industry in order to bounce back and make quick cash. This intrigued me because prior to bartending I had been a musician in a touring band. Which had exposed me to a large variety of genuine hospitality in many different forms. So I saw this as an opportunity to give back.
What and where was your first job in the industry?
My first industry job was apart of an opening crew of a neighborhood craft cocktail bar located in downtown Jacksonville, FL. I found out about the position via Craigslist. Soon after I reached out to them I met with Sidecar owners Kurt Rogers, Matthew Carson, and Dan Calkins. They taught me the fundamentals of proper hospitality and cocktails. I owe many of the opportunities I’ve been granted to these gentlemen on behalf of their willingness to share their experience and knowledge.
Was there a moment when you decided that the cocktail/spirits industry would be your career path?
In 2016, I placed first in the regional Woodford Manhattan Experience. A few days later I was on a flight to Louisville, Kentucky to compete nationally. Never would I have guessed that bartending could allow me to travel and showcase this craft surrounded by inspiring professionals. Having only been in the industry for less than a year at this point I was awestruck. We were drilling barrels in the rickhouses with Chris Morris in their beautiful distillery. Coming home from that experience gave me the willingness to say yes to every opportunity and the aspiration to learn everything that I could.
What did you find most rewarding and most challenging about this path?
The most rewarding part of bartending for me is being able to build relationships with the neighborhood. I’ve been a part of first dates that turned into marriages. I’ve been behind the bar when a guest has lost a family member. Being consistent and giving them the confidence and trust of being there is important when they look to see a familiar face.
I would say the most challenging part of this path is the amount of hours. I can get caught up in a shift and not realize I just worked 12 hours without stopping for a break or a quick bite. Keeping a balance, eating correctly, and taking care of yourself is an important part of your long-term goal.
How has your role in the cocktail/spirits industry changed since you first joined it?
Starting as a bar back, leading into a bartender, and becoming a bar manager. I’ve experienced all the responsibilities that come with each position. Knowing how to properly clean a bar, make all the cocktails, and keeping track of ordering, inventory, and communicating with staff.
I’ve now taken that knowledge and created my own consulting company where I can work on beverage programs, staff trainings, educational seminars, hosting special events, and personifying with a brand. It’s been a non-stop learning experience and I’m passionate about every aspect.
For anyone who wants to pursue a career in this industry, what top 3 tips would you offer?
1: Research an online program called Bar Smarts. A simple course of spirit and wine knowledge for beginners.
2: Start from the bottom and take your time. If you fail or feel discouraged take a breather then try it again. We have so many opportunities in this industry that you will find your perfect balance eventually.
3: Treat your guest how you would in your own home. Have fun and always communicate with your crew. My coworkers past and present are my family and we take care of each other.
How did you first learn about Tales of the Cocktail?
I first heard about it when I was a bar back. My bosses left for the week and when they returned they were sharing stories, knowledge, and they were constantly listening to Rebirth Brass Band. When Tales came around the next year it was my turn to go. My bosses encouraged me to attend seminars as well as any special events.
Kindly describe your first Tales experience and what it meant to you, as well as anything you're excited about seeing this year.
My first Tales experience was wild. I was so young and eager in the industry and signed up for nine seminars. Little did I know what my actual experience would be once I got there. It was tough and a little exhausting attending all nine classes. I spent a few mornings walking into Erin Rose for a frozen Irish coffee with a Jameson grilled cheese for a quick pick me up.
I always record every seminar to take home and share with my community. Not everyone has the chance to attend, but still wants to pursue their craft. This year will be my third Tales experience and the second time being apart of the Fellowship Program. I’m always excited to see old friends & make new ones. Getting to sample spirits and interact 1-on-1 with distillers and ambassadors is always a treat. I personally prefer learning directly from the source instead of a local spirits representative.
What are some of the projects you're currently working on?
Recently I’ve been building the bar program at my current establishment. We are located in a small town called Bluffton located between Hilton Head, SC & Savannah, GA. We are one of very few spaces in our area that offers an extensive spirit selection. (https://www.instagram.com/calhountavern/)
Working on building my own brand offering consultations, brand marketing, and event planning to anyone in need. (http://rfcocktailco.com)
When I’m away from the bar I like to come up with hospitality themed designs by hiring illustrators and finding the best way to execute them on t-shirts, lapel pins, patches, and stickers. I’ve encountered an insane amount of support and love using it as a creative outlet. (https://rfcocktailco.bigcartel.com)
Preparing for the launch of the new Mavenhal “Shifter” bar bag. I met Craig Krueger last year when I was searching for the perfect bar bag for an out of country guest shift. He was always there to answer any questions I had and gave the best customer service. We began chatting more and realized that we had a similar drive for the industry. I couldn’t be more excited for the launch of this new bag. We’ve spent a lot of time figuring out what is most important on the go and the best way to see it executed for hardworking bartenders, ambassadors and enthusiasts. (http://mavenhal.com/shifter/)