People

Meet the Woman Behind Gunshow's Bar on Wheels: Mercedes O'Brien

A woman behind a bar cart.
Running a bar program behind a cart has its challenges, but that's exactly what Mercedes O'Brien loves most about her job. Photo by Brandon Amato.

A spunky redhead pushes a heavy metal bar cart filled with booze, glassware and prepped ingredients through a crowded restaurant. She narrowly avoids catching its wheels on chairs as she makes yet another pass around the dining room. Stopping, she greets a table: “Hi! Welcome to Gunshow. Can I make you a cocktail?” Before she’s able to rattle off her list of beverages, a man pipes up, “I’ll take a dirty martini.” The cart conductor replies, “I’m sorry, sir, we only have ten cocktails, beer and wine.” Thus begins another evening for beverage manager and dim-sum bartender, Mercedes O’Brien of Atlanta’s Gunshow.

O’Brien has worked in restaurants since she was old enough to legally hold a job. She entered college with dreams of being a chef until finally deciding food journalism was a better fit. It was during those formative college years when she took a serving job in Atlanta at cocktail bar H. Harper Station, an industry hangout known for churning out bartending superstars and killer cocktails. Under the direction of owner and long-time barman, Jerry Slater, O’Brien earned her stripes.

“Jerry gave me a pile of books to study. I studied constantly. When he felt I was ready, I got behind the bar. I learned classics first, then how to create my own recipes. It was a special time in my life. I worked behind that bar for three years.”

She credits Slater for being her mentor; teaching her the importance of hospitality as well as equipping her with a solid understanding of classic preparations and recipe development. When former Top Chef Kevin Gillespie, owner of Gunshow, hired O’Brien in 2014 to develop his mobile beverage program, she jumped at the chance.

“Kevin and I connected right away. He’s very creative and accommodating of people’s ideas. He asked me how I felt about starting their mobile bar program. Two days later I was making one cocktail from this rickety old bar cart without an ice bucket. It was hilarious. I loved it.”

Gunshow’s dim sum-style cart service is challenging for both chef and bartender who aren’t used to being in each other’s space, let alone in close contact with guests. After her first night, O’Brien immediately went to work streamlining the cart and service bars, creating a bar-type atmosphere for waiting guests, and developing tableside cocktails.

A bar cart stocked with fruit and garnishes and spirits. The cocktail cart at Gunshow goes along with the restaurant's dim sum style. From it, O'Brien and fellow bartenders offer 10 cocktails and a small selection of beer and wine. Photo by Brandon Amato.

“We have two bars and a flex bar — our ‘bar’ waiting area. The kitchen (service) bar and bar cart are where the magic happens. When I hire new bartenders, I’m like, ‘Remember when you had a sink, a speed rack and Kold Draft? Yeah, we don’t have that here.’ After their first service, I want to wrap them in a blanket and tell them it’s going to be ok.”

O’Brien develops ten weekly cocktails for Gunshow which are, for the most part, culinary in nature, and equally as unique in approach or ingredients as her chef compatriots’ dishes.

“When I came to work at Gunshow, because we don’t have a physical bar, I found myself in the kitchen with the chefs. I see all the ingredients they work with daily. We are very innovative and seasonal, so our gin and tonic might be an artichoke gin with grapefruit and peppercorn tonic. It sounds strange but it works beautifully.”

The ten cocktails are divided evenly between the cart and kitchen bars, and are offered to guests upon arrival in the restaurant’s flex bar. What sets the cart apart is the preparation of the secondary ingredients and garnishes, which can be easily plopped, muddled or floated into drinks within seconds. It’s all about knowing which ingredients fit the cart best.

“People want the dinner and show aspect at Gunshow. Speed is a factor but your prep time is vital to making that tableside cocktail process efficient as well as delicious. Being on the bar cart is 50% guest engagement and 50% drink-making. I try to create drinks for the cart that simply involve reaching for ingredients without sacrificing depth of flavor.”

O’Brien says hiring the right bartenders for Gunshow’s unique beverage program is not always easy.

“Working with a mobile bar means you can’t be the super emo bartender who doesn’t look their guests in the eye. Rolling a cart around and making drinks within arm’s length of guests means you have to be friendly even when you’re having a bad day.”

The “weird fluidity” of Gunshow is what makes working at the restaurant either exciting or terrifying. O’Brien’s team finds the constant kinetic energy fun. You’re never bored. Everyone is on equal footing. Everyone contributes.

“We have no bar backs. Everyone rotates so there’s no sense of hierarchy. Every night one person is on the cart, one person is at kitchen bar, and one person is at flex bar. It’s a team effort. If you’re uber protective of your working and personal space, this is probably not the job for you.”

And that includes being able to handle the always inevitable guest question of, “Can I get a [fill in the blank] cocktail?” The staff of Gunshow has overcome the frustration of first time diners arriving without understanding what to expect from Gillespie's Chinese dim sum-inspired restaurant. His name is a powerful draw, and many times guests haven’t done their homework. It’s the job of O’Brien’s staff to calm fears and give them insight into how Gunshow works.

“We’re the first impression guests have of Gunshow. We arrive with the cart and begin our spiel. We offer ten drinks, whiskey, vodka and tequila by the pour and limited beer and wine. We rarely have a problem with a guest complaining they can’t get their drink, instead steering them toward a similar flavor profile on our menu.”

The challenges of a mobile beverage program don’t end with the cocktails. Bartending is a physical job. Add a weighed down metal cart and constantly walking and maneuvering all night to serving and shaking cocktails, and the list of strange aches, pains, bruises and mysterious cuts grows.

“People don’t realize how physically demanding bartending is. Squatting, standing for hours, lifting, shaking. The cart adds another element to that. I have to make sure my posture is really good. I have to stand straight, not slouch. The cart is heavy, and I have a bad back. I have to be careful not to pull a muscle or stretch the wrong way. I stretch out every hour.”

While this isn’t so much of an issue after two years, O’Brien does remember one night where she threw her back out so badly she turned white and needed help leaving the floor. Then there’s the body checks from much larger male chefs.

“When I first started, chefs would body check me, not on purpose, but you’re working so closely together in a small dining space with a cart, it happened. Not so much any more. We have our flow down now. That’s something everyone at Gunshow experiences. Men and women.”

And as for working under the weight of such a big name chef like Gillespie? O’Brien says both he and executive chef Joey Ward are as eager to learn from her as she is from them.

“Kevin doesn’t try and define your role. He welcomes creative, forward-thinking people. For a bartender who wants to explore, it’s fantastic. Since Kevin isn’t in much, I work closely with Joey. He’s great. We trust one another. He’s been on the cart with me learning what I do.”

Working at Gunshow has sharpened O’Brien’s bartending skills to near exacting precision and clarified her creativity, which has given rise to personal projects with friends and bartenders in her down time. She doesn’t miss being behind a traditional bar and believes Gunshow has only made her more passionate about her now chosen career path.

“I love what I’m doing at Gunshow. It fits my personality. I have a few side projects I’m working on — one that’s all-female bartenders. It helps to have these projects outside of work to keep from burning out. There are days I’m exhausted and the thought of pushing that cart is overwhelming, but then I get here and I’m reenergized. The cart is an extension of me now. I’m actually afraid of the day when I do have to get behind a bar again. What if I don’t like it?”

Try two of Mercedes' cocktails for yourself:

  • The Green Strawberry Caipirinha, a recipe that reads like a highlight reel of spring ingredients, from arugula to strawberries to tarragon
  • The Loud Mouth Soup, a playful drink that adds walnut-infused bourbon to a miso base (and tops it off with chamomile flower smoke)
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