Employees only (or EO, as it is affectionately abbreviated) is an after-hours New York City institution founded by five friends brought together by the business of great drinks and good eats. Now it’s the latest concept to land in Hong Kong’s Lan Kwai Fong, bringing its unfussy, inclusive yet elusively cool appeal to the strip. Outposts in Singapore and Miami paved the way for this cult speakeasy – a frequent fixture on best-bar lists – to arrive on our shores, and we had the pleasure of sitting down with four of the five folks behind the brand’s Asian expansion: founding partners of EO Hong Kong and Singapore, Joshua Schwartz and Sarissa Rodriguez Schwartz; bar manager and principal bartender of EO Hong Kong, Owen Gibler; and general manager of EO Hong Kong, Rachel Tow. They give us the fast-paced lowdown on the concept’s success, and why it all comes down to family.
Sum up what Employees Only means to you in three words.
Joshua Schwartz: High energy, consistent product, fun.
Sarissa Rodriguez Schwartz: Fun, quirky, handsome. It’s a handsome bar.
Owen Gibler: Wild, fast, consistent.
Rachel Tow: Loud, sexy, fun. I hate saying fun, but it’s always fun.
EO is in New York, Singapore and Miami. Any differences in the night culture between Asia and the US?
RT: I think that the level of drinking here is way more intense. It’s like this competitive drinking pace. In America, or at least in New York, I feel like it’s not as in your face. Maybe because you can’t drink outside, or the weather.
OG:I think the indoor-outdoor change has a lot to do with it. Outside of Hurricane Sandy and the World Cup, you don’t see people drinking and spilling out of bars in New York. They’re contained by that very specific line at the door, with that giant person telling you to stop taking drinks outside. Whereas here it’s just, please don’t break my glass, and that’s about it.
SRS: Yes, people are literally spilling out of places.
RT: Or there’s just 20 girls outside 7/11.
OG: That’s our main competition, by volume of sales, late night: kebab shops and 7/11.
Hong Kong is a saturated market with a high turnover of spaces. Why will EO work here?
JS: A lot of it has to do with consistency: knowing what your product is, being true to that product, and being consistent with it every day. Part of the thing is getting everyone on the team to buy into that philosophy, and I think that’s one of the things that EO as a brand, and the people involved in it, do really well. It becomes a family and the [staff] turnover rate becomes incredibly low. People want to be a part of the product, or tattoo themselves with it!
RT: In New York, there are bartenders that have been there for 12 years; servers that have been there for eight to 10 years. We’re all best friends now. They’re so loyal to each other. Singapore is a much younger crew – all those kids are in their 20s – but we hope that that will be the next core, and that the team we’re building here will be the next family.
How do you go about finding the right kind of staff for the Hong Kong space? This city is not exactly known for offering the best customer service.
OG: That’s not really surprising. If you consistently pay people the least amount possible and then make them work six days a week, I don’t think you’re going to get great results. I think it’s mostly a product of that.
SRS: It’s the same thing in Singapore. It’s a huge issue. I think it’s partly ingrained in the culture as well. In London or in New
York, you have people that really want to make a career out of
this – they see a future in it – and in Asia that’s not as apparent. Also, I think that exposure to that level of service gives you a sense of understanding, so people in this industry in New York or London usually go to places with great service, so they inherently know what great service is without having to be told.
Tell us about the prime space you’ve got picked out for EO Hong Kong.
RT: It’s art deco again, so prohibition-era speakeasy.
JS: We don’t take ourselves too seriously, so when we say speakeasy, it’s not going to take
you half an hour to pull a lever, to get through a refrigerator!
RT: We have a nightly tarot-card reader, mentalist or a palm reader in all of our locations. Our guests can go and get a little reading.
JS: In New York, having these tarot card psychic shops was very common. So it’s kind of the frontage to it, you see that first, but it’s also a great tool into the night. People love getting their palms read.
RT: You walk in, and there’s this beautiful, sexy bar on the right side, brass top. We have a dining room in the back, with this beautiful staircase leading up to it. It’s a very sexy room.
You’re as known for your food menu as your drinks. tell us about that.
OG: We have a full menu until 3.30 in the morning.
RT: There are two menus. Our dinner menu from the beginning of service, and midnight to 3.30am we have a late-night menu. The dinner menu is pretty classic. We’ve got our famous steak tartare, then bone-marrow poppers, cavatelli with house-made pork sausage, rib-eye for two. And with the late-night menu, you can get half a dozen oysters at three o’clock in the morning, or you can get a burger or truffled grilled cheese.
SRS: And we also have a rotating staff meal.
RT: Yes! It started in New York. Customers started to see the cooks, and they’d say, “What are you eating? It looks amazing.” Most of the kitchen staff in New York are Latin, so they’d make food that they wanted to eat: tacos, enchiladas. Somebody asked one day, “Can I buy it?” The manager said yes, and it was on the menu the next day. So in Singapore we have Malaysian food, Indonesian, a Thai influence. Here the chef’s are going to do local fare, whatever they feel like.
OG: It’s late night and it ties into someone showing up after they’ve been out for a while, or they’re getting off work. It makes sense to you at two in the morning and it’s delicious.
For the drinks menu – are you changing everything for Hong Kong or bringing across the regular menu?
OG:There’s some stuff that’s moving around, but we’re definitely sticking with the core operation.
OG:We’re doing a lot of stuff that we’ve been doing for quite some time, and paying respect to the people that made them. And also playing with local ingredients and giving a slight bit of what Hong Kong has. I don’t want to make something just for the sake of making it. I don’t want click-bait or something that’s trending. If something is really tasty, I would love to sell it to people that want to drink it.
You’re known for making drinks at serious speed and free-pouring. Is that important to you?
OG: The less time people spend waiting on a drink, usually the happier they are.
SRS: [The bartenders] are engaged, they’re looking at you, they’re talking to you, they’re friendly and approachable. It’s more inclusive; everyone is a part of it.
JS:Years ago, at a place where I met Igor [Igor Hadzismajlovic, one of EO’s five founding partners] when we worked together, a customer mentioned the way that they build bars. It’s kind of like a stage. We’re all sitting at the bar watching you guys. And I think at EO they really take that attitude to heart. If you think about it, you’re standing there lit, and everyone is staring at you, so it is kind of a stage. You can’t just be sitting there with your head down, worrying about how the drink is going.
OG: I mean, you can. I know people who can do that.
JS:[Laughing] Yes, but it’s far less entertaining, as opposed to realising that you’re putting on a show, for the most part. It’s great when it’s busy because there is this kind of dance, with guys moving back and forth at breakneck speeds.
Do you set out to entice a particular type of clientele to your bars?
SRS: The best way to a boring party is to have the same kind of people inside. We really want a mix.
RT: I don’t like to discourage people, I don’t like them to have this feeling that we’re setting a tone with them. We’re not a [private] club. We are a bar; we are a restaurant.
What else do we need to know about EO?
JS:That there’s a real journey
that happens throughout the night. If you go in at 5pm, the space is very different from how it is at
7pm, or at 9pm, and so on. A lot of people will come in at five in the afternoon, sit at the bar and have a drink, and then you‘ll still see them at three in the morning. Because the energy evolves, the night progresses and it takes you on a ride.