Ritual of the Shift Drink: NYC’s Employees Only

The hallowed ritual of the shift drink may take a different form at every bar, but it inevitably serves the same purpose: letting the staff exhale at the end of service. This it how it all goes down at Employees Only in New York City.

employees only emilie baltz

For a brief period each night, a space opens up within the New York City bar Employees Only that truly lives up to that name.

It follows the end of service, after the last guests have poured out onto Hudson Street. Most nights, by this time, the bar bears the hallmarks of a rager. Hanging in the air is the complex smell of aerosol stoked by sweat, orphaned pheromones and chicken soup. Napkins checker surfaces like confetti.

After all, Employees Only’s frequent late-night, at-capacity crowds—made up of servers and bartenders coming off shifts elsewhere, devoted regulars and cocktail lovers who prefer to escalate their night rather than call it—are prone to get rowdy. They come for the house cocktails that riff on familiar classics, the occasional bar-top burlesque show and a killer late-night food program. (The chicken soup, in case you were wondering, is a nightly gift from the kitchen offered to anyone who’s hung in ‘til closing.)

A team of porters attacks the mess, methodically peeling back the dirty gauze to once more reveal the bar’s fresh, glittering facade—which, in classic speakeasy style, hides coyly behind a psychic’s storefront in Manhattan’s West Village.

Employees Only, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in late 2014, is among the elder children of city’s modern cocktail revival (in company with the likes of Death & Co., Milk & Honey and PDT). The owners set out to make an industry bar that was open to all, and a place where it felt permissible to revel again in post-9/11 New York. There’s white-coat service, dark wood and lighting, a serpentine bar and a throwback pressed tin ceiling.

The philosophy of service here (where the bar’s company men show loyalty by inking themselves with the EO logo) in a way colors the humble civility of their ritual shift drink—the round (or rounds) of drinks among these peers in cocktail-making enjoy to cap off another evening in the books.

“From open to close, you gotta be on,” says Steve Schneider, the principal bartender at Employees Only. “Our style provides a personal connection. It starts off with eye contact—keeping your head up, right? How many times have you seen [bartenders], and their body language making a drink? That drink’s going to be good, but… they never look up. It’s an assembly line.”

By contrast, the bartenders here mix drinks “high to the eye,” Schneider likes to say, by which he means they free-pour cocktail ingredients into a pint glass held before their eyes. “We’re including the crowd,” he says. “We want them to be sucked in.”

Schneider credits the bar’s 10-plus years of success to this highly engaged, theatrical style. And thanks to a devoted following among New York’s service industry, Employees Only is the place everybody else flocks to at 3 a.m. to grab a shift drink before last call.

So, in a sense, the back dining room becomes a green room, where the night’s performers—as spent physically as they are mentally—can drift back down to normalcy. “Then, it’s just the employees only,” Schneider says. “It’s like family time, at the end of the night.” The cast becomes the audience: The most attractive guests and memorable attempts at coupling are recounted in detail. “We just see a lot of stuff from behind the bar,” he notes. “A lot of people successful in hooking up. A lot of people not.” Pausing, Schneider then chuckles. “Most people not.”

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Steve Schneider and Ulysses Vidal elaborate on the legacy of the shift drink at Employees Only, and the staff’s long-time love affair with Margaritas:

Steve Schneider, principal bartender

Shift Drinks: mezcal Margarita, lager, Fernet-Branca

On thinking ahead: “If I [drink a cocktail late], I’ll make a few ahead of time, and I’ll throw ’em in the freezer for us.”

On the constancy of the Margarita: “The management loves Margaritas, and I love Margaritas, I always have… The Margarita has been a progression of my career, because in my 13 years behind the bar, it’s been the drink I’ve always had to make, even if it was in a shitty dive bar, with 18 beers on tap, making disco drinks…”

On shots: “We love to do shots… I still do Fernet. Some of the guys have switched to Amaro Montenegro; some guys do straight-up tequila.”

On keeping the night going, or not: “We’ve been at service for so long, we are kind of done. As far as going out to other places, we are pretty much the last stop on the bus.”

Ulysses Vidal, bartender

Shift Drinks: Pilsner Urquell, whiskey on the rocks.

On closing time: “You see dudes trying to make last-ditch attempts to take home a girl, usually without success. But the best part is having people who are regulars, family, work in the industry or are first-timers who have really clicked with us well that night stay until the end and take a last shot with us. We love customizing the shot depending on where people are from.”

On the importance of the shift drink: “My favorite memories are when we all sit in the back after counting our money and just talk. Sometimes you get to hear stories from way back in the day”—many told by retired career barman and Employees Only partner Henry LaFargue, whose shift drink of choice is Jameson on the rocks—”[and] other times we just watch stupid shit on YouTube and laugh about it. Actually, there’s always a lot of laughing.”

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