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For Four Houston Bartenders, Success Means a Shared Work Ethic

Houston’s “Team Culture” built an all-star bar team with a simple mantra: work hard, play hard.

Tales of the Cocktail Foundation presents The Great Bar Race sponsored by GREY GOOSE® celebrates the often unrecognized acts of service and the industry professionals who execute them in a competition that puts their skills and teamwork to the test. For more information on how to enter and to attend a live event, see the Great Bar Race site.

“Our team was built by me thinking of my favorite bartenders,” says Michele Hamilton, a bartender at Alley Kat Bar & Lounge, a music venue in Houston. The result was Culture—the name of her team—which participated in the Houston leg of Tales of the Cocktail’s Great Bar Race sponsored by Grey Goose. Hamilton correctly figured that the key to winning the competition might simply be in partnering with friends with the same work ethic. “I wanted [bartenders] that I love to kick it with on my day off—those just as driven behind the bar as myself.”

Hamilton’s key cohort in assembling the foursome was Trey McVea, an old friend and bartender at Kulture, an industrial chic Southern eatery, also in Houston. The two pals still collaborate on cocktail ideas, trading recipes and mixing drinks, especially when preparing for competitions, which they regularly take part in. Having worked in bars in five different states, not to mention seven different sports arenas, McVea has seen and done it all. Speed and consistency are crucial at these sorts of venues, and hospitality can be hard to come by; McVea takes that role seriously, and in doing so, stands out from the crowd.

Great Bar Race Houston

Trey McVea (left) and Michele Hamilton (right).

“Great service is accomplished when the guest is able to collect an unforgettable experience that inspires that person to return, or encourages others to experience the same service,” says McVea. “This is accomplished by personalizing myself with the guest as if we’re family or better yet, a community. My home of business becomes their home of comfort and fulfillment.”

In building a team with Hamilton, McVea went looking for fellow bartenders that embodied those same high standards and positive attitude. He immediately thought of Ashley Simpson, of The Davenport, against whom he’d previously squared off—and lost to—in a cocktail competition. Impressed with her skills and competitive spirit, he knew he wanted her on his side in the Great Bar Race.

“I’ve always loved her energy and personality,” says McVea. Simpson has a knack for turning new customers into regulars, and then into friends. Simpson believes her top asset in the competition was remaining calm and always savoring the moment. She was great with overall team strategy, and excelled when her team needed her most—during the high-stress final competition Funky Cosmo, when she shot Cosmo-filled water balloons to her team with perfect aim. “We all work very hard, so being able to enjoy ourselves was a priority,” she says.

Franco Magagnoli, of Ready Room (a last-minute substitution for a team member who was unable to participate), was Culture’s final and vital addition. Recently named a Top 100 national bartender in Bacardi’s Most Imaginative Bartender competition, the team was lucky to snatch him up. Besides being accomplished at creating innovative recipes, the qualities for which he’s best-known are his congeniality and hospitality. “Great service is making your guests feel welcome [and] at home and also anticipating their wants and needs,” he explains.

Great Bar Race Houston

Franco Magagnoli (left) and Ashley Simpson (right).

Though he was a standout in most events, Magagnoli sheepishly admits he was awful in the Barback in a Haystack competition, which requires identifying a cocktail from a series of clues, and then sprinting through a range of obstacles to quickly source the proper ingredients to make that particular drink. “I’m horrible at finding things in front of my face,” jokes Magagnoli.

Luckily, McVea was able to pick up the slack in this particular event. “I took pride in lunging over tables, sprinting through obstacles, and riding the bike like I was in a cycling class!” says McVea. The team confirms they were impressed with his athleticism, a strength which may not typically be associated with bartending. But McVea believes otherwise, noting that when it comes to great service: “Every second counts.”

Scenes from the Competition

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