As the Beer Director at Row 34, I have had the good fortune to grow as both a manager of our staff and as a product buyer for our restaurant. The experience has taught me valuable lessons about how to create an outstanding food or beverage list and how to inspire excitement on my team. I’m fortunate to work in an environment where I am proud of not only our beer list but also of our wine and food menus. While on this journey, I have learned that there is one key ingredient to crafting and maintaining a great food menu or beverage list, and it is at the very core of our beer program: fostering strong relationships.
My list is a moving, breathing, dynamic piece of our restaurant. I like to compare the draft list to the oyster selection: both are constantly in motion. Creating relationships is one of the three things I look for when I’m curating the list and selecting product. First, of course, is taste. Then comes the story behind the product. And last but certainly not least is the passion of the producers. The only way I can determine the latter two criteria is through relationships—getting to know the producers’ process and getting to know them as people.
Creating and growing personal relationships is one of my favorite aspects of my job. Relationships are delicate organisms and have to be maintained. I learned a long time ago that I have an affinity for talking to people and learning their stories, and this skill has carried over into my role at Row 34. As a manager, it is important that a relationship doesn’t start and end with you. You must work at introducing the producers to your staff and guests, whether that is through storytelling over one of their beers, through a one sheet, or on a field trip. The restaurant industry can be extremely monotonous: you come in, do your set up, attend pre-shift, wait on your tables, do your side work, hand in your cash out, go home. Cultivating relationships to products and with producers help strengthen employee engagement and happiness. When employees are excited about a product they are more likely to get guests excited about it as well.
There are other benefits to maintaining relationships with producers. When I have a strong relationship with a producer, he or she knows that I will honor their product and their name. For example, I honor a relationship with a brewery by maintaining a clean draft system. It’s important to invest in the highest quality materials and to adhere to a strict cleaning schedule so that the last step before a beer gets poured into a glass for a guest is error-free. The longer you maintain relationships and the more trust people put in you, the more benefits you potentially see through loyalty and access to limited release products.
At Row 34, we are extremely lucky to share an alleyway with one of my favorite New England breweries, Trillium Brewing Company. Trillium has been open for just over two years and continues to be one of my most valued relationships. We recently celebrated their two-year anniversary at Row 34 on a Sunday afternoon with 150 or so of their biggest fans. It’s been incredible to watch their growth and to provide a platform for showcasing their beers, stories and vision. Relationships have to start somewhere, right? The beginning of our relationship is slightly embarrassing, and I still laugh at it now. Back when 383 Congress Street consisted of four walls and dirt floors and was only occupied by Fort Point pigeons, I ventured over to Trillium’s tiny tasting room for the first time. Bubbling with excitement and enthusiasm (I’ve been known hug strangers and over- use exclamation points pretty consistently), I eagerly entered the brewery, which happened to be quiet on that afternoon, and thrust my hand into that of a middle- aged man who was descending on to the landing in the tasting room. I proceeded to introduce myself, babbled out an abbreviated version of my life’s story and happily told this stranger that I couldn’t be more excited to be his neighbor. The man couldn’t hide the befuddled look on his face as he released my hand and slowly backed away. “Yeah… I’m the plumber who was hired to fix the toilet.” I turned bright red as the other employees looked on with amusement from behind the tasting bar.
Fast-forward to November of 2014, when bartenders Matty and Josh and I spent the day brewing Row 34’s anniversary beer, Vicinity, along side Trillium owner JC, Head Brewer Zack and Assistant Brewer Paul. By the end of the day, we had scrubbed the brew house from top to bottom, had successfully pitched the yeast, were covered in dust, and had laughed until our stomachs hurt.
As a relatively new addition to the Boston craft beer community, what strikes me most about it is the level of passion and camaraderie that exists between brewers, beer buyers, bar and restaurant owners, distributors and guests. Things are happening in this charismatic city of ours and I’m excited to be a part of it. I know that the key elements to an outstanding food or beverage program are the human relationships that underpin it.