Vikram Hegde is the bar manager at Sarma restaurant in Somerville and husband to Alexandra Berger.
It’s Tuesday night at 10pm and Spoke Wine Bar is jam packed as I await Vik’s arrival post-shift. The staff is super friendly and buzzing about with relaxed faces, giving out hugs, attentive service, and killer food and drink. Then Vik walks in and its as if everyone’s oldest friend has arrived. That’s how Vik enters many restaurants in the city. While I’ve known Vik for a few years now, I realized that I had never actually joined him for a meal at a restaurant, unless you’d count the rare occasion we’d grab a beer after a shift. I think that becomes pretty common for people who become friends within the industry – you only see them when you’re at work together or if you’re at their restaurant, sitting on the other side of their bar, table, or kitchen. So, we’re embarking on a quest to rectify this fact, and truly get to know each other.
Kelly Daigle: So, I feel weird asking this question because I’ve known you for so long, but I don’t actually know the answer. Can you explain how you got into restaurants, and ultimately, what inspired you to get onto the bar?
Vikram Hegde: In restaurants in particular, I would say it was just desperation. I just needed a job really fast and I knew that there was a chance to make cash. So, I applied at a bunch of restaurants and took the first job that I could.
KD: And that was right after college?
VH: That was right after college, yeah.
KD: While you were working on your novel?
VH: While I was -talking- about working on my novel, yeah.
KD: What was it going to be about?
VH: So, I started writing something, its actually really embarrassing what it was going to be about… It was actually about a killer clown. Like a clown that did birthday parties and then murdered the mothers of the children at the parties. And I started writing it and got about a chapter in and then got writer’s block and then looked at it again about a year later, and I was a little bit more of an adult, and I was like, this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life.
KD: It might make a good screenplay.
VH: It would make an amazing movie – with Shia LaBeouf as the clown. You think I haven’t thought about this?
KD: So you were in college studying to become a famous writer, and were you working in restaurants at all during that time?
VH: I was working as a doorman at a bar, but that was really because they would give me free beers for working there, so once a week I would work the door, and that was it, I didn’t really have any restaurant experience, I was just checking IDs, and then I got the job at The Cheesecake Factory and that was my first gig in restaurants in Boston.
KD: And you were a server there?
VH: I was a host, actually.
KD: I don’t think I knew you’d ever been a host.
VH: Yeah, I started out as a host and became a server after a couple months, and then a bartender after like a month of serving because a bunch of bartenders quit all at once. And I had mentioned something about being interested in the bar, and it was mainly because I was terrible at serving, so I was like I’ll take the next step, that’ll be better… you know like they say, “Oh, he’s such a gifted student, but he’s not being challenged enough, so we should keep on upgrading him until he’s the President.” And then they’re like, “Mr. President, you’re doing a terrible job… how bout King of Space?”
KD: A classic tale… And how long were you bartending there?
VH: I bartended there for about 6 years. I was a trainer for the company as well, so I would go to openings and help train up the new staff. That kept me engaged a little bit more. I kind of continuously was applying to other restaurants, but it was really hard to get an interview. It was just that I wanted to broaden my experience and have access to different products. But, I couldn’t.
KD: Did you know that product was what was motivating you to apply to other restaurants? Or was that a realization you came to later?
VH: Yeah, I would say it was more after the fact that I realized that. Because it was one of those things that, I had an idea of what I didn’t know, but being in this bubble for the whole time, you start to think that you know everything. Like, Oh everyone does the same thing, and what I’m doing must be as complicated, if not more so, than what everyone else is doing. But it wasn’t, it was just different.[Can I pour you another beverage, sir?]
VH: Yes, yes you could – I will have the third beer down.[The Karmeliet?]
VH: Oh, yes I do like that.
KD: Were you just gonna order whatever was the third beer down?
VH: Yeah, I was just gonna get whatever was the third beer down.
KD: Oh, that’s a good tactic. Is that a thing you do?
VH: Whenever I should know what I’m ordering, but don’t, I do something like that.
KD: Great tactic. So, what were some of the biggest differences between being a bartender versus a bar manager? I mean even when you’re a managing you’re still a bartender, thats pretty unique.
VH: Yeah, kind of. At Island Creek, where I wasn’t really the bar manager, but as a head bartender, I had that safety net of the people who were above me, who know more than me, so I have all these people to ask questions and to go to, like Tom and Jackson and Kevin and Bob. Where as at Sarma, they hired me to be the “person who knows all the bar things.”
KD: So the pressure’s on?
VH: The pressure’s on a little bit, but I came into it with an attitude where I thought that every single aspect of everything had to be thought out fully, and its definitely more of a casual vibe. So I’m finally starting to relinquish some of that obsessiveness.
KD: It’s hard to let go. But, I mean, I think that happens in any management position, though. The letting go; especially when it comes to letting other people execute your vision that’s really yours and no one else’s.
VH: Yes. That’s very difficult. For me, the challenge, really the challenge with bartending and managing, is balance. Like balancing real life. Which I’m sort of starting to figure out. Like letting work go when I’m not at work. Not necessarily coming in 5 hours early for every shift because the bottles weren’t faced in the liquor room, but maybe coming in 2 hours early so I can make sure vintages are correct. Important things take my time now and I can delegate other stuff out to other people. The other challenge is, as a bartender you can kind of just focus on what you’re doing, and trust that your managers are watching over the big picture. But as a bartender and a manager, I have to focus on the whole bar as well as the people directly in front of me. So there’s just a bigger split of what you have on your mind.
KD: Do you think that bartenders who are looking for management jobs understand what the jobs entails?
VH: I don’t think you really understand how much energy those little things take. Especially those things that you’re not actively doing. You know, its a lot easier to make these 5 people’s experience amazing. Its easy to make those people’s night when you don’t have to think about everybody. That takes a lot more energy. So on those nights where I do get to sort of shoot the shit with people at the corner of the bar, its awesome, but then those other nights are really mentally taxing.
KD: How do you describe balance now and how does that differ from when you were starting out in the industry?
VH: Well, I think its situational for everybody, because you know, for me, now I’m married, and I have a house and stuff that needs to be painted and there’s a lot of domestic shit that I never had in the past. I need to make sure I have time for all of that. And I can’t always use the excuse of, well, I got out late last night so I’m gonna sleep in until 11, and go right back to work. That’s the level of balance that people don’t end up figuring out where, you have a late night and then you sleep whole day and then you have a late night again and then you sleep the whole day again. At what point do you catch up on anything outside of work? Cause I think we all end up putting in 10, 12, 14 hour shifts.
KD: Your wife, Alex, works in the industry. Does she still have really late nights?
VH: No not typically. So usually she’ll be asleep by the time I get home. I don’t have as late of nights as I used to, but we’re still on relatively different schedules.
KD: How do you think a bartender or bar manager working these hours can achieve a good work/life balance and a healthy relationship? Or can they?
VH: They definitely can. I think you need to look at it in terms of the number of hours you’re putting in. Like if you’re putting in a 12 hour shift, as most bartending shifts are, which is understandable, don’t work 5-6 days a week, don’t pick up the second job, and work all 7 days. You might make a lot of money, but you’re never going to enjoy it. Don’t drink too much on the nights that you’re working. You know, go have fun when you are off. Exercise – I think that’s helped me a lot when it comes to maintaining balance. Because I set aside a couple of hours every day to exercise. But I think that too many people in our industry get trapped by it.
KD: What do you mean by that?
KD: They want the lifestyle so badly, which is a great thing, but at the cost of their own health, and sanity, really. I know too many people that can’t keep a relationship and frankly can’t keep a job in a restaurant, but want to be part of the scene so badly. And I think there are people who have recognized that there is more that there is to it – there is joy to be had in the job. Bringing pleasure to people’s lives on a day to day basis. One of the important things is to work at a place where you believe in what they’re doing, especially when it comes to their product choices and food menu. I think that’s the key.
KD: Speaking of the food, how much does that influence you cocktails and the way you approach your work on the bar?
VH: Both at ICOB and at Sarma the great food made my job a lot easier. At ICOB, it was all about having drinks that don’t overpower the food; the food is all very delicate so you have simple cocktails that taste good and aren’t aggressive. And then the food speaks for itself. And at Sarma I always try to do parallels with the food and the cocktail menus. Now, it’s wintertime, and everything gets a little heavier coming from the kitchen so we’re doing a little bit heavier style cocktails as well because it can stand up to the food without overpowering. To be honest, I’m more passionate about food than I am about drinks. So that’s my number one focus; making sure the food tastes good, that people can appreciate it. And I don’t want to counterbalance that with the drinks. I don’t want people to like the drinks more than they like the food, I want them to like the food because the drinks helped make it better.
KD: What are some of the products you’re super into right now?
VH: We have a really awesome banana liqueur that I just love, the Giffard banana. Which, I just decided I’m gonna be the banana king of Boston, because I feel like people aren’t using it and I don’t understand why, because its so good. So that’s one. And I really like Ancho Reyes, I think a lot of people have gravitated towards that, but its so appropriate for what we’re doing at Sarma, so I try to make sure it has a place on our menu. And not to make it sound too much like the shit bartenders say guy, but I’ve always really liked Amaro, like as a category in general, so we’re extremely amaro heavy on our menu right now.
KD: Any common misconceptions or myths that you need to debunk?
VH: Nah, buzzfeed has done enough of that for us. Oh – actually – Don’t take a bartending class. Not to become a bartender.
KD: So, what’s the first thing you should do then? If you want to become a bartender?
VH: Be in the restaurant. Learn how the restaurant works. Just get your foot in the door, show that you’re passionate. Be constantly reading about sprits and cocktails while learning how a restaurant works, that’s what you should do.
KD: And do you think serving or barbacking is better on the road to becoming a bartender?
VH: Hm… thats a hard question. I think both aspects of it train you in different ways. Being a server first helps you understand the guest relations part, which is really important. It’s like the hospitality versus service question, which is more important? Neither. Putting them together is the most important, because I could have the greatest hospitality ever but if I don’t have a fork to eat my spaghetti and meatballs, you know, it doesn’t do much for me. I’m all covered in spaghetti sauce.
KD: So I guess, whatever comes more naturally to you, do the opposite?
VH: Yeah, I guess. If you’re really good with people and you want to become a bartender, be a bar back. Because you’ll learn where everything is and hopefully observe what people are doing and how they are doing it. But if you’re terrible with people, or have never worked in a job that you were dealing with people, become a server or host first.
KD: And your final piece of advice is – when in doubt, order the third thing down.
VH: I mean, yeah, I’ll probably like it. And if I don’t like it, I’ll just drink it and then order the fourth thing down.