Bartender-Operator of the Year: Kevin Diedrich of Pacific Cocktail Haven

Pacific Cocktail Haven bar
Image: Allison Webber

Humble may not be strong enough a word to describe Kevin Diedrich, the 2020 Nightclub & Bar Bartender-Operator of the Year award winner.

Ask if he’s the owner of Pacific Cocktail Haven in San Francisco, CA, and he’ll very likely answer, “No, I'm the janitor, I just work here.”

This isn’t false self-effacement meant to leverage an “Aw, shucks” persona for the sake of charming guests. When he says he’s the janitor at PCH, he’s not really joking.

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“It's a little bit of a running joke, but it's also, I do a little bit of everything as an owner and as a bartender. I'll be bartending—I still hold four shifts a week right now—so I bartend, but then there's points in the meeting that I have to go down and if a pipe breaks downstairs, I'm downstairs mopping up raw sewage and cleaning up raw sewage,” explains Diedrich. “If the A/C breaks, I'm fixing the A/C. If the toilet breaks down, I'm fixing the toilet. I wear a lot of mini caps and I was like… I don't like telling people I'm the owner when people come in for service because I just want to be service-oriented and it's not the conversation I want to have with people. The conversation is more about them and their experience.”

Ready for the Next Step

When PCH first came together as a concept, Diedrich wasn’t interested in being a bar manager, beverage director or general manager. He had worn those hats for different venues in the past, proven himself in the industry, and knew he wanted more.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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When he was approached by Andrew Chun and Jan Wiginton, co-founders of Sidecar Hospitality, he put his cards on the table.

“I was to my point in my career where I'd managed and built the bars for a big hotel company,” says Diedrich. “And I was kind of burned on some of the situations, and I was like, ‘Listen, man, I think I'm ready for the next step and I want to own something.’”

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Eventually, that something transformed into Pacific Cocktail Haven. As Diedrich describes it, the trio bought a “legacy” bar called Cantina. The space, located in Union Square, had operated for many years and developed a loyal following, a following that even Diedrich’s excellent reputation had difficulty winning over.

A “Turnkey” Operation

“When we bought it, people hated us. People came in and they would tell us how we ruined their favorite bar in the world,” Diedrich says. “So, it was like almost getting punched in the stomach every week for about three months.”

If it ate away at him, he hasn’t really let on all that much. Even in the face of people literally telling him that they hated him and his bar, he remained humble. Diedrich committed to treating even those people with respect.

“I was like, ‘You know, all we can do is be as nice to people as possible and kill them with kindness,” he says.

It’s here that I’ll note that while people were going out of there way to walk into Diedrich’s space and tell him they hated it, PCH didn’t yet exist as it does today. For six months, Diedrich and a four-person team of bartenders who had worked with him before, along with some close friends, operated the pop-up Turnkey inside Cantina.

After Diedrich, Chun and Wiginton purchased Cantina, there just wasn’t money left in the budget for renovations. Diedrich would run Turnkey, shut it down, and demo different sections of the space. Revenue generated by Turnkey funded demo, repairs, equipment purchases, and renovations.

“We opened for operations at 5:00 p.m. and I'd bartend to close to about 1:30, 2:00 in the morning, close down, and then I would tear apart the back lounge,” explains Diedrich. That’s how he found PCH’s now-iconic black brick interior wall. It had been hiding beneath about two feet of sheetrock.

Of course, the ever-humble, incredibly driven and extremely talented Diedrich would be the first to tell you he didn’t heroically do this all by himself. Family, friends and industry peers helped where they could to help make PCH a reality. His wife would come in to help him prep since he hadn’t been able to hire a dedicated prep person.

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“I had some demo people to help me out. So, we'd demo and then we'd demo a little more. And then the crew would come in at about 12:00 p.m., 1:00 p.m. to help me clean up all the mess and then prep and open the bar at 5:00 p.m.,” says Diedrich.

Warm Welcome, Fond Farewell

When it comes to ownership, leadership and the guest experience, Diedrich would genuinely rather put his guests and team far ahead of himself than shine in the spotlight.

Amid being criticized as he transformed Cantina into Turnkey and ultimately Pacific Cocktail Haven, he put even his detractors first. Diedrich chose to retain a number of Cantina cocktails to “segue” those guests into what he planned to execute, hoping to win their support by offering them the familiar while giving them the chance to try something new.

The PCH team’s dedication to the guest experience borders on obsessive, in the best way possible. Some of Diedrich’s approach to taking care of the guest was ingrained in him after working for Ritz-Carlton for about five years. He still remembers “the warm welcome and the fond farewell.”

“The things that hotels teach you about tourism, hospitality, are amazing. I think while I worked there, I was always like, ‘Man, this stuff is absolutely silly,’” Diedrich says. “But looking back to it now, I’m like, oh man, I can't believe I still remember things like that: warm welcome, fond farewell.”

When a guest steps into PCH, the team stops what they’re doing, gets them a menu, and greets them with a warm welcome that includes eye contact. It’s explained that there’s service and more seating in the back lounge, but of course they’re welcome to sit wherever they’ll be comfortable. Should a guest opt to sit in the back, a team member escorts them to the area to help them find a seat. If there’s a group, the team will try to accommodate them by finding them the best spot. There’s no passive, “Sit wherever.”

The warm welcome and fond farewell, along with the beautiful space and stellar cocktail menu, have earned PCH a loyal following of their own. They fought hard for it and it’s well deserved.

“Seating them and greeting them is a huge thing. And then taking the drink order, and then following up with the drink order. I always tell the team we're not drink makers and drink order takers—we have to follow up with a drink. You can't just drop off the drink and think we're done with our job,” says Diedrich. “We're very much in the relationship business, so a lot of our—I'd say 70 percent—of our business is regulars that come back. They come in during the week after work for a quick drink, and then they're on the weekends here with their friends, which is a true testament to the team, that the culture that is built where people come in there and they feel like regulars.”

When guests leave, the PCH team stops what they’re doing to deliver the fond farewell. Even if the guests don’t acknowledge the goodbye, the team thanks them and tells them to have a good night.

“We always have to be thankful for people leaving and being there, and we always have to welcome people into our house,” says Diedrich.

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That welcome includes note taking. The team maintains a bar log, taking note of comes into the bar and when. They take note of what they order. If that guest consistently comes into PCH during an annual conference or event, they’re considered regulars and treated as such. It’s incredible, and POS systems with integrated CRM make that task much simpler.

Hiring & Training

Over time, the PCH team has changed. Some people moved. Some wanted to pursue different opportunities. But none, it seems, left because they didn’t appreciate the culture at PCH or working for Diedrich.

“I can't say anyone has really left on bad terms with us in terms of leaving for another job, which is great,” he says. “Which makes me feel good that we're doing something right.”

Diedrich’s training and management program can best be described as progressive. As team members prove themselves and ask for more responsibility, their roles progress.

Training, for example, takes about a month. For the first ten days, a new bartender does opening shifts and works alongside the prep team. They see how the bar operates and how drink ingredients like syrups are made, meaning they can speak intelligently about such items. Eventually, they move to closing shifts. By that point, “all the dots are connected,” says Diedrich, from opening PCH to closing it for the night.

“And then they do a couple shifts during service on the floor and behind the bar. Cocktail making is kind of the end of the training. I'd say cocktail making is probably the easiest part because we're just following a recipe,” says Diedrich. “Everything else in that operation of how the culture is and how the team works is probably the most important facet for us and not what's actually going into the drink.”

When it comes to roles, four of Diedrich’s current team members started in prep positions. They moved to barbacks and then became bartenders. The current bar lead was a barback at a previous Diedrich project, got hired on at PCH in the prep position and worked his way up.

You’ll notice I said nothing about servers on the floor at PCH. That’s because Diedrich doesn’t hire any—the bartenders are trained to do everything. Not only that, there’s a fluidity to service that characterizes the PCH experience. It’s not uncommon at all for one bartender to be on the floor taking orders while another is behind the bar making drinks and for those two team members to simply swap positions at some point.

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“One team, we try and do everything, so there's bartenders on the floor, there's bartenders behind the bar. Sunday through Thursday, there's no actual designated barback, so we kind of all hustle to do everything, including the floor shifts,” explains Diedrich. “The floor shifts are only scheduled on Fridays and Saturdays. Every other day it's up to the team who ends up on the floor. Sometimes, if you're bartending, you end up with the floor, and the person that was on the floor ends up behind the bar.”

Wearing the Owner's Hat

Janitor, manager, bartender and server aren’t the only hats Diedrich wears. He has to put on his owner hat every day to track metrics. Doing so is how he knew that PCH had finally caught its stride in 2017.

From 2016, the year PCH opened, and 2017, growth was 150 percent. That was also about the time that former Cantina guests stopped asking what they had done to the bar and accepted PCH as part of the community. From 2017 to 2018, growth reached 200 percent.

Diedrich tracks sales every day, along with which cocktails moved best so he knows PCH’s top-selling drinks. He knows his margins on each drink, as well. But what it’s repeat guests that appear to be his favorite KPI.

“That's a very important thing for us, knowing our regulars, and keeping that bar log, and telling everybody who it is so the whole team knows and can recognize that guest because guest recognition is huge, right?” explains Diedrich. “That's like taking the guest experience and making them feel like part of the team and part of the bar.”

It's clearly not just regulars who feel that way. Part of what makes Diedrich such an incredible operator deserving of our Bartender-Owner of the Year award is how he treats his team.

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“I've been very lucky to have been surrounded with very supportive people and bartending friends who have been very supportive and passionate about what we were building,” Diedrich says. “So, without them, I definitely would be crying still.”

2020 Nightclub & Bar Award winners will be honored on the new NxT Stage at this year’s Nightclub & Bar Show. Andrew Chun, co-founder of Sidecar Hospitality and PCH business partner, will be speaking at Nightclub & Bar Show 2020. He’ll be presenting “The Essential Guide to Bar Finances” and participating in the panel discussion “Embracing the Rise of Minimum Wage” with Jeremiah Batucan of Nightclub & Bar and David Benowitz of Craft & Crew Hospitality. Register now!

Resources

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