Honestly, if you had to take a shot for all the times you or a friend have said, “Man, we should open a bar!” how drunk would you be?
Most of us have had this dream, usually as we’re sitting at a bar, likely after spending eight sad hours sitting under some harsh overhead lighting in standard-issue desk chair in front of an equally harsh computer screen.
But should you really? You have no idea how to run a bar. Being good at drinking does not make you good at running a drinking establishment. The only applicable experience you might have was pouring pitchers of PBR in college (sorry, fellas, stirring up some cocktails at a house party doesn’t count). So you order another beer, go home, and then go back to work the next day.
That’s the difference between us and Steven Baird, a 35-year-old former cubicle dweller who just opened his first bar, Clinton Hill’s new Cardiff Giant, after saying bye to the 9-to-5 grind at his accounts payable job in favor of following this dream.
Baird, who’s also the manager of Owl Farm, a Park Slope bar known for having an eclectic and constantly-changing draft list from around the world, sat down with Brokelyn at his new spot, where all the product is from New York State (more on that later), to tell us how he did it.
And, like so many New York success stories, it started with an unpaid internship (of sorts).
Breaking Free From The Cubicle
In 2009, Baird was commuting everyday from his Brooklyn apartment to his job working behind a computer in the accounts department at a New Jersey tech company. He spent his days sitting in a cubicle under fluorescent lighting and absolutely hated it. After having run a high-end coffee shop for a couple years in his early 20s in his native Arkansas, Baird was itching to get back to something similar.
“I was very happy doing that,” he said. “I thought I wanted to go back to food services, but then I thought ‘Actually, I should run a bar. Bars make more money than coffee shops.’” From then on, that was the end goal. “I told myself, I’m going to learn it all, and then I’m going to run my own place.”
But Baird had never set foot behind a bar, let alone a bar in New York City, where it’s notoriously difficult to get a job in the hospitality industry without prior experience.
“Then one day, my wife says to me, ‘Why don’t you quit your job and find a job in a bar?’ So I did.”
Starting At The Bottom of The Keg Barrel
Baird bid adieu to cubicle life and started applying at bars all over the city with absolutely no success.
“No one would hire me because I had exactly zero New York experience,” he explained.
Baird was unemployed for 13 months, during which his wife — who had just been promoted from a temp position to an office manager role at her job — supported them. That, combined with a cheap, rent-stabilized Sunset Park apartment and a lot of belt-tightening made a one-income household work.
“It definitely wouldn’t have happened without a supportive spouse,” Baird said. “In retrospect I’m really not sure how we managed, but at the time it didn’t seem that bad.”
Finally, at a friend’s suggestion, Baird started telling people he’d work for free. He ended up at Mission Dolores, a craft beer bar in an old mechanic’s shop on Fourth Avenue on the Park Slope/Gowanus border, and offered his services as an unpaid barback (the role varies from bar-to-bar, but it’s usually the person who washes dishes, takes out the trash and changes kegs — that sort of behind-the-scenes stuff.)
“I told them that I want to own a bar eventually and I want to start from the bottom,” Baird said. “They didn’t believe me because most people who would offer that would be done after, like, five shifts. I was like, ‘No, seriously, I’ll totally work for free.’” He started volunteer bar-backing one day a week, usually on the slow nights.
“I was basically an intern,” he explained. “I was 29 years old and I knew I did not want to work in an office. I said I want to commit to this career and forge my own way.”
About six months later, a bar-backing shift opened at Mission Dolores’ sister bar on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens, Bar Great Harry, and Baird started getting a paycheck. That led to fill-in bartending between the two spots and then eventually, an actual bartending job.
A few years later, in June of 2012, Mission Dolores owners Ben and Mike Wiley opened their third bar on 9th Street in Park Slope: Owl Farm. (They also went on to open Glorietta Baldy in Bed-Stuy in 2014). Baird was able to secure a spot behind the bar three nights a week. When the opening manager quit in November, he threw his hat in the ring and got the position. Just more than three years after that first volunteer job, Baird officially became a bar manager on December 26, 2012.
At Owl Farm, Baird got to learn exactly what it takes to oversee a successful operation. In addition to all the scheduling and logistics and inventory and the long hours and weekend shifts and getting calls in the middle of the night about broken ice machines — quite a lot of “not-so-glamourous” responsibilities — managing a bar also means that Baird gets to curate what the bar serves.
“I went all in on the weird beer,” he said. And it worked. Baird helped grow Owl Farm into a craft beer destination, developing its reputation as a place where you could walk in, have a little chat with the bartender about what you like, and end up trying something totally delicious and new to you.
The hard work paid off and about a year and a half later, Baird became a partner with the Wiley Brothers (a third brother, Seth, is also involved) and told them he wanted to open his own spot one day. This past March, it happened: Baird opened Cardiff Giant on Myrtle Avenue in Clinton Hill, his own personal vision come to life.
The Only “New York State Only” Bar in New York City
Everything served at Cardiff Giant — which is located in the old Splitty’s spot (“the camper bar!”) if that means anything to you — is from New York State: beer, alcohol, wine — even the pretzels are from the Bronx Bakery. In fact, Cardiff Giant is the only bar in the city that can make that claim, though Baird didn’t set out for it to be that way. Throughout his years curating Owl Farm’s draft list, he came to admire all the great wines, ciders and beers being produced all over the state as the liquor laws evolved to make it easier and more affordable for local distillers and brewers to sell their product. He realized that he could easily stock a whole bar this way — something that likely wouldn’t have been possible, say, five years ago.
“The last four years of ordering beer for Owl Farm, I noticed the local stuff was getting a lot better,” Baird said. “I initially started with the drafts. Then I started getting into it and thinking how we have lots of good wine in New York, and lots of good liquor, too. So we just went all in.”
But not anything that’s made in-state automatically gets a spot of the shelf. “Not all products are created equal. When I set out to do this, I said we’re not going to just be New York just for the sake of New York. If I taste a product and I think it’s not good, I won’t sell it.
If it’s not obvious, Baird is a pretty big beer nerd. Cider, too, and he’s learning more and more about wine and spirits. One of his favorite things about his job is the chance to get people to discover new beers.
“I like to find new and interesting things to introduce to customers, to get them excited about something new,” he said. “I could run a bar that has the same draft list as every other bar, but that wouldn’t be exciting for me. It might be a better financial decision, and it would definitely be easier. But it wouldn’t be exciting.”
Introducing someone to a new beer may be as simple as offering a taste, but with liquor, it’s a little different. To solve for this, Cardiff Giant has a wide selection of cocktails, which they use to present new alcohols to the customers.
“For example,” Baird says, “You may not know Industry Standard Vodka [made in Industry City, Brooklyn], but you know a Moscow Mule, so we present it in what I think is a pretty cool Moscow Mule that’s made with a really spicy ginger syrup that’s also made in Brooklyn.”
Cardiff Giant will be hosting tasting events, and they’re aiming to have at least one cider tasting and one beer tasting per month. (The next one is August 16 and features Aaron Burr Cidery, which is a line of ciders made from apples foraged from colonial orchards all around New York State. Definitely sounds like it’s worth checking out. On August 23, Peekskill Brewery will be hanging out.)
Love For The Local Guys
Beyond the unintentional novelty of being the only bar in NYC to be completely NYS-stocked, keeping it local means supporting other small business owners, which is hugely important to Baird, even though it is a lot more work.
“Let’s say you wanted to open a dive bar — which would be cool, I’d like to have a dive bar — You could get the initial inventory from maybe four different places,” he explains. “Four different invoices and you’ve set up the bar. Here, we opened with 100 items and it was 80 different invoices.” But behind each of those invoices is local business that’s pumping money back into the local economy.
“If you buy a drink made with Greenhook Ginsmiths gin, that’s going to a dude over in Greenpoint. Or if you went with Dorothy Parker, that’s going to the New York Distilling Company up in Williamsburg. And then the New York Distilling employees get paid with that, and they spend their money back in New York City … it’s a big loop,” Baird explains. “I think that’s cool.” Thinking about it some more, he adds, “You could probably do an all New York City bar, it’d just be a lot less stuff.”
So, Is It All It’s Cracked Up To Be?
For Baird, Cardiff Giant — which is named after an 1889 hoax in Cardiff, NY involving a dude who created and then buried a fake petrified “giant” — is the result of taking a big risk seven years ago. So how does it feel?
“To have a vision and implement it,” begins Baird with every bit of humility. “To say I’m going to open a bar in NYC — the only bar in NYC from what I know — where all the alcohol is from New York State and then to actually do it? It’s pretty cool.”
But it’s not just about running a bar — which even Baird admits that he may have imagined as a more fun, hang-out-with-my-friends-all-the-time type life — but about building something of your own.
“I’m in New York City and I’ve forged by own way and am my own boss,” he pauses. “Well, sort of my own boss. The customers decide at the end of the day. But I answer to myself and my partners. I don’t sit in cubicle anymore. I hate sitting in a cubicle. I hate fluorescent lights.”
Cardiff Giant is located 415 Myrtle Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11205, near Clinton Ave. They open at 1pm during the week and at noon on weekends and are open until 4am everyday, without fail. Beers are served in small or large (12 or 16 ounces, depending on ABV) pours, as well as liters for sharing. All liters are $2 off during happy hour, which is 4pm to 7 pm, Monday-Friday. Wine is served by the glass, carafe or bottle. Their backyard is open until about 11 each night. Follow the bars on Twitter at @theowlfarmbar and @CardiffGiantNYC.
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