People here do not tend to hire based on résumé. Passion and the simple gumption of asking for what you want have launched careers in both business and in the arts, in this still somewhat isolated city.
This nurtures both amateurism and inspiration. Sometimes together, sometimes for better, sometimes not. Since opening last June, The Merchant Tavern has avoided amateurism while choreographing space for the freshness of individual inspiration into a well rehearsed and complexly staffed operation. One particularly fresh spot is the well behind the bar.
Brandon Francis, Merchant’s newest bar lead, had a background in advertising. He moved back to NL from the mainland with Don Draper dreams and an internship at Target Marketing (them of the deservedly touted, and occasionally spoofed, sunny NL tourism ads).
When the internship ended, he decided to stay in St John’s but left marketing for the restaurant industry, aka “dishwashing”. Dishes led to bussing led to bartending, back and forth between downtown staples YellowBelly and O’Reilly’s. Soon he was managing the Underbelly (the self proclaimed “speakeasy” with a focus on classic cocktails beneath the YellowBelly’s brewery and main restaurant).
When Merchant opened across the street he was sitting at the bar, an enthusiastic customer, opening night. He went again that Saturday and was working there the next Tuesday. Six months later he was adding “Sea Buckthorn Sour” to the menu. Francis sums this up, “a year and a half ago I was drinking bud light. Everything escalated really quickly and now I’m a snob. I’m a lifer. I’ve never been more comfortable.”
This mash-up of careful consideration and confidence in gut decisions makes the daily menu. Francis, along with the general manager, tasted the locally produced Third Place Tonic on a Sunday and had new menus printed by Tuesday, with tinned tonic no longer offered at all. But they do not deify change for change’s sake.
Francis acknowledges that when he became lead “the hard work was done.” There was already a solid menu in place, featuring the very popular “Eastsider,” archetypal of their modern aesthetic. Modern in both senses: honouring the clean aesthetic and stiff backbone of vintage modern, while allowing a fluid currency of trends. In a way, Francis has gotten to play out the “Mad Men” fantasy after all.
Conceived as a summer drink, the Eastsider remained on the menu through winter because, well, the customers won’t stop drinking it. Though the amount of lime was “tweaked” to enhance the “psychology of the cocktail,” Francis explained. “There is a certain amount of lime that will just dry out your tongue enough” to crave and then cherish the next sip, hitting that sweet spot in the sour.
Though his ideal bar would seat just 8 across and be slow enough to “create an individual cocktail based on each customer,” Francis’ short term seasonal goals of a spring beet and plum brandy cocktail, visions of Laiphroaig marmalade, and his earnest joy in learning his craft should bring plenty of willing guinea pigs to the large and bustling bar at the core of The Merchant Tavern.
(Check out Francis’ instagram account where he posts his miscibles: NL_cocktails)