A fated meeting between Winnipeg nightclub owner Stephen Hua and career bartender Brandon Whyte brought the vision of a new bartending school to life.
Actually, it was their first meeting.
“It was like a blind date,” says Whyte, instructor at the Exchange Bartending School. “Stephen Hua is a nightclub mogul. He’s got his foot and hands in everything in the city.
“I found out he was opening a bartending school… (now) any club that he’s involved with will have my trainees.”
Whyte comes from a storied career in bartending; he’s got wine sommelier and beer courses under his belt, 18 years of experience working in bars on Edmonton’s trendy Whyte Avenue, he’s been a keynote speaker at the Nightclub & Bar Convention and Trade Show, and he essentially played “Bar Rescue” Jon Taffer for many of the bars he’s worked in.
“I took our three places that were failing and hit huge home runs,” says Whyte, of his work in Edmonton.
Whyte’s biggest observation about flailing bars or pubs was the importance of its front-of-house staff.
“I discovered this business is all about people serving people. No matter how great your chef is, no matter how great your food is, restaurants that don’t get return visits for sure fail.
“The more I nurtured my staff… not only did I have a better quality establishment that people want to come to, but I had better staff retention.”
His perception on keeping staff happy to keep customers happy, and vice versa, easily transferred to his new role as a bartender mentor. “I do want to teach you skills to flourish from Day 1, but I do also want to teach you how to stand out – how to be outstanding.
“Any given night, you can have an effect on someone.”
Whyte says he was born for the role of teacher, and is so proud when he enters a club or bar that is being tended by one of his own.
The most standout difference about his bartending course is that the school really invests time in trying to find its grads work.
Whyte says he personally goes over each and every grads resume; “Because I’ve looked at so many, I think I know how they should look,” he says.
He also sets students up with work at socials, private parties and weddings to help them gain some real-world experience behind the bar.
Plus, there’s the added bonus of the Hua connection.
The most promising two students in each session at the Exchange Bartending School get hooked up with a weekend internship at any one of Hua’s bustling nightclubs.
Hua is a partner in Exchange District nightclubs like Boa’s Lounge, Opera Ultralounge and Whiskey Dix. The school is affiliated with nine bars, including MAW’s Eatery & Bar and the conceptual Rec Room on Pembina Highway.
Graduates of the five-day course are likely to get Hua’s nod of approval, which would translate well to most city establishments.
Both Whyte and Hua hoped to bring Winnipeg’s bartending standard up a notch.
For many places, Whyte says, “I can tell they’ve been trained by people who haven’t been trained.
“When I see age-old terms or age-old teachings disappearing… it’s really a lack of mentors,” he says.
Enter the Exchange Bartending School, which covers all sorts of course material like how liquor is made, the basics of wine tasting, and how to keep a tidy and sanitary station.
Whyte says his approach differs from many bartending schools because they focus primarily on preparing cocktails that rarely get ordered: “They’re teaching you to make drinks but there’s a lot more to bartending,” he says.
Though he does teach cocktail recipes, he focuses heavily on the practical side: “I want to see how fast you can make six rye and cokes here. We have a speed test,” he says.
Speed is the most vital skill in nightclub settings, and the skills combined with knowledge translate well to any workplace.
Because of the diversity of his experience, which includes his first job at the current Bailey’s Restaurant & Bar (then Oliver’s Restaurant), and a recent post as food and beverage manager at Hecla Golf Course, Whyte feels he’s picked up on what people need to know out the gate, having learned something from many styles. “I’ve bartended in every scenario you can imagine,” says Whyte.
Of course, what often attracts people to bartending is money – and Whyte has a proven track record of generating the most tips, as well.
Having “an entrepreneurial attitude” was what brought him the best return. “I realized the harder I worked to get return business, the more money I made.” He tries to instill this entrepreneurial spirit in his trainees.
The perks of the cash in the business are well-known, but Whyte still knows how to pitch it: “How many jobs can you go in and make your tuition back in one or two shifts?
“It put me through university. I was the first one to get a car and go to Europe. Everywhere in the world, there’s bars.”
Plus, “every day is pay day.”
The Exchange Bartending School at 1B-89 Princess St. offers daytime and evening courses for $399. Visit exchangebartendingschool.ca for more information.