Local bartenders pour out new niche

Ivan Chew shows off his flair in a competition at Battle in Seattle 3, Aug. 13. (Photos by Caroline Li)

By Caroline Li
Northwest Asian Weekly

On Wednesday, Aug. 13, guests at the Lake Union Armory got more than the usual quick drink at the bar. Glass bottles were spun, tossed and juggled, all in an effort to impress guests and take a shot at winning $15,000 in prize money at Battle in Seattle 3, presented by DList magazine. Battle in Seattle 3 is a bartending contest that put the best flair bartenders from around the world head to head in a competition.

Battle in Seattle is the biggest flair bartending competition on the West Coast with 16 competitors this year. This is a surprise to most since flair bartenders are a rarity in Seattle.

Many of the bartenders that competed were regulars at the World Championship in Las Vegas, the only city in the nation where flairing is “really appreciated,” said Rob Gagne, a Eurasian bartender from Renton. He has been bartending for the past seven years and flairing for the last year and a half.
The 32-year-old works four days a week, totaling 37 hours, at Acme Bowling Billards & Events in Tukwila. Though bartending isn’t the ideal career for many Asians, it’s intriguing enough to bring the crowds out at night.

“I definitely splurge when I go out at night,” said Zubin Lalani, who moved to the United States from India for a job at Phillips in Bellevue. Though he would love to be able to do some of the bartending tricks that the competitors do so well, he said as a “typical Asian,” he gravitates towards more “secure jobs” — the usual 9 to 5. “I think job stability is unpredictable if you are a bartender. It would be hard for me to look at it as a career, but it looks like a lot of fun.”
Gagne says there are many benefits to his career choice. It pays the bills, puts a roof over his head and allows him to go on vacations when he wants. “You make so much money you gotta remember to put it away,” he laughs. With that said, what else is there to do but to take it to the next level?

Like many others, Gagne learned how to flair by watching others, videos and just doing it hands-on. There’s no right or wrong way to flair.

According to Gagne, not all bar owners and bartenders appreciate the art of flairing. It takes time to flair and when there are long lines at the bar, not all customers have the patience or interest to watch bartending tricks. “Whether or not it’s the time to flair depends on the guests. Some people come in and just want their drinks, and if it’s busy you don’t have time to do it,” he said. But in Vegas, flairing is expected, and it’s a lifestyle. “Those bartenders have dream jobs. They do what they love while working.”

Nevertheless, the few flair bartenders in this town have found the right time and the right venues to showcase their craft and make some noise in this niche industry.

The competition was hosted by Flairbourne, a group of local bartenders with the right connections, creativity and some business know-how on what it takes to make Seattle a desirable destination for this specific audience.

If people don’t see the connection between bartending, magazine and school, they soon will, because the group has big plans for the city.

“People have done it (host competitions) before, but as far as what DList is doing, they are definitely putting Seattle on the map,” said Gagne. “For them to get such a high payout in Seattle, they are doing good.”

In 2005, the prize money for Battle in Seattle was only $200. This year it was $15,000. Some of the sponsors for Battle in Seattle included SKYY Vodka and Monster Energy Drink.

“The sponsors know their products will get into the hands of some really good industry people that attend our competitions,” said James Zachodni, who is also Eurasian and one of the founders of Flairbourne and DList magazine.

And though bartending may not be the ideal career choice for most, there is enough interest and appreciation for the profession that people like Zachodni are able to build an industry and business out of it.

“These guys are great. I’m so uncoordinated that if I throw a bottle in the air it would break on my head,” said Steve Nguyen, one of the many local nightlife supporters who came to watch the competition.

“This is the type of show you cannot find in Seattle, and we feel obligated to bring it here,” said Zachodni. ♦

To find out the results of the night’s competition and learn more, visit DList magazine at www.dlistmagazine.com.

Caroline Li can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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