All Blogs

An Interview with Leo Degroff

October 14, 2022 | Bar Ambassador Series

Bar designer extraordinaire and Krowne bar ambassador Leo Degroff talks with Krowne's corporate training manager Paul Cali about bar design, his passion for the industry and his love of BarFlex3D.

*Please note this conversation was recorded in November 2021

Paul Cali

Did your dad have you making drinks in diapers? Or what happened?

 

Leo Degroff 

Yeah, pretty much. I think the first time I bar backed for him was in Prague when I was 13.

 

Paul Cali

Oh my god. Wow. Wow. So, you were 13 when you (had) your first job with him (and) you grew up in Brooklyn.

 

Leo Degroff

I lived in Brooklyn till about, you know, middle school, high school, and then we were on Long Island.

 

Paul Cali

Gotcha. Okay. Are you still in the New York area?

 

Leo Degroff

I've been in Manhattan since 2004.

 

Paul Cali

Oh, good for you. That's awesome. I saw you talked about Brooklyn, a little bit in your childhood. So, I knew you had some New York roots to yourself. Absolutely. That's terrific.

 

Leo Degroff

Yeah, that's, you know, I've been working in Manhattan. I started in kitchens while I was in high school. So, commuting, you know, every day to the city for work.

 

Paul Cali

Yeah.

 

Leo Degroff

And then eventually, I was helping dad with a class he was doing at a culinary school called Peter Kump, which is now called the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE).

 

Paul Cali

Okay.

 

Leo Degroff

It was a class, you know, we did for PR people. And I think I met a lot of other people we know in the industry for very long now.

But one day, he had somebody substitute the class a lady named Jerry banks.

 

Paul Cali

Okay.

 

Leo Degroff

Jerry Banks was doing cocktail programs along with dad, and she was doing a nightclub right down the street on 21st Street, which was a crazy street in the early 2000s.

 

Paul Cali

Gotcha.

 

Leo Degroff

And she was like, hey, why don't you come help me, you know, execute this fresh juice program?

 

Paul Cali

Yeah.

 

Leo Degroff

So essentially, even as a barback, I've been hired to sort of figure out how to do all these programs for people and, essentially, you know, even my next job bar backing I was training the bartenders as the bar back. Eventually I bartended. But you know, I had a history with the fresh juice.

 

Paul Cali

Yeah, absolutely. Now, you talked about, and I read a little bit in your past. Your dad was a bartender at the Rainbow Room. Correct?

 

Leo Degroff

Yeah, he ran the Rainbow Room from about (19)85 to (19)99.

 

Paul Cali

Gotcha.

 

Leo Degroff

That's, you know, 65th floor on top of Rockefeller Center. The bar manager (was) Joe Bomb his idol. Joe Bomb opened like Four Seasons.

 

Paul Cali

Now you mentioned you were 13 when you started. Were you working at the Rainbow Room at all with your dad?

 

Leo Degroff

No, I never worked at the Rainbow Room. I was young. I was only about you know, 12 the last time I was there.

 

Paul Cali

Gotcha. Gotcha.

 

Leo Degroff

I mean, I went and had a martini and a Cosmo as an adult with him. I've been meaning actually (to) go back recently.

 

Paul Cali

Yep. Yep. So, you were kind of born into this industry? Was there anything else you wanted to do? Other than being in the foodservice side of things?

 

Leo Degroff

I mean, I did a lot of things. I worked on fishing boats, on cars, ice cream shops, restaurants, farm. I don't miss the farm job. What else did…oh, I was working on movies. That's what I wanted to do. You know, like PA (production assistant) stuff. Unfortunately. So, I was on a movie set. We were filming on Rikers Island, which, that's an experience.

 

Paul Cali

I was gonna say that had to be interesting.

 

Leo Degroff

Yeah, I got a lot of stories about that week. But unfortunately, the last day I worked on a set was September 10, 2001. And then I lost all those contacts and essentially, you know, just transitioned back into restaurants and bars after that, and nightclubs.

And yeah, because I had, you know, I pulled out of the kitchen, went back to college, and then was working on the movie sets. And I guess I was gonna figure out something from there probably to go into more movie stuff.

 

Paul Cali

Sure.

 

Leo Degroff

But you know that kind of changed everything.

 

Paul Cali

Gotcha. Yeah, yeah. Oh, absolutely.

 

Leo Degroff

You know, that. And one of the restaurants you know, if I didn't go to college, I was actually trying to get a job at Windows of the World, in the kitchen. Yep, though, that, you know, probably best, you know, things happen the way they did.

 

Paul Cali

Absolutely. Now, you mentioned in some of the history I read about you. When you were down in Florida, you had created a drink called the Leo de Janeiro. Is that one of your favorite drinks to make or is that?

 

Leo Degroff

How did you figure it? How did you find that out?

 

Paul Cali

I found an article. I'm sure one of many that you've done on Thrillist I think it's called.

 

Leo Degroff

Yeah, it was funny because, you know, Miami and New York have a pretty close tie. Especially in this industry. And I had (a) friend John Lemaire, who has passed away. He owns Sweet Liberty, (it’s) still down there, his bar.

But we all worked in a club called Bed Together, a bunch of us. I had a drink called Leo de Janeiro, which, you know, John would, joke around with me. It was essentially just gin, pineapple juice and bitters. I used to order them in Boca, because at the time we were down there working.

But you know, I was down there, and you couldn't get a good drink. And I would notice they always had like bottles of bitters in the drawer they never used, and I was like yeah, I’ll just have Gentile juice and a ridiculous amount of bitters and they called it the Leo de Janeiro. And you could order it for about one or two summers at two or three clubs.

 

 

 

Paul Cali

Oh, awesome. That's a great story. What's your most challenging drink that you make today? Or what you have made in the past?

 

Leo Degroff

I mean, you know, a lot of these guys write books, because no one can remember the recipes. I guess anything I can't remember the recipe for. Otherwise, nothing's really challenging. People hire us to do the challenge.

 

Paul Cali

Yeah, yeah.

 

Leo Degroff

We just figure it out. I don't think I've ever done anything easy to be honest.

 

Paul Cali

Yeah, I'm sure. When you're talking about bar design, Leo, what are the things that you're looking for in a bar? What are the must haves? Like when you're talking about design?

 

Leo Degroff

Well, you got to have a plan, within your business plan for the bar and what the program is going to be. When you're sitting down before you design anything on Barflex(3d), you want to make a list of the things that are important to you. And the things that you'll probably have to cut depend(s) on a budget.

Are you gonna have your cocktail Bible? Are you gonna have a whole index? How many different recipes? How many different serums? How many ingredients overlap? Are you doing something molecular or crazy like that? Where you need a whole special station built for it? Are you doing fire stuff?

There's an endless list of questions when it comes to that stuff.

 

Paul Cali

Sure.

 

Leo Degroff

And it comes down to space. How many ingredients? How many cheaters bottles, how many bottles of liquor on the back bar? How many bottles of liquor in the well? How many of those bottles are cold?

What style of bartending are you doing? How many sinks are you throwing cocktails? How many different types of glassware? How many of them have to be frosted?

A lot of cocktails is presentation.

 

Paul Cali

Yeah, gotcha.

 

Leo Degroff

Which is why we've adjusted our bar designs, to have better presentations and to present your fresh juice program nicer. Like a drop in garnish rails with ice under them, (and) bar rails and everything. The whole presentation from the creation of the drink to the drink (being) displayed. And people order with their eyes.

 

Paul Cali

100%? Absolutely. How did you get hooked up with Krowne? How did we get the pleasure of working with yourself? How did that whole thing come about?

 

Leo Degroff

Two weeks before the pandemic, which, you know, has changed everything.

 

Paul Cali

Sure.

 

Leo Degroff

I was looking at all of it. Troy Clark, (Krowne bar ambassador), I believe (I) ran into somebody or Troy does a lot of distributor stuff. He's on a cocktail side of it. So, he's had all the distributor shows, which usually is where the larger scale equipment companies are hanging out at. And I think somebody saw a custom job he had done like a bar lab in Massachusetts, I'm assuming (this) is where the conversation started.

 

Paul Cali

Oh, okay. Now, are you strictly continental US? Or do you travel the world as well?

 

Leo Degroff

Well, I haven't done anything international since 2019. But 2019 I went to China to study bio with the MiG River people, which was unreal. Yeah, it a whole other conversation. Then we did the Athens bar show that year. I did two presentations.

 

Paul Cali

What are you seeing this year for drink trends? What's the new thing or what's the big fad for 2021 to 2022?

 

Leo Degroff

I'd say, well it has been for a while, but Japanese style highballs custom sodas setups. I'm working right now where I want to build out a whole custom sparkling water system into the bar top. We'd all be custom. You would have a tap for sparkling water cold, hopefully cold water, for drinking. You know to speed up that process because I was thinking. I was at a bar and I'm watching this (bartender) grab the pitcher or you had to refill the pitcher (to) fill up each glass.

And I'm, like, you know, from one side of the bar to the other because (there’s) not really room on each station for the water. And I was like, wow, that took a lot of time.

So, I want to start shortening some of these things by building custom systems in their circulating water sinks. Hot water tap, cold water tap, (and) soda tap, built right into the station, pouring over (the) drip tray. Things like that.

And then, you know, other new stuff. Kid called me yesterday, he's building out a bar in Missouri. And he had sat through one of my design seminars once, and he's like, which sinks should I get? I only have 12 inches here. Missouri wants you to have the three bay, you know, the whole nine, and we get into arguments with these designers.

They're like, I've been designing bars for 20 years. And I'm like, okay, how long have you been bartending? Well, I've never bartender(ed). I was like, there we go. There you go. You're building sushi bars, and we're opening a steakhouse.

New York is tough, because a lot of the people I work with are literally just bartenders who have no budget, have no backing, are lucky to open the doors. But they always call me in to model it out. And so, they have a template. And now I get those calls, and I started referring them to your website.

 

Paul Cali

Thank you. We appreciate that.

 

Leo Degroff

Saves me a lot of time, because then I don't have to draw the whole thing. Hey, can we change that, that and that? No, but you can do it yourself. Right there on the website. 3D. CAD is all done. It's a tool. It's a major tool.

 

Paul Cali

Barflex, since you mentioned it, anything you'd like to see us add to that. What are your thoughts?

 

Leo Degroff

I thought they already put most of my notes and you know, corners. Oh, backboard and under back bar? The refrigeration?

 

Paul Cali

Is there. Yeah.

 

Leo Degroff

Oh, it is?

 

Paul Cali

Oh, yeah. We added bottle cooler(s) and back bar(s). Yep.

 

Leo Degroff

Back bars, corners. I think more equipment. I didn't think all the equipment was in. I think all the versions of equipment with and without cold plates, your speed rail.

I mean, the only reasonable option I can think of it being shown is that, you know, when you pick the ice bin, and you determine like, whether it's got like speed rail options and things like that. Yeah, maybe there's an option, though. It's not a part of that piece. Where because that's usually the center of your station, where the drip tray above, it displays like you just have

This is where four-inch, eight inch 36-inch-wide. And then maybe on either side of that, you know, there's options for dropping garnish things.

 

Paul Cali

Well, we have the amount of garnish strains, we have drop-in. We also have the drop-in trays that you can put into your ice bins and the small 12-inch ice bins we have to drop ins to for those condiments as well.

 

Leo Degroff

Yeah. All right. I haven't had time to do a full inventory of everything from Krowne. I want to go down my list. Make sure I have a model of everything. And then look at it.

 

Paul Cali

Sure. Absolutely. It is phenomenal.

 

Leo Degroff

Put it in the works. You know, that's why building everything, theoretically, is the best way to do it. You need more visual? Which is why that Flex program is genius. Because now you have the visual. And most designers don't do it in 3d, which I've never understood. It's a 2d drawing, always, you know,

 

Paul Cali

We say it all the time. Leo, you're trying to explain modular bar die, for instance, to somebody in a 2d drawing (it) is very difficult. And it really becomes a game changer for them to see it. You know, what we're actually receiving.

 

Leo Degroff

It's a much better system because somebody can go plug and play all the pieces, they want instead of the guy who never bartended, did work for a beer company comes in and sells all the equipment all the wrong way, which I've seen 100 times. Then they fight with me. Like this is a great bar. (This is a) cut and paste that's older than I am. And in 2d. What you should do, otherwise, you're not going to be able to do the program you want.

 

Paul Cali

You've had had an unbelievable career, what is the one thing that you're most maybe proud of, or most, you know, happy with, what you've done to date?

 

Leo Degroff

Some of the stuff we do for these festivals where we build out, basically batch towns. And this past year, life is beautiful. We batch a mix, there's about 125 Bar stations. They shut down downtown Las Vegas. It's about 50 blocks. You know, we're driving around a golf carts half the time, you know. And we get about three minutes to train them.

But like, we build out this entire batch town with tents, walk ins, refrigerated trucks, whatever it might be. That's a different game. And everything we do is different.

We were running the VIP down at Irving Plaza for a little bit this year. And I did a couple of shifts down there. One was the lady who was running for mayor. It's like her, and AOC doing a fundraiser. And I'm making cocktails. And we were doing the simplest stuff, you know, somebody would come up to the bar, they got a kick out of it, because there was politicians behind the bar with us. But I would make somebody who walked up to the bar to say a cognac, sour, right. Fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, cognac. And they're like, oh my god, what is this? This is the greatest drink ever, you know.

Like, you don't even have to go complicated. I mean, obviously, you can. But yeah, you know, sinks, sinks, sinks, that's what I tell everybody.

 

Paul Cali

Listen, it was so great meeting you and getting a chance to talk to you it's amazing you know, your wealth of knowledge in in this industry is incredible. And certainly, your resume speaks for itself. So, thank you so much for your time today. Hopefully, we'll get a chance to do this again.

 

Leo Degroff

Alright sounds good. Be well. Take care


Posted by Krowne on October 14, 2022 12:02:49 PM

Topics: Bar Ambassadors, Leo Degroff, Bartending, Bartender

add chat to your website