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Why California's Jon Santer Is the Ultimate 'Bartender's Bartender'

This is the Barkeepers, a feature in which Eater meets the fine ladies and gentlemen behind the bar at some of the world's hottest cocktail parlors.

Dina Avila/Eater

Bartender Jon Santer is well-known in the San Francisco area for his stints behind some of the city's best bars: Most notably, in 2006, he helped open the Prohibition-inspired Bourbon & Branch, the bar that helped usher in the speakeasy-style, craft cocktail scene. But when it came time to open his own place, Santer happened upon a location just outside Oakland, in the two-square-mile city of Emeryville, California. The result, Prizefighter, is a neighborhood bar that draws the occasional pilgrim from San Francisco proper. It's Santer's (successful) attempt at "making drinking fun" once again: "Patio drinks" like Aperol Spritzes and Roman Holidays are available by the pitcher, a "Soda Fountain" section offers shrub and sodas with or without booze, and Mezcal features prominently, available starting in half-ounce tastes.

"People think if a cocktail is good, that means it's fancy," Santer says. "And I don't think that's true. I think a great drink can be very simple." Eater recently chatted with Santer about the Bay Area's early cocktail scene, the "difficult" opening days of Bourbon & Branch, and how Prizefighter is his response to the overly serious bars of old.

Do you remember what your first night behind the bar was like?
It was a fusion restaurant, remember those — where they'd take two cuisines that were good and mash them together and make them terrible? It was called Oritalia, which was supposed to be Oriental and Italian food, and at that point in San Francisco, you had to try out. They would call you and say, "Why don't you come in and have an audition." So, I was applying for jobs all around town and I got this audition at Oritalia and went in... and I remember laying on my bed in my new room in San Francisco, wearing a tie and having a full-on panic attack before I went into work because I didn't have a clue what I was doing. No idea. I was like, "They're going to know, they're going to know, they're going to know." They didn't know, I just kept busy and tried to be nice to people.

The bar at Prizefighter, Santer's bar in Emeryville, California. Photo: Jon Santer

What was the point where you knew this was what you were meant to do?
Back then there weren't many people who really cared about drinks in San Francisco. There were like six of us — you had an interview with Marco [Dionysos, who was one of them] — everybody who cared about drinks was working in North Beach at the time, within a few blocks of each other. So I happened into this group of people who really cared about this. It was Todd Smith, Marco, and David Nepove, this really tight group of people all kind of surrounding Enrico's [a bar credited with starting the SF craft cocktail scene]. I lucked into it. It was always more of a career [to me] than I think it was to a lot of other people, from the first day, because you had to take it seriously in order to hang out with those guys. Otherwise, what were you doing there? So I had a lot to learn, a really steep learning curve.

"You had to take it seriously in order to hang out with those guys. Otherwise, what were you doing there?"

Then at some point when I was 27 or 28, I had a crisis: Am I going to do this forever? So I took an L-SAT prep course, took the test, and applied to law school. I got accepted some places, rejected other places. People kept asking me, "Why do you want to go to law school"? I kept giving them this answer that I didn't even believe. And when I realized I didn't believe my own answer, I thought maybe I should really look at what I can do as a bartender or as somebody in the bar business instead. I'm here and I care about it, maybe other people will too.

Tell me more about about the crew at Enrico's. What was that community like?
There was a community before I got there, but my experience starts in 2000. My friend Tod Alsman, who owns R Bar and other bars in San Francisco, used to say: When people would come in and ask him, "What do you think about this whole mixology thing in San Francisco?" He'd be like, "Well, all six of those guys will be in here in about a hour and a half, you can ask them." It's true, it's where we all used to go. My nights off, when I started 14 years ago, I would go drink soda water and watch Marco bartend, because the way he moves... it's outstanding. Nobody moves like Marco. I studied pretty hard because I had a lot of catching up to do. But everybody made drinks for each other, drank together, and hung out. It was fun.

A Jack Rose at Prizefighter. Photo: Jon Santer

You helped open Bourbon & Branch in 2006. What was that like, to be part of the speakeasy-style establishment that was really picking up at the time?
The Branch was the hardest bar job ever when we opened up. We were making drinks nobody made in a very long time, including us. We didn't have any time to train, we just opened the bar — we thought we'd open really softly, and it didn't open softly. It opened with a bang, and we were behind from the get-go. We didn't have any prep people, we didn't have any ice, we didn't have an ice machine. All the produce and everything was kept in refrigerators that were downstairs in the basement: The stairs to the basement was a flight of stairs, then a landing, and then there were supposed to be six more stairs. But there were no stairs. So you had to go around the landing and jump down into the basement, get bins of things, put them on the landing, press yourself [up], I mean it was the hardest.

We would get there at noon, start prepping and getting the bar ready, then we would open at 6p.m. and we would make things as fast as we could for eight hours. Then we would stand in the back room, eyes glazed over, and smoke cigarettes and eat peanut M&M's, clean the bar up and at 4 or 5a.m. we would go home. And we'd get up the next day and do it all over again, every day. I don't know what it was like from the outside, but from the inside it was very difficult. It was really hard.

It terms of the positive response from guests, was that immediate?

"What the fuck is happening with the Blood and Sand?"That was cool. We didn't expect it. If you see the original menu at Bourbon & Branch, we didn't think that we were just going to be making cocktails. We thought we were going to be serving great wine, great spirits, and great beer. We had this menu of curated stuff that nobody ever ordered except for the cocktails. We were like, "Holy shit, all people want is cocktails." ... People didn't order what we expected them to order. They ordered mostly champagne cocktails, but all the other drinks as well. We put the Blood and Sand on there — nobody made a Blood and Sand for like 80 years, it's a Scotch drink, who orders Scotch drinks? We sold billions of them. We're like, "What the fuck is happening with the Blood and Sand?" It's strange, we had all these drinks on there that we didn't think anybody would order.

So let's fast forward a couple years. You worked for a while as a brand ambassador. But what made the timing right for you to open your own bar?
I'd been on the road a lot — a lot a lot — and I was pretty fried. I didn't even realize how fried I was until I stopped being on the road, and when I woke up in my own room for a week in a row, it was like, "Wow, this is nice." I wish I could tell you I was more proactive about it, but my current business partner, Dylan O'Brien... pulled me aside and said, "I think I have a line on a great space in the East Bay, and I need somebody to help me with it." So we started talking about it and then, I don't know — opening your own place is very daunting. There's all these pieces that have to come together in a kind of magical way, and it's like the chicken and the egg. What do you do: Do you get a space, or do you have a concept and insert that into the space?

So you started with the space: How did the Prizefighter concept emerge from that?
I think there are more bars in the vein of Prizefighter now than there were then. I didn't know of any then. That being said, I knew that the bread and butter of the business was going to be people who lived and worked in that community, coming there a few times a week, hopefully. I wanted to make it very accessible. I wanted to remove all the barriers in order to make it casual and fun [with] great drinks. Why can't it be all of those things: Why do you have to jump through a bunch of hoops to get great drinks, why can't you just go to a place that's fun? I didn't want to do a "Shh, drinking" bar.

"Why do you have to jump through a bunch of hoops to get great drinks?"

Your menu at Prizefighter is organized in a unique way. How did you develop the menu?
If somebody says to you, "Can I see your cocktail list," what they're really saying is, "I don't know what I want, please help me." So I'm trying to hand them something that they can go, "Oh, yeah, I know what this is." Then how do we do it from there? The first page is cocktails, beer, and wine, because 75% of people in the United States still drink beer and wine exclusively. Then the back page is cocktails that are disguised at things that aren't cocktails, which has evolved over time — we do spiked iced coffee for those who don't necessarily want a drink, we have the neighborhood cocktails, punch bowls... There are actually 67 items on this list. But it's more manageable if you make artificial [categories] as opposed to like, "Here's 67 things to choose from." We wanted to focus on Mezcal because nobody had an extensive Mezcal list at the time, and I was really into Mezcal. So we were like, let's figure out a way to sell Mezcal.

What's your clientele like?
Typically our clientele is between the ages of 25-45. The majority of them are white collar, though we do have some blue-collar guys who come in and we love them, too. Most of them work and/or live in Emeryville, Oakland, or Berkeley, we don't get a lot of people who come over from the city. People from East Bay will go into the city, but people from San Francisco don't really go east — and I wasn't expecting them to. We get more of them than I thought we would, but you have to kind of make a pilgrimage... We have great clientele. That's been the most fun part about doing the bar, getting to meet and have long-term relationships with all of these different people from all walks of life. The best part about owning a bar is you make this place that people go, you build this community.

The exterior of Prizefighter. Photo: Jon Santer

Including with other bartenders.
Of course, there's always that internal community, but to have this kind of access to people who do all different things on a daily basis and check in with them, that's been really cool for me. This cocktail world gets kind of cloistered. Often, you just meet drinks people and talk about drinks; sometimes, it's nice to talk to other people about what they're doing. That's been really fun.

With that in mind, you're known as a "bartender's bartender." What's your reaction to that?

"It's nice to be known as a bartender's bartender. It's really the highest compliment I can think of."[Pauses] I feel great about that, I'm happy to hear that, [it's] very flattering. I don't know, I don't know how to answer that, I guess. I'm happy that that's the perception... I've spent my whole real adult life behind a bar, so I'm comfortable there. Sometimes when I get uncomfortable in a situation, I imagine that I'm behind a bar and that calms me down. It's weird, because I'm not an extroverted person. It's nice to be known as a bartender's bartender. It's really the highest compliment I can think of.

And finally, what's your must-have Barkeeper tool?
I think the value that we have as a community is that we're "people people," we have the ability to connect with just about everybody. I find that's more and more rare, especially in San Francisco... people are on their phones all the time, not with other people. I think that the real value we have is not — and your drink should be great, don't get me wrong, you should be able to accurately mix great drinks all the time — but I think the real value we have in the long term is not as drink-making machines. It's as curators of communities. We're able to meet people and positively affect their day, so the ability to do that is our greatest strength. The really great ones are great at people and great at drinks. Even if you fly under the radar like I do — or try to — you're still a people person.

Prizefighter

6702 Hollis Street, Emeryville, CA 94608

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