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Meet the Bartender: Michele Willard

Urbn Restaurant Group's beverage director made the jump from finance to craft cocktails and never looked back
Michele Willard behind the bar at Urbn. | Photo: Jarnard Sutton

By Kelly Davis

It’s late on a Tuesday afternoon, and Michele Willard is behind the bar at downtown’s Basic, training bartenders on a new cocktail menu. She goes over the rules: put the least expensive ingredients in the cocktail tin first (in case you mess up and need to start over), but remember that some cocktails are always stirred, never shaken.

“And never let me see you put a straw in an Old Fashioned,” she says, “or I’ll cut off your hand.”

She laughs; they laugh. And everyone knows that going forward, there will be no straws in Old Fashioneds, no shaken Negronis. Willard, the beverage director for Urbn Restaurant Group, is a perfectionist, her work ethic shaped by many years spent working as a financial controller. She’s also got a deep respect for cocktail-making’s long, fascinating history, but knows that as a woman in a male-dominated field, she has to work twice as hard to prove herself.

“If there’s not a girl in a [bartending] competition, I make myself enter that competition because I want to represent,” she says. “It’s so important for me to let them know that we’re just as good.”

Willard recently overhauled Basic’s cocktail menu after spending several months of Friday and Saturday nights behind the bar, figuring out what cocktails best suited the clientele and vibe—it can get loud and crowded, so the cocktails needed to be easy, both for patrons to understand and bartenders to make. She opted for several classics that folks will recognize, some twists on classics, and three originals. For North Park’s Urbn, which has long been known for its craft cocktails, she’s putting the finishing touches on a more sophisticated menu of originals. “I’m taking it up a notch,” she says.

So, before bartending, you worked in finance, right?

My parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses, so I grew up very sheltered. I was home-schooled. I graduated early and started working in my chiropractor’s office when I was 15 years old, and I started learning general accounting stuff. Then I started going to school for accounting. By the time I was 25, I was the financial controller for a big company. I stayed there until I was 30. I loved my job, but [the company] got really big really fast. We started with 75 employees and grew to 300 within a couple of years, and that was me taking care of it all. It was becoming so corporate and I felt like I was losing my identity. I was working from 5 or 6 a.m. to 7 or 8 at night every day. I hit 30, and I was, like, I can’t do this anymore. Nate [Stanton] had just opened Craft & Commerce, and he was, like, come over.

How did you know Nate?

I was a regular at El Dorado. My girlfriends and I would go dancing there when it first opened. When I started working [at Craft & Commerce] I literally left everything—my 401k, my five weeks off, my paid everything.

And what was it that told you that was the right decision?

It was supposed to be a filler job for me. I was going to move to New York with Mark [her boyfriend at the time]. This way, I could get a fast job while I went to school for something else. I was going to go for fashion, because I’ve always loved fashion. I’m, like, “I‘ll learn this trade that I can do at night when I [move to New York].”

But I fell in love with every aspect of the job. It was really fun for me—the rush of going, going, going and not sitting at a desk all day. I fell in love with the drama and chaos of everything going on at once. I was working with Christian [Siglin] and he was just so passionate about it. Then they asked me to come over to Noble Experiment with Anthony [Schmidt]. Being there and being at Craft & Commerce, I was learning so much. Being such a nerdy school kid, I had all these Moleskines and I created tabs on them with all the [cocktail] families and then I would highlight everything. Anytime I was anywhere, if I had five minutes, I was studying. It was the coolest thing in the world to have all this information. It was like an art… but there’s a formula to cocktail-making that’s math-driven, and I love math. It was so exciting.

You were very much at the right place at the right time.

That’s exactly what it was.

How’d you end up at Urbn?

I was asked to create a cocktail menu for new sushi place, Ogawashi. One of the owners was Jon Younger, who asked if I wanted to come work at Urbn [which had just opened in North Park]. After two years at Urbn, I was kind of the bar manager, but I didn’t feel like I was ready for that role. So, I left to help open Park & Rec [in University Heights] and Bracero [in Little Italy].

I learned so much with Christian Siglin [at Bracero]—he’s just one of the most giving people—and so much with Trevor and Anthony [at Park & Rec] that I then felt ready. I went back to Urbn to manage the bar and really got into it, dove in head-first. I started teaching people, putting on spirits training classes. I started going to every educational event. And that’s when I decided that this is what I really wanted to do. It’s how I felt when I was at Craft & Commerce, but I had to regain the confidence that I had before. Finally I felt like I deserved to be doing what I loved.

Do you think having a management position at a craft-cocktail bar is more difficult as a woman?

Definitely. Adele [Stratton from Noble Experiment] and I actually talk about this all the time. It is beyond difficult. People don’t take you seriously. If there’s not a girl in a [bartending] competition, I make myself enter that competition because I want to represent. It’s so important for me to let them know that we’re just as good. And I beat these guys in competitions all the time. I just want to make sure that they know we can do this right with them.

Craft cocktails has always been a guy thing, and I think in San Diego it’s way harder than in L.A. or San Francisco or New York, because [in those cities], it’s been going on longer and the women have pushed through. But here, for so long, they didn’t want women bartending. And when I judge competitions, it’s five guys and me. I get along really well with men—I grew up with three brothers—but I also believe in women showing what they can do. My mom’s such a strong woman. I’m a strong woman and it’s really important to me for women in this industry to be respected—don’t grab me, don’t touch me, don’t try to screw me. That’s not why I’m here. I’ve really worked so hard.

I’m a strong woman and it’s really important to me for women in this industry to be respected—don’t grab me, don’t touch me, don’t try to screw me. That’s not why I’m here.

What do you think contributes most to making a great cocktail—is it having that foundational knowledge of classics?

I think it’s about five things, actually. Knowing the [cocktail] families is really important, because you have classic cocktails to start from. Everything is really based off of a classic cocktail—it’s a variation. There are modifiers here and there, but it’s always in a family. It gives you a place to start. The next thing, honestly, is knowing your customers, knowing what they like, knowing your demographic. A cocktail I’d make [at Basic], I wouldn’t make at Urbn. So, it’s knowing your customer. And then knowing spirits, tasting a lot of different spirits, knowing where they come from, knowing how they work with other things. Knowing citrus is important, too. A lemon versus a lime is huge, and how much. Citrus can make or break any drink. A quarter ounce too much can make an awful drink. And, also, for me, being in love with it. I make a bad cocktail now and then, but that’s how you learn.

Is there a spirit you’re really excited about right now?

I’ve been really into pisco lately and I’ve been really into Sherry. Sherry mostly. I’ve been doing a lot of Sherry cocktails. I feel like I could use it in anything and make it good.

What’s your favorite cocktail on Basic’s new menu?

It would have to be the Cutwater Spiced Rum Old Fashioned with black walnut bitters, or the Mai Tai.

Fill in the blanks: I wish people would stop ordering _____________ and instead order ______________.

I wish people would stop ordering vodka and start ordering gin.

Vodka on the rocks?

Vodka soda. I think a gin and soda is just as good as vodka soda.

What kind of gin?

I love Beefeater. Just to give you some perspective, on a slow week, we go through seven cases of vodka. Baseball season, we go through about 15. Gin, we go through one case a month.

What about Elyx?

It’s a good vodka. I love it. I love unfiltered vodka. RX vodka is amazing. It’s by a local distiller called Kill Devil Spirits.

If anything, I would want people to order all tequila and mezcal. People order a lot of tequila here, but not good tequila. I have Fortaleza, I have Tequila Ocho—those are things that I brought in. I love Altos [tequila]. I brought a lot of different scotches and bourbons. I changed a lot of that. I brought in Akashi [whisky], Balvenie Caribbean [Cask whisky], Auchentoshan Three Wood, which is my favorite.

On your night off, if you were to go out for a cocktail, where would you go?

I’d go to the Lion’s Share. I love Sycamore Den to just drink, but I love Lion’s Share because it’s all-encompassing. Their drink the Hunter Thompson, it’s one of my favorite drinks. I always order a bunch of different kinds of drinks, but there, I literally will have three of those.

When can folks find you behind the bar?

I’m always behind the bar Wednesdays at Urbn, because I have to be relevant. I feel like if I’m not relevant, I’m not growing.

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Meet the Bartender: Michele Willard

Michele Willard behind the bar at Urbn. | Photo: Jarnard Sutton

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