bOWEN’s career path
- Bar Owner
Raising the Bar and Crafting Stories One Glass at a Time
Bartender and former actor David Bowen says hospitality is a lot like acting.
David Bowen and Maddie Fox’s coffee and craft cocktail bar, easytalk, located in Winston-Salem, is divided into two areas: easy and talk.
easy is the first space you enter. That’s where you can choose from an ever-evolving menu of eight cocktails—coffee in the mornings, coffee cocktails in the afternoon, and your standard cocktails in the evening. This space is your introduction into Bowen’s world.
Meander through the chic, photoworthy areas up to the talk side. And that’s where the drinks are more elevated—and the conversation begins. It’s where you get to peek behind the curtain and learn more of Bowen and Fox’s story.
Bowen and his wife and business partner, Fox, were college students at North Carolina School of the Arts when they discovered craft cocktails. They were regulars at Tate’s Craft Cocktails, which Bowen calls an industry pioneer in Winston-Salem’s local bar scene. While some college students were experimenting with cheap beer, these drama majors had more elevated tastes.
“We were fancy college students,” Bowen says, laughing. “We were in acting school, so we wanted to be very sophisticated.”
After graduation, Bowen landed the lead role in a Cirque du Soleil show in Hong Kong. And it was there that their interest in craft cocktails really soared.
“We just really fell in love with the overall cocktail culture there, the hospitality culture there,” Bowen says. “You’ve got just insane culinary traditions matched with boundary-pushing exploration.”
For example: “Every bar has a little rotary evaporator, a little microstill on the back. And instead of making lemongrass-infused gin, they’re redistilling the gin. They’re taking really fancy gin and redistilling it with lemongrass to get perfect flavor infusions. They’re doing all sorts of molecular mixology, all sorts of multisensory foams and stuff like that. Really high-end presentation, high-end technique. It’s a show.”
Hospitality is not unlike acting, Bowen says.
“That’s how we got into it. We’re both actors. We were interested in the theatrical experience of it,” he says. “We view what we do very much as storytelling.”
That’s how we got into it. We’re both actors. We were interested in the theatrical experience of it. We view what we do very much as storytelling.
When Bowen’s contract ended after three years, he and Fox worked hospitality jobs in New York City and continued to pursue acting.
Bowen worked for a high-end catering company that did events at MoMA, where they might deliver desserts on balloons or mix martinis from dry ice luges.
“It was super-experiential storytelling,” Bowen says. “It was high volume, with a thought toward the presentation of it.”
And that’s where he started to step behind the bar.
Still, the transition between actor and hospitality professional wasn’t immediate. He wanted to act. After a particularly unfulfilling day of catering, he was ready to leave hospitality. Then Fox posed the question: “Have you tried being good at it? Have you tried getting good at this thing that you do?”
Her question was the catalyst for reframing his job. He read books about bartending and cocktails, studying the craft like an actor absorbing a new role.
Perceptions about bartending are different in cities like New York, where bartenders can make it a lucrative career and are an integral part of their communities. Bowen and Fox wanted to bring that experience to Winston-Salem. They founded Ginger Fox Beverage, a downtown space where they served cocktails and held cocktail classes. They also offered catering services. This summer, they closed that space and opened easytalk. Ginger Fox Beverage continues to be the name of their catering and hospitality consulting business.
Part of their mission with easytalk is to change the perception about bars and to help legitimize and elevate their profession.
“I think the more places opening that are focused on quality and not just getting people cheap drinks and getting them drunk, but making it about the experience—I think the more places that are investing in that—the more it’s going to grow in that direction of you can be a professional, respected bartender,” he says.
Above all else, Bowen and Fox want easytalk to be welcoming to all.
“We try to make it a space that’s safe for everyone, all kinds of people, whatever that means,” he says. “We’re here to create a space that anyone should be able to come into and anyone should be able to work in and anyone should be able to interact with and have the experience that they need, whether you choose to drink [alcohol] or choose not to drink it.”
Pro tips Q&A
Interested in elevating your bartending game beyond popping bottles of domestic beers? Bowen—NCRLA’s Bartender of the Year 2022, Bartender of the Year judge 2023, and host of the 2023 Bartender of the Year West competition—shares these pro tips on how to pursue opportunities on the beverage side of hospitality.
Q: How do people find out about openings?
A: We’re in a really fortunate position where [in 2.5 years] we’ve posted once that we’re hiring, and we’ve never posted again. We’ve gotten all referrals from our staff. A lot of their classmates or friends. A lot of people just reached out to us because they’re interested in what we’re doing. We’ve got a couple of regulars now who’ve joined our team. I think the thing that we like, similar to what I was saying about just creating the space, I think that’s kind of how we view finding staff. Like, if you build it, they will come.
Q: If someone doesn’t know anyone on your staff and has only been here a few times, but they want to work for you, what should they do?
A: Send us an email or shoot us a message. We’re still such a small company that it’s Maddie and me behind the Instagram and emails. Thefox@gingerfoxbeverage.com is the best email. We also have on our website a submission form. If somebody’s interested, please reach out.
Q: What do you look for in an employee?
A: Someone who’s willing to learn. Somebody who’s willing to make mistakes. Somebody who’s not afraid to ask the questions. And I think, overall, somebody who’s invested in the story. I think that’s the real thing that we’re doing. I tell our staff all the time: It’s not about the cocktails. It’s important to have good cocktails, but it’s way more important to make somebody feel seen, feel accepted, feel appreciated, feel welcomed in the space.
Q: Is that something you can teach?
A: No. You can and you can’t. I can lead by example. I think you can show people how that happens, but it’s difficult to teach.
Q: What’s your elevator pitch for why people should choose hospitality?
A: The thing that I’ve really gotten out of working in hospitality and developing those skills is similar to being an actor. It’s investing in making yourself a better person. It’s making yourself a more useful person. It’s making yourself a more marketable person. It’s teaching yourself the skill sets that we use in hospitality, especially in bartending.
You’re dealing with so much interpersonal dynamics that the skills you build working on the service side of things, like working in hospitality, are applicable in really any industry and anywhere in the world.
Q: What does it take to succeed in this industry?
A: Time and effort, being willing to learn from any source in any exchange. I read a ton of books. How I got good at making cocktails was reading about it during the train commute in New York to my job. I would just be on my phone reading books from the public library, just downloading cocktail information. So that’s one way in.
But you also have people who get really good at this by working with one person in an apprenticeship or position for years and years. You have people who are just good at it.
There’s a bunch of different ways in. It is a job that you don’t get good at overnight. It’s a craft. It’s an art form if you’re doing it a certain way, but this is a craft, this is a trade that we do. It’s not just splashing things in a glass to get somebody drunk. It takes some time and energy to get there.
More thoughts from Bowen
Q: Who influenced you the most?
A: There’s a man named Wilfred who was our back of the house captain for a lot of events for the company that I worked with in New York. He understood how the pieces fit together for major events. He kind of took me under his wing at one point and showed me the ropes around how to specifically build back of house setups for major events in New York. And his approach to that has rippled out into how I approach pretty much all of this stuff.
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