The booming cocktail industry in San Francisco has one trend that is here to stay: female bar managers and barbacks. Gone are the days where cocktail waitresses just served a purpose as eye candy; now they are serving up a mean drink as well. That includes Brooke Arthur, bar manager at Wo Hing General Store.
Arthur took the path many have taken, helping pay her way through college working at local restaurants. She worked at well-known spots like the Redwood Room and Umami in the Marina. But her big break came when she got a job at Range.
“When I got the job there, it was really the start of the boom for bars and the cocktail industry as a whole in San Francisco. I was working with such an amazing group of guys like Eric Carlson, Carlos Yturria, Dominc Venegas. I just kept pushing myself to learn more,” said Arthur. “But then, they all left and management was looking for a bar manager. I wasn’t really sure, but when I talked to the guys, they all kind of pushed me to it and said it was my time.”
When she started out, she said there was a period of growing pains. “It’s difficult because when you take over at an established bar, there are people who have worked at that spot who are use to the way things were and sometimes, aren’t willing to change their style. There can be a lot of resistance,” she said. “It’s different if you are starting a bar program from the ground up. You are given the opportunity to pick your bottles, to create your cocktail list and to train your staff so that everyone is on the same page from the beginning.”
And being female didn’t help matters either. “When I first started, there were a lot of people who would not even ask me for a drink. They wanted the male bartender to serve them,” Arthur said. “I think a lot of people were just more comfortable with them. But it has gotten easier as the years have gone on.”
Arthur moved on from Range and got the opportunity to start the bar program at Prospect, which she said was a completely different animal. “Although it was a high-end restaurant, we were doing big volume each and every night. I loved my time there and I learned so much under the Boulevard team.”
But Arthur would soon jump at the chance to work with another giant in the San Francisco restaurant industry as she was named bar manager for Wo Hing General Store, Charles Phan’s latest restaurant back in his old stomping grounds in the Mission District. It was the first time that Arthur had worked in a restaurant serving Asian food, which provides a different challenge. But instead of pairing cocktails to the food menu, she took a different approach. “I think people want to drink in the temperatures of the season. So my drinks at Wo Hing aren’t aggressively strong. That would take away from the food,” she said. “I wanted to have some classic cocktails but add my own twist and make them fun and whimsical. So the cocktails work well by themselves, but also match up with the food we serve.”
Don’t worry, her drinks are plenty strong, but super refreshing as well. Arthur said she’s not sure about what the future holds. She would love to start her own bar someday, something on a smaller scale, in the Bay Area. And although she readily admits that San Francisco is the leader and heart of the cocktail culture in the U.S., there is still a major difference between the Bay Area and a place like New York. “In the Bay Area, we are so fortunate because we have such fresh, seasonal produce year-round. And our customers are so educated about food and cocktails and what they want to eat and drink. But the money and investment isn’t always there,” she said. “Unless you find some investors and backers, it’s really hard to open your own place in San Francisco.”
She said she still talks to Carlson, who now works in Seattle, and she keeps up with all of the others that have helped on the way. Whenever she has questions, she’s never afraid to pick up the phone and throw ideas off of the guys who “taught her the ropes.” It’s really part of the family atmosphere in San Francisco’s cocktail scene, something she saw firsthand after experimenting tragedy in her own life. “I was badly injured in a fire in my apartment on New Year’s Eve a few years ago. I thought I wasn’t going to make it. But a group of bartenders banded together and organized a benefit. Bartenders who I knew and many who I didn’t know came and helped raise money for my medical expenses. It was amazing to see everyone come together.”
You can find Brooke behind the bar at Wo Hing General Store, which is located at 584 Valencia Street in the Mission District.