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30 years riding

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02/12/2021 Michael Thompson, Head Bartender at the Edge Steakhouse, Las Vegas has been riding behind the bar for 30 years now and on his Harley through 40 states. He knows how to keep things fresh, with classics or something new.

Where do you currently work?

Edge Steakhouse/Westgate Las Vegas

Tell us something about yourself.

Well, I've been behind the bar now for almost 30 years. It's been an amazing journey with so many wonderful people I've met along the way.  Bartending has taken me to jobs and assignments in Dubai U.A.E., London England, Venice Italy, New York City, Niagara Falls Canada, and my current home here in Las Vegas Nevada with Westgate, where I have been the Head Bartender for the last 7 years at the Edge Steakhouse. I was fortunate enough to be on the opening team from day 1. I moved to Las Vegas 10 years ago from NYC. When I'm not behind the bar or running around town looking for the next best elixirs, you can find me on the highway on my Harley. I've ridden to 40 states so far. The Harley and The Highway is my happy place. I also have a 14-year-old chihuahua named Guinness who I found back in NYC on 118th St & 1st Ave. Wouldn't trade him for all the cash in Vegas!

What inspired you to get into bartending?

I've always loved the nightlife. Seeing all the bartenders behind the bar, hosting incredible parties each and every night was very intriguing to me.I just loved the atmosphere. Early into my career,  I found out though, just how much hard work goes into making that good time happen each and every night! It seemed like they were truly having a good time. It was my kinda office. The 9-5 pencil-pushing really wasn't for me. Well, that and girls. Lol.

How according to you has the role of the Bartender evolved, especially now during Covid times?

It's evolved tremendously! You're continuously growing and learning. You are so inundated with new products hitting the market. Some good, some not so good. You really have to stay on top of your game and be open to new methods. If you think you know it all, it's probably time to leave the craft of bartending, during these times of Covid, I think it's probably best to revisit why I and others got into bartending in the first place, to create memorable experiences for our guests and have a good time while doing it. With everyone ready to get back out and enjoy themselves, let's re-open, be true to ourselves, be true to our guests and remain true to our employers. 

What are some of the most important skills for a bartender to have?

The list is long but to start, just be you and bring that personality to your bar each and every night. Remain consistent, not robotic, If you're just in it for the money and quick cash your shelf life will be short-lived. Work the bar like it's yours, take ownership of it. Take pride in your bar. Multi-tasking is of the utmost importance also, this job demands that you're usually doing at least 3-4 different tasks at the same time all while your guest at the end of the bar wants to show you pictures of their weekend getaway or pics of the grandkids! Keep your cool.

What do you look for when you plan to buy spirits for your bar?

Quality product. Period. As I was saying before, the market is consistently inundated with new products being thrown your way. You have to sift through the good from the bad. As you build relationships with your suppliers, they start to know you, and your bar’s personality. What to bring to the table and what not to. Seasonal menus will also play a big role in what you'll be ordering.

What support programs work best for you from suppliers?

I guess the most important thing would be for suppliers to give the bar a heads up if their supply is running low on products that we carry. Product tools are always cool to receive too. Gravity corks, wine keys, just general all-around cool new bar items. It's really important to grow a relationship with your suppliers, get to know each other, let them know your needs and wants, and what way you may be gravitating towards in the near future.

Mike Thompson - a longtime customer favorite Bartender and Mixologist

What cocktails and drinks trends do you see in 2022?

The funny thing is, the trend I've seen over the last year, is everyone is drinking like it's 1922! Guests seem to be enjoying all the old classics, Old fashioned, Sazaracs, Manhattans, Aviations, Negronis, etc. I see a lot of bartenders, myself included, putting their own spin on a lot of the classics. It's all about giving the people what they want, and right now, people are keeping it simple. Guests seem to want a little more conversation and interaction these days. So, instead of a freeze-dried Cosmo on a stick, served with an outlandish display of dry ice surrounding it, serve them up your take on a classic Manhattan,  all while having a little conversation and guest interaction while doing it. It's all about making that connection!

What's the best part of your job?

Our guests. We build a bar to welcome people in the first place! Building relationships with our guests and making them feel comfortable is so important to me. You have to be genuine. You have to genuinely enjoy what you do as a bartender day in and day out. Back in NYC, I used to love seeing the faces of people who were there for the first time, just seeing the happiness and awe of being there, the same rings true for me as a bartender here at Edge Bar in the Entertainment Capital of the World, Las Vegas! It's a joy to be a part of their journey and a good time.

What are your favorite TV shows right now? Or your favorite movie?

Rocky. I've probably watched that movie well over 100 times. Every time it comes on T.V., it feels like I'm watching it for the first time all over again. Underdog from the streets makes good. Love it!

A poster of Edge Steakhouse at Westgate Las Vegas featuring Michael Thompson

If you had to pick one spirit as your personal best, which would it be and why?

That's a tough one! I'm a big bourbon guy. I really like the products coming out of the Buffalo Trace Distillery. They have a great portfolio and are Masters in the craft of distilling bourbon. I'm hoping to get to the distillery one day soon. I really like their W.L. Weller wheated collection, most notably, their Weller 12 yr. It's a very smooth and balanced bourbon, with hints of cream corn and toasted vanilla, followed by a long oaky smooth finish. I also just recently obtained a bottle of their O.F.C. vintage 94 for the bar. Sorry, I knew I couldn't pick just one!

How are you marketing your bar to drive some foot traffic during Covid-19?

We have an amazing marketing team at Westgate. They like to use the actual people who work at the establishment as their face of the property as opposed to a model type who's probably never mixed a drink or washed a dish. It really creates familiarity and instant connection with the guest. Everywhere I walk throughout the casino I see my mug on a billboard, poster, even on the Marquee out front. It's very cool and humbling at the same time. We're currently the #1 TripAdvisor-rated Steakhouse in Las Vegas. As we speak, we are under renovation on the bar to double its size! Word of mouth is incredibly important in this business also. People like to read reviews on your establishment before visiting it. So you better bring your A-game each and every night!

Any tips for new bartenders?

Soak up as much knowledge as you can every day! This business is constantly evolving. Don't be afraid to try some trial and error when creating drinks. You'll start to learn all the different flavor profiles of the spirits. What pairs well with what, and what doesn't. Take chances and roll the dice. Be confident yet humble behind the bar. Remember, it's all about the guest, and not you. You're the host for the evening. Find your groove and you'll find your cool. Bring your personality to the table and everything else will usually fall into place. Always demand the best from yourself, this will show in your attitude and presence. And always, be a team player!

What’s the most underrated cocktail ingredient or spirit?

There's a lot of great Bitters on the market today that are playing a big part in drink menus. So many interesting different flavor profiles that can really enhance the quality of a good cocktail. They're really thinking outside the box with a lot of them. Ex. Peppercorn Bacon, Thai bitters, Papaya, Yuzu, Celery, Mexican Mole, etc. You can really have a lot of fun with them.

Cocktail Gatsby Martini with your choice of gin/vodka, Generous Spritz Carapano Antica vermouth, and Icelandic Caviar Blue Cheese Stuffed Olive made by Michael Thompson

What is an experience or a customer story you thought was funny and that you remember?

This one's kind of embarrassing but, here we go! I lived in Dubai for 2 years and my first gig there was at a club called Cyclone Club. There was a very attractive girl talking to me as I was working, she was definitely feeling no pain. She all of a sudden said she wanted to bite me in the ah, "nether regions". I laughed it off, then the next thing I knew, she dropped down and under the bar top and bit down on the bullseye! Ouch! I felt bad, but security directed her to the door. The next week, I took up residency with Trader Vic's within The Crowne Plaza.

What are the 4-5 challenges you face in your business and how do you overcome them?

With Covid and all the mandates changing, I guess #1 would be filling your seats. We're very lucky in the fact that we have a very loyal local clientele. They text me daily to see if there's any availability at the bar. #2, Getting your product! It's been a tough time just getting all your needs filled from suppliers. With cargo ships being held up and a shortage of OTR truckers, it's been slow going. You just have to ride the storm out and be creative with what you can get and already have.  #3 Fearful guest's during covid. It's of the utmost importance that your guests see that you're taking all the necessary steps and precautions to make them feel safe in your establishment. Westgate is front and center on this. #4 Emotional/Physical drain. Let's be honest, these times have been a tough go for everyone! You’re open, you're closed, masks off, masks on, 50% capacity,  100% capacity. It's been emotionally and physically draining. You really need a good support system, whether that's at home or your place of employment. Someone who will lend an ear just to let you vent when you may be having a down day. We really need to be here for each other in these crazy times. #5 Finances. You have to be a little more fruitful these days when it comes to ordering. You can't penny-pinch and give sub-par products, but sometimes you have to step back and look at your "needs and wants". Diners today are extremely educated. They know if they're getting top-quality goods or mediocre. It's a dance, but one I've got down over the years (even if I have 2 left feet)!

What's your career goal? Where do you want to be and how are you working towards it?

I've never been happier than where I am right now. I can't believe it's been an almost 30-year ride behind the stick! I've shown management what I could bring to the table for them here at Westgate and pretty much from day 1 they said, Mike, have at it. Make the bar yours, and that's just what I've done. I'm very proud of that. We've grown and evolved so much at Edge over the last 7 years. It's just been such an honor to see everyone's hard work come to light. I've been to some pretty incredible places throughout my career. Worked with some amazing teams and management. I plan on riding out my career with the amazing crew here at Westgate. It's an amazing company and I really have found my home with them. From the dishwasher to the CEO, you really do feel like you're part of a family. I ain't going nowhere!

Tips for brands looking to pitch to bars? What should they cover in their pitch? What you do not need to know? Give us the best elevator pitch brands can make to you.

First and foremost, please do not show up at my bar with 10 different bottles you want to plug in 10 minutes before we open for service! Even worse, don't show up with those bottles while we are in service! Drives me crazy. I like when a distributor gets right to the point on their product. The flavor profile, tasting notes, cost, etc. As interesting as it may be, please don't tell me the whole background of the product first. Uncle Jimmy bought the land back in 1895, bought his first barrel by selling his shoes, lost an eye in the explosion during prohibition, and that's why we call it Patches Gin. I know we're all trying to make a nickel and we rely on each other in this business, but an over-aggressive sell turns me off from the get-go, as does a boring pitch. We have a guy here in Vegas who works for one of the smaller distributors, and he's the best of the best. He's never aggressive, learns your bar's personality, and is always there if you need anything, I respect that.

Define a good Bartender according to you.

Someone who wants to be there! Someone who wants to continuously grow and better themselves in the bar business. You really need to enjoy all walks of life. I think the difference between a good bartender and a bartender, is, he/she chose this as their profession. This is our livelihood, our day-to-day, through the good and the bad. A good bartender listens to the guests’ needs and wants, and hopefully anticipates those needs before they even know them. A good bartender has a good ear, is a great listener, and is compassionate to every story a guest tells you. To sum it up, a good bartender knows how to make everyone feel welcome at their establishment. 

What's an ideal bar drinks menu? What should it include, what profit metric should it try and achieve?

I guess an Ideal bar drinks menu will always depend upon what type of operation you have. A shot of Jameson and a Pabst will suffice for me in a good dive bar, whereas creativity should be rule #1 in an upscale bar setting or cocktail lounge. I always like to work closely with the G.M. or Beverage director, which is what I do at Edge. I will present my menu, my needs and wants, then he will cost it out. Profit margins are always of the utmost importance, that's what keeps you in business! But so is a quality menu you can present to your guests. It all depends on the personality of your bar. Give your guests what they want and expect as dictated by your style of operation.

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