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Anu Apte-Elford

From med school to cocktail queen, part 1

How does a girl from Salt Lake City become one of Seattle's hottest bartenders/cocktail creators? Like many college students, Anu bartended once or twice a month while she was in school. "I saw bartending simply as a way to make money," she recalls.

Anu-Apte_Elford and Chris Elford

In February of 2005, her then boyfriend planned a special gift: a flight to Seattle and dinner at the Space Needle. "Romantic, right? I fell in love with Seattle on that trip even though it was raining. And the Space Needle! I'd never experienced that kind of service; I was used to something more like Olive Garden. I was so impressed with how the staff interacted with each other. They were family. Three months later, we had broken up and I was moving to Seattle!"

At 25, what Anu walked away from was medical school. "It's that Indian family dream, kids become a doctor of some sort. It was tough for my parents and took them about four years to get over it. I call it my quarter-life crisis. In Seattle, I got a job at Minnie's at the bottom of Queen Anne. My co-workers were the most unique bunch of Seattle misfits and had that family feeling for each other. I loved working with them. I guess in a weird way I was rebelling and wanted to be with people who stayed up until 6 a.m. drinking. With my Utah background, I really never partied that hard. Plus I had a behavioral science degree and found the environment and people fascinating. At Minnie's, customers would come in at 5 a.m. to wait for 6 a.m. when they could drink."

During her year at Minnie's, she attended the Art Institute in fashion design. She had checked out some grad programs at the UW related to health but wanted to experience her creative side. "I dropped out after the first year. Ironically, people in the medical and fashion fields weren't that much different from each other. Lots of structure, and in the case of fashion, most students were about 19. They would actually take other students' tools so they couldn't finish their projects. Horrible. However, I did meet one of my dearest friends there!"

She started working at Gordy's Steak & BBQ in North Bend as a server, staying until they closed the restaurant. She then worked at their Tukwila location as their banquet director and wedding planner. "I was there less than a year; it closed, too. The Bar Manager, Debbie (who now owns Infusion Bar & Grill in Snoqualmie), created that family feel. In Salt Lake City, I had worked nightclubs where drinks were served in plastic cups, with no guest interaction. The first time I had an interest in cocktails was in 2006 when I went to Zig Zag and Murray Stenson was working. I had a real cocktail served in the appropriately-sized glass."

Navy Strength food and drinks

After Gordy's, she bartended at BOKA in Hotel 1000 on the brunch shift. "It was basically Bloody Marys as Marc Papineau was there handling the wine. From there, I went to Vessel on 5th Ave. It was designed: white, marble, everything in place; very pretentious. We couldn't serve vodka unless it was in a classic drink. We had no training on how to suggest something else, it was just 'no, you can't have a vodka martini.' I learned what not to do there but am grateful for the experience. Vessel was so important to the Seattle cocktail scene. When I was there, the bar manager was Jaime Boudreau. After leaving, I took a job with Sabrina Tinsley at La Spiga, booking the private dining room. I try to always stay places for at least a year, but I wasn't there long because I got an offer to re-do the cocktail menu at Rob Roy. It turned out to be two days a week instead of full time; it was a failing business, like many in 2009. One Sunday I was working and two guys came in, touching everything. I figured the bar was for sale, so I got them drinking and got their info! Someone wanted to buy it and the recording studio next door which had just lost its lease, knock down the wall, black out the windows and open a night club.

"For me, it turned out to be good timing. I had formed a new business and had licenses to open a bar and do events 'just in case.' Suddenly I was in the right place at the right time. The buying process started in May 2009. I used my retirement account that I'd started when I was 17. I remember August 11, 2009, being the day I took over from Linda Derschang; I was 28. She sold it to me for less than she would have gotten from others. I'm grateful for how easy she made it for me. She's proven that longevity is possible for hip restaurants. My Rob Roy is celebrating ten years this August!"

Rob Roy cocktail

It took Anu about two years to turn it around. She worked constantly to understand all components of the business. She removed the DJ booth and focused on cocktails and guest interaction. "I wanted to honor the décor of the space and make it a New York-style bar; some lighting adjustment brought out the bar's amazing features. I ripped out the draft lines, selling a few bottled beers, one each red/white/sparkling wine. I knew we'd lose sales due to changes I was making, but they had to be drastic to swing the pendulum the way I wanted. I trained the staff on how to talk about the changes." By 2011, she could step back and not bartend as much. "I missed it, but wanted to understand the finances and admin. I minored in math; it comes naturally to me. Basically I'm a jack of all trades, master of none. I'll never be a genius at cocktails the way people are who focus solely on that. I'm a bigger picture person."

Watch for part 2 of Anu's story in our October issue.

Rob Roy
2332 2nd Ave
Seattle, WA 98121
206-956-8423

www.robroyseattle.com

No Anchor
2505 2nd Ave, Ste 105
Seattle, WA 98121
206-448-2610

www.noanchorbar.com

Navy Strength
2505 2nd Ave, Ste 102
Seattle, WA 98121
206-420-7043

www.navystrengthseattle.com

Vinnie's Wine and Raw Bar
2505 2nd Ave, Ste 102
Seattle, WA 98121
206-420-7043

www.vinniesseattle.com

Vinnie's seafood extravaganza

The Bar Bazaar
1516 Western Ave
Seattle, WA 98101
406-640-4243

thebarbazaarseattle.com

Connie Adams/September 2019


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