Posted on | July 31, 2013
Written by | Alia Akkam
Among the bright spots of Douglas Tirola’s documentary Hey Bartender is getting to know one of its protagonists, Steve Carpentieri, the longtime owner of inviting, low-key Westport, CT, restaurant and bar Dunville’s. After a fateful first trip to Tales of the Cocktail in 2011, “Carpi,” as he’s affectionately known, decided to add craft cocktails to the neighborhood institution—all the while ensuring his loyal customers continued to feel at ease.
THE BEVERAGE NETWORK: At first you were skeptical of Tales of the Cocktail, but it turned out to be transformative. What did you learn?
STEVE CARPENTIERI: I found out we were never going to be able to rebrand ourselves, because I didn’t want to stop being who we are; we are Dunville’s. We felt that the cocktail program was a great way of not reinventing ourselves, but putting a little polish on to hopefully attract new people who wouldn’t just want to go to the corner bar.
TBN: So how did you successfully implement a craft cocktail program among a rum-and-Coke clientele?
SC: We didn’t change anything. I love people who order a beer and a tequila shot. Most important is knowing our customers. At the Employees Only and PDTs of the world, all the drinks are amazing—and which in my neighborhood no one would order. We always served cocktails, but now that we are progressive—actually using fresh ingredients, making our own lime and lemon juices and simple syrup, infusing drinks with spices and growing herbs in our garden—people are taking notice.
TBN: What are some of the cocktails that have made a splash with customers?
SC: Most local bars don’t make fresh margaritas. They pour the tequila, add the sour mix and Rose’s lime juice and shake it up. That’s something we can very easily improve upon. I use Milagro Tequila infused with Solerno [blood orange liqueur], fresh lime juice and simple syrup. When I make it the old way and the new way side-by-side, customers taste the difference. We’re also making a cucumber and mint limeade with Hendrick’s Gin, fresh simple syrup and lime juice, muddling fresh mint and topping it off with club soda.
TBN: Was it a time-consuming adjustment from your normal rhythm?
SC: It does slow you down a bit while you’re learning. Now I’m back there on a Friday night and when someone orders a craft cocktail I have no problem. I didn’t want to scare my staff with five-ingredient drinks and a blowtorch, and I wanted to keep it basic for our clientele. I don’t think our bar will have more than six or seven cocktails on the menu. We’re a small place and a couple of classics—like a Sazerac and a Manhattan—along with some original drinks are perfect for us.
TBN: How did your experience in the film change your perception of the industry?
SC: I’ve been going to different screenings of the movie, and it’s been interesting to go around the country and see different cocktail cultures—where it’s thriving and where it’s in its embryonic stages. Cocktail lists are everywhere, even the chains. You walk into a LongHorn Steakhouse or TGIFridays and they actually have a menu. It’s only a matter of time before they hit Corner Bar USA. I was guilty four or five years ago of going to a place and looking at the drink menu and saying it’s great, and getting a beer. Now I try something. It’s an opportunity for the bartender to practice his craft.
TBN: What is one lesson you learned while embracing this new approach?
SC: Hospitality is key to our success. We have a fantastic staff. You’re as good as the people you have around you, and if they’re right they are going to attract the right people and loyalty. The bar is the unofficial town hall and the bartender could be the mayor. We’re lucky because Dunville’s is white collar and blue collar. We have no rules; we’re just ladies and gentlemen. Bartenders have the ability to change someone’s day and that’s not something to take lightly; that’s a responsibility.