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Two local hospitality entrepreneurs are figuring out what it takes to pivot during a pandemic.
Albert Einstein once said that that the measure of intelligence is the ability to change; never has that been more true than in 2020. We’ve all altered our realities to some degree, whether we’re staying home full-time or tweaking our careers to make sure our mortgages are paid and our kids are fed.
Ernest Gantz, who owns On My Way Bartending Service with his wife, Amanda, has manifested Einstein’s quote over the last 11 months, adapting his business while also growing it in the midst of a pandemic. On My Way Bartending Service specialized in weddings and private events while also hosting mixology classes in downtown Raleigh. When COVID shut down the in-person and events side of the business, Gantz had to shift his business plan. He set aside his idea of introducing himself to the community through mixology classes and focused on mixology kits instead.
“People couldn’t go to bars and restaurants and we still wanted to allow them the craft cocktail experience,” says Gantz, who has been bartending since he was 21 years old. He created mixology kits with homemade syrups, bar tools and recipes. Virtual mixology classes are included with the kits.
Gantz, like many others in the hospitality industry, has been forced to pivot his brand out of necessity. In North Carolina, jobs in the leisure and hospitality sectors have decreased by 22.5 percent over the last year, a loss of more than 116,000 jobs according to the North Carolina Department of Commerce.
When Gantz put his two weeks’ notice in for his bartending job at Cowfish to launch his company, he had no idea a pandemic was on the horizon. Through flexibility and persistence, he was able to change lanes and introduced his first mixology kit in May. The feedback he’s received has been so good that, even though the kits weren’t part of the company’s original plan, they have become a staple and will continue even though in-person classes are back up and running for now.
“We just launched in January this year,” says Gantz of his company. “With me being a certified mixologist, this has become our go-to now. ”
The highlight of the kits is three homemade syrups which rotate monthly. So far, vanilla rose, spiced pear agave and blackberry lavender have all been standouts and Gantz is planning a holiday kit for winter. Now that the world is back open (for the moment), the public can try those syrups out in cocktails at home, in a Mix&Sip mixology class, or in person by hiring Gantz for an in-home function.
For Gantz, it’s all about the experience, regardless of where it happens.
“I always hear so many people say they’ve thought about bartending before,” says Gantz. “It seems cool and it is cool and I wanted to share that with everybody. It’s a science project. We’re lighting basil leaves on fire. We’re creating edible bubbles. It’s an interactive class. It’s like chemistry meets bartending. A bartender just follows the rules. A mixologist makes the rules. We do a lot of things that aren’t supposed to be done.”
Lester Almanzar’s career pivoted in a completely different way. When he was laid off from a local restaurant in February, he knew he had to find another source of income. Almanzar took his side gig as a private chef and cranked it up a notch. By August, he was booked every weekend, sometimes more than once.
“The business for people who were already private chefs has improved,” says Almanzar. “There’s a difference between being a line cook in a restaurant and being a private chef. You are your own personal brand. You have to manage your behavior. I create the menus for people based on what they want.”
Almanzar has been cooking professionally for the past 12 years. He grew up running a catering business with his mother out of their home so is no stranger to the home kitchen. Educated in Spain, Almanzar specializes in modern European cuisine, or what would translate to New American in the United States, where local ingredients are highlighted in season.
Although Almanzar has taken catering jobs at big companies like TakeAChef, he drums up most of his business now through word of mouth. He has both regulars and new referrals and prefers catering over restaurant work.
“This kind of service is very personal,” says Almanzar. “You’re in someone’s home. You have to behave in a different way. You have to present yourself in a different manner. You have to respect people’s homes and kitchens and give them the privacy they want during dinner. It’s their home, I’m just providing a service. The part I enjoy most about cooking is bringing people together and if I can do it over an intimate setting, it’s even more rewarding.”
While catering jobs have come back in demand and helped support him throughout the summer, Almanzar has also pivoted to working as a carpenter and craftsman at a local woodshop as well, something he found through chef clients who needed some help at the shop. In fact, throughout the country, 63 percent of workers who lost jobs because of COVID have switched industries, according to a Harris Poll survey for USA Today.
For Almanzar, woodworking is a necessary career addition.
“I do the chef thing on the side,” he says, “because there’s not enough business to keep me afloat just doing that.”
Einstein also said you never fail until you stop trying; that’s something many of us will have to remember as we move into the pandemic’s second wave.
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