[Ed. Note, 10/19: Ms. Cannon has since left Federal Galley as a co-founder of a start-up company that seeks to provide better employment matches and improved company policies to create better working
environments. Ms. Cannon is not professionally associated with Tipped Off.]
Tipped Off: Tell us what it’s like to work at Federal Galley.
Cat Cannon: It’s amazing. I mean, working for the Galley Group in general is incredible. When I left my last job, I took a long time to leave there, compared to everyone else. It was a new hotel that had just opened, there was a lot of writing on the wall and a lot of people left immediately because they believed the grass was always greener. Ed. Note: Ms. Cannon has since left Federal Galley as a co-founder of a start-up company that seeks to provide better employment matches and improved company policies to create better working environments. Ms. Cannon is not professionally associated with Tipped Off.
I didn’t really think that was true, so I spent six miserable months there, wondering, what did I want? What was important to me?
I knew about the Smallman Galley incubator concept; I had been following it for about a year before they opened. I remember seeing an article about it over a year before they opened and I was always really interested in it.
I had never met Will Groves, who was the opening Bar Director, and I sent my resume, and he hired me. Literally from day one, my narrative has never changed. It’s always been that this is the best job in the entire world.
What do you like about it?
What’s different about this job compared to other jobs you’ve had?
The one thing that is very unique and special to any of the Galley Group’s bar programs is that we are given a lot of liberties. Our owners are very trusting of us to make those decisions. Our owners are also former military, they’re not restaurant owners. They wisely surrounded themselves with people who believed in what they were doing, and people who wanted to help elevate them.
In the beginning, Smallman was hard; it was like the Wild West. When a place opens, you’re figuring out how something works, you have no idea. We didn’t even know we would be as popular as were going to be. You hope and you wish that you’re going to be busy, but we had no idea of the beast that it was instantly going to become.
Even having an entirely new staff here at Federal under me, it’s really interesting because I’ve kept this mentality where we’re granted a lot of freedom with the menu and what we want to have on the back bar…you’re not always going to find that other places. Other places can be super-corporate or just have a small budget, and so they can’t afford the staff these benefits, so I recognize that I’m very happy and very lucky. There are a lot of things that I have [at work] that not everyone does have. Another reason they can be so flexible is because we’re so profitable. I’m sure if we weren’t as profitable we wouldn’t be able to have as many liberties as we have.
Can you give me an example of some liberties that you have here that you haven’t had at other jobs?
I can order whatever I want for that back bar. I hired this entire staff. [The owners] have complete trust and faith. That bar menu? We don’t even have to make the drinks for them. We send everything that’s going to be in print to them, just to make sure they’re cool with it, but…I mean we put Tony Hawk pro skater menus in jewel cases, you know what I mean?
They gave us all these things that allowed us to just be quirky and be us and it really sustains itself.
What are some ways that they make you feel valued as employees?
We started meeting with the owners quarterly so they can hear us. We just had our second one at Smallman. We sat down we took out our notes, for example, and said “Thank you for doing x, what’s the status on y, these are things that are going really well, these are things that we’d like to change. “ It’s really cool. It’s an opportunity to have us directly talk to them. So while there’s obviously a hierarchy and a chain of command they give us the opportunity and listen to our thoughts about what we think is important.
It gives us a chance to ask for things like health care. They said, “Yes, we want you to have health care. It’s going to be a while before it happens and these are the reasons why”. So it’s very transparent, it’s not a yes or no; it’s a “this is what we’re doing and this is why we’re doing it, does that make sense to you? If it doesn’t, lets talk about how we can change that.”
The bar, specifically, has always been “Democracy Bar”. Everyone has a say. We work together as a team and that is kind of what I believe what has made Smallman Galley so successful, is that everything happened there very organically and it is a product of US and so everyone feels a sense of responsibility to make it successful.
It’s not just coming in and making sure you’re getting your job done right, make some money and leave; everyone’s really invested because that culture has been groomed since day one.
So it’s very intentional.
I don’t know that it was necessarily “intentional” in the beginning….it’s intentional now, here at the new space.
So, if it wasn’t intentional in the beginning, why do you think that it organically happened that way?
Because we had such a unique concept. We had no idea if it was going to be successful or not, and Ben and Tyler would be the first people to tell you that they believe that our food hall concept, what makes it different from other food hall concepts and why we’re so successful is because of the bar program.
And that bar program exists as it is because of the freedoms that we were given. It’s that way because of the people behind the bar and the interactions they have with guests on a daily basis and building regulars and things like that…that’s what’s different to them. It’s not just another food hall.
How do you think that culture comes across to the customer?
[The bar staff] have so much fun back there. And it’s clear to guests. We have people that tell us all the time, “You guys are having a blast.”
This first week has been INSANE. And it’s been really cool, but, bananas. On Thursday, for our soft opening, there were 200 people in here in the first 15 minutes. We were 4-deep at the bar on either side. And they fucking worked their asses off. We were WEEDED and everyone was just like “I love this, this is so much fun.”
When I got promoted and took over this I was really stressed out for a long time. You know, the Smallman bar is so quirky, and I thought, “What do I do to instill that same feeling?” Because it’s a totally different space, obviously. But I realized, I said, “Cat, stop thinking about how to make it quirky. We’re not quirky because we thought really hard about it. I realized I’m just one person; this isn’t MY bar this is OUR bar, and so, sure I’ll set some things up and get us ready to go, and everything else is going to develop itself. They’re already coming up with ideas.
So it’s less about the physical space and the feeling it creates and more about finding the right team?
Yeah, absolutely. When we hired for Federal, I didn’t advertise.
I was afforded a very rare opportunity [working for the Smallman Group] before this was even my career. I didn’t know how rare it was.
But when I moved back to Pittsburgh, my hometown, I didn’t know anyone, I was looking for a bar job, and Maggie Meskey hired me.
Where was that?
At Harvard & Highland. It doesn’t exist anymore…it was above Union Pig & Chicken, But I didn’t know about the food scene in Pittsburgh, I hadn’t lived here since I was 18 years old, and it changed a lot in the 7 years I was gone.
I was actually already hired at Mario’s, and I hadn’t started yet. I was on my fourth day in Pittsburgh, I came back from my interview at Mario’s, they were going to hire me as a cocktail server at both locations, and I was like, “okay, I’ll make a million dollars and just hate my life, but whatever.”
The move was supposed to be temporary, I wasn’t even going to stay here, this was a temporary four month thing for me to save some money, live at home, until I got my next radio gig, and I had seen this place called Union Pig & Chicken that was hiring, and I happened to pass it on my way home from the interview at Mario’s. And it was around 2 o’clock so I stopped in. I didn’t know ANYTHING [about bartending].
The general manager literally asked me, what do you know about whiskey? And I said “I like to shoot Jameson” [laughs] And they brought me in for a stage and I worked with Maggie and Elliot Sussman. And at the end of it, Maggie asked “What do you think?” First off, that was the first time I had ever worked in a place where, these bartenders, this was clearly their passion and their career and they’re really fucking knowledgeable. And so for me I thought, “If I’m going to do this for a little bit, I might as well learn something. Why not? And at the same time, she just loved my personality. She liked how I interacted with guests and she said “I can’t teach you THAT, but I can teach you everything else.”
I’ve always known that if I ever had an opportunity that that’s what I would want to instill. I wanted to provide people with opportunities to grow.
So anyway, what we did at Federal was, hey, I’ll hire whoever and we’ll train them, and then let’s figure it out. Because we knew that it was going to be high volume. I just needed people who were going to be great with guests and were fast. So then we’re a month out, we need to start hiring. I really didn’t want to look through Craigslist…that sounds terrible, having to search through all that shit, and do all these interviews – that sounds like a waste of fucking time.
So we sat down and we made up a list of people. People that we had worked with before, people that we loved being served by, and people that we loved watching interact with guests. And that was how it happened. We ended up having to tell people that we brought in, like, “I don’t have enough room for you” [laughs].
And the staff are the 12 reasons I have not been NEARLY as stressed. They’re the best part. They have a blast. They love what they do, they love working with each other and Smallman was given an environment to build that and we’re going to do the same thing here. It starts at the top. People create that culture. And so, the reasons I love my job, not everyone else is going to [recreate those].
Don’t get me wrong, there have been days where I didn’t…well, I always loved Smallman, but there were some days that were harder than others.
What kind of things were hard at first?
My first difficulty was that I was the only girl and I kind of felt like it was a boys’ club. They all just knew each other, they were all friends…and I kept that in for a really long time and I was really frustrated but I never wanted to quit, I loved being behind that bar.
And when I finally brought it to Tim, he said “I had no idea you felt like that!” And immediately, that day, [snaps fingers] changed. And I never felt like that ever again. He valued me as an employee, but also he was valuing me as a part of that team. Just that idea of feeling valued, that he instantly changed what he was doing was so great.
But [hiring new people] was another thing that I brought up, I said, “No one asked me. I don’t think that’s a great idea. “And that was when Democracy Bar really started taking off and has been a staple ever since.
Can you explain “Democracy Bar” more?
If we’re looking at thinking about hiring someone, we make sure that everyone on staff that either knows them or has worked with them is okay with working with them. When we were looking for another bartender at Smallman about a year ago we spent a lot of time really low on staff, all of us working extra hours because the people that we kept thinking of, someone would say “ I don’t trust them” or “I’ve heard bad things about them” or “I’ve worked with them before and we don’t work well together.” Sometimes it takes time to find the right person.
I’m very proud of the very low turnover of our staff. At Smallman, bartender-wise we’ve only ever had to fire one person, and this was a person that we didn’t know, that none of us knew, and was hired by Will at the very beginning,
The other two people who had left, three, including me, all of them have left to do their own thing. Colin Anderson left to go to Tender when he realized that Smallman wasn’t really his jam, and he was just looking for something to leave Cure for at the time. And now he’s the bar director at Umami. You know what I mean? So they went on to do things that were better suited for them. It wasn’t like there was any bad blood.
The other person was Carrie Clayton. And that was an in between thing for her, she was really just one day a week anyway until she and Spencer [Warren] really got things up and running with their business. And now I’m the third person to leave, to come here. All the barbacks that have left were ROTC kids that were in college and now they’re off saving lives, fighting for the United States of America.
So not anything to do with job satisfaction.
Exactly. And that’s what was amazing. So that’s why when I was hiring for Federal, I said to my staff, if I’m really thinking of hiring someone I’m going to ask ALL of you. If one of you has an issue with this person and thinks it isn’t going to work well, whether professionally or personally, I don’t want them. I don’t want to ruin this good thing that we have.
So it’s almost as if you’re protective of them as well.
Yeah. When I hired [our last barback] I sent an email to everyone saying “Hey, I’m going to hire this person. You have 48 hours to tell me if you’re not okay with this person. Or forever hold your peace.” He came off of a recommendation from someone, and I had never worked with him before. He’s actually the only one on staff that hasn’t worked with either me or Tim before.
Otherwise, we’ve all worked together in some capacity.
What kind of perks are there to working here?
Ummm. Nothing really official. We get discounts at the restaurants, but since we’re all separate businesses, we all have separate discount policies. So we don’t get a shift meal or anything like that, but we do get a discount. Shift drink. Ben and Tyler have said from day one “If there’s any bartender, if they need help financially, for support for anything education-wise, they’re happy to help with that and try to find a way to make it work.”
I’m actually designing a curriculum for this bar; I want this to be a teaching bar.
I think it’s a really approachable format for high volume bartenders to come in and still feel really successful because they’ll be able to hone in on those qualities that they’re already really good at.
So starting next week, in another way to help make this the staff’s bar, I’m having them all help create our house [cocktail recipes]. So once a week, we’re going to sit down and say, everyone who wants to come in, come in, everyone who wants to make a margarita, make a margarita, we’ll all taste them, and whichever one we like the best is going to be our house [recipe].
And then also starting next month we’re going to have focuses. My deal with reps is basically, we’re so high volume. If you want your weird-ass gin to sell here, you’d better get my bartenders excited about it and able to spiel it. Otherwise why would anyone pick that gin, why would they care? Bring in a couple of your products and if they think that something on that backbar is really fuckin’ dope, they’re going to sell it.
Every time I’m here, as soon as the staff comes in I say, “Find something on that back bar you’ve never had before and please taste it.” So education is something that’s building. That’s my hope. That’s essentially what I was given. That’s the main reason I’ve spent a lot of my time going to Camp Runamok and doing all these things, so I can learn and then I can teach and be that resource for someone else.
Perks though…I mean yeah…shift drinks…discounts….
I mean it just goes to show that what people value more is a nice place to work, rather than the freebies.
What do you think of the state of service in Pittsburgh?
I think there are a lot of wonderful things about Pittsburgh and the restaurant industry here. It’s a very tight knit community and I think there’s a lot to offer people. I’ve obviously been very lucky to have a lot of great experiences and make those connections.
I’ve only been bartending here for four years and to already to be at the place where I am where I even feel comfortable running a bar program is just crazy. Like on Thursday I was thinking, “Is this what a new parent feels like? Like, I don’t know how to do this but I’m just doing it.”
But I don’t know…with so many places opening…is the bubble going to burst? I think it’s starting to. Places are closing left and right. There are just not enough quality people to be working in these places. I think that the biggest downside is that there area lot of great service industry workers in Pittsburgh but they don’t even necessarily know all the resources that are available to them! They don’t know about USBG. Just for the networking alone! And I wonder how that can be more out there for people. If you’re moving here and you don’t know anything about this place…I’ m just really glad that Tipped Off exists now, because that’s just going to be that format for people.
What kind of advice would you give owners and managers to create a culture like the one you have?
Have more conversations, have more open dialogues with their servers and staff. I mean…you just have to. It’s like any relationship. You are not going to have a successful marriage unless you’re communicating. And you understand. There is such a simple yes and no game. It’s not always black or white. You have to be willing to on day one, communicate and acknowledge -- okay, this is how things are right now, they might not always be that way, this is why.
Managers and owners don’t spend enough time talking to their employees about why a specific system is in place. There are so many things that if you knew why the person was doing what they were doing then you might understand why it does make sense and why your idea might not make sense. Being present is also so important. Supporting your staff. Having them be knowledgeable. You don’t have to hire Pittsburgh’s best bartender, in fact, it’s hard to get them. Most of them already have their dream job.
Do the research yourself, find out more about USBG. A bunch of the chefs at Smallman already joined USBG because they know when they do open a place they’re going to need good bartenders, and they want to make those relationships now, they want to know what kind of education is out there. If you don’t know what kind of education is out there you can’t offer it to anyone. It’s about finding ways to help your staff. Sure, you want them to help your business, but ask yourself, what are you’re doing to help them?