A craft cocktail king’s recipe for urban growth in Silicon Valley

Single Barrel co-founder Joe Gradillas is ready to open a new establishment, First to Market, on Feb. 25. He'll use the lessons learned at Single Barrel, San Jose's premiere speakeasy joint.

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Joe Gradillas is set to open his second establishment in downtown San Jose, First to Market, on Feb. 25 after establishing craft-cocktail speakeasy singlebarrel in 2010. It will be his third venture including a short-lived cigar shop, Rocco’s, that opened in 2007.

Gradillas, 36, sat down with me to talk about the growth of singlebarrel, which he runs with business partner Cache Bouren. Having worked just about every job in the nightlife industry — bouncer, barback, bartender, server, manager, DJ’s assistant — Gradillas has a good handle on what it takes to make it in the business.

He also shared firm thoughts on what downtown San Jose needs — and doesn’t need — to reach its potential. Our interview was edited for length and clarity.

What did you learn from your experience opening and running Rocco’s?

I learned that the actual infrastructure of the city can be very helpful if you ask the right questions. I hear people all the time complaining about, “I can’t deal with the city of San Jose,” but they’re always talking generalities. Just come out and tell them what you want to do and they will direct you properly.

I also learned that San Jose is not a suburb. San Jose is a growing, thriving city, and there are a lot of people here who want more. When business was slower (at the cigar shop), I would sit there and smoke with (customers and friends), and we would just constantly talk about the city of San Jose and the potential it has.

This wasn’t just one person, it just wasn’t five people. I used to probably see 50, 65 people some days, and they all had the same complaints: ‘I’m tired of driving to San Francisco, I’m tired of going to Oakland. Why can’t we be more like New York? Why can’t we be more like L.A.? Why can’t we be more like Portland?’

What would a cool, happening San Jose look like? What would its identity be?

If you could take Los Angeles and Manhattan, and smash them together, that’s what San Jose would be like.

(It would be like Los Angeles) because of its vast size. And because of the weather, money and resources, San Jose could definitely hold all that same culture that New York has, that Portland has, even that Austin has.

One of the biggest things that cracks me up all the time that I hear is, “San Jose is never going to be a real city because we don’t have any highrises.”

Well, we’re not. [Chuckles.] Seven square miles; it’s a huge city. We don’t have to move up. We don’t have that kind of dense population yet, but I got a feeling it’s going to get there. Right now 24 stories is the limit. But when you’re downtown, it’s 50 square blocks. Do you need anything higher than 24 stories? You can’t really enjoy good architecture when it’s 80 stories up in the air. Yeah, it looks great in a picture, but can you really see it when you’re walking down the street? We’re going to do okay. I mean, 50 years from now, downtown San Jose is going to be that metropolis everybody has always wanted.

New York is a city where everybody’s rubbing shoulders because you have to. In the South Bay, it’s kind of the opposite: You have these segmented populations that don’t have to meet. How does downtown San Jose become that kind of meeting ground?

We definitely need to step up our public transportation, and we have to have more to offer. One of the things that San Jose lacks is things to do downtown. Don’t get me wrong, we have some great restaurants, we have some great bars, but what else is there? There’s no place to shop. Right now, we’re in the middle of (finishing this restaurant up), and I have to spend 15 minutes going to Orchard Supply down off of [Bird] and coming back. If there was a hardware store across the street, I could run there. We don’t have any of that. People who live around here, things break at home, whether it’s a condo or an apartment or whatever. People need those things, they need a hardware store that sells kitchen knobs and paint.

You mean have more daily-needs stores?

Yeah. I mean, Safeway Market, I guess on paper it makes great sense. But people need a grocery store. They need an actual Safeway or a Zanotto’s, something that has everything that you need on a daily basis, not just what the store deems as the top 500 selling items.

And there’s other things. I hear it from people all the time, “Well, we’re going to go to Santana Row.” Why Santana Row? “Oh, because I need to go shopping, and then we’re going to get something to eat.” Well, why don’t you go downtown? ”Well, because there’s food, but there’s no where to shop.” And it’s like, fair enough.

If we could rip SoHo out of New York, and drop it right here in the Art District, that would be awesome; All these little cool little boutiques, and a couple anchor stores. It would give a reason for people to be down here, and then hopefully people like the VTA would see, “Oh, well, we need to find a way to get them down there.”

It’s kind of one of those chicken and the egg scenarios. What do you need first? Do you need the residents? Do you need the influx of people? Do you need the transportation? And unfortunately, I think you kind of need it all.

Whenever you’re making anything, you have some sort of formula, whether it’s for food or a cocktail. You have X amount of this, X amount of that, X amount of something else, and it makes this creation. But you need it all at the same time. It’s not like, “I’m just going to put that in there and put this one in another cup and hope something pops out of it.” We need all of it at the same time, and I don’t think we’ve done that as a city yet. I think we’ve just slowly said, “Let’s put in a nightlife and see what happens. Let’s put in some residential and see what happens.”

Besides its craft cocktails, singlebarrel is known for its rules such as no yelling or shouting and no uninvited hitting on strangers. When you first opened, did you and Cache discuss how you were going to enforce these rules?

Believe it or not, when we first opened, we didn’t have the door guy upstairs all the time. We just weren’t busy enough for it. People just came in, and I would check IDs downstairs amongst doing a few other things. And before you know it, we would end up with 100 people down there, and there was no regulation of sitting area or volume. We had these rules all ready, but we weren’t enforcing them.

Four years was a long time ago, but maybe the idea was, “Well, if we state them, people will just naturally follow them.” Well, that just isn’t true, that’s not always the case. It used to get loud. Really loud. To the point to where bartenders couldn’t hear you anymore. And so, it became this forceful kind of … not yelling, but these stern warnings to mass amounts of people, because there was no implementation at the beginning from the door down to the seating area.

As time went on, we realized that we need to start enforcing this at the door. We solved the problem by having the door person do the talk through and give kind of the overview of what we were doing downstairs and it allowed us to monitor the bar a little more closely, and really kind of direct traffic a little better.

Have you noticed particular differences as far what cocktails different groups of people order? For example, do tech workers, students and blue-collar workers generally drink different things?

Not at all, and it’s really cool to see. We had these three guys come in one day, and just by looking at their boots, they were in construction and stuff like that. But they also liked gin. And I remember them talking about gin and stuff like that, and one of our bartenders said, “English Cosmo. Amazing cocktail.” And they’re like, “All right, we’ll try it.”

But it comes in the cocktail glass, and they were like, “Is there any way you can put that in a different glass?”[laughing] It was funny and we obliged. And what’s funny is, there is that stigma of that glass, That’s a woman’s glass. And it’s like, Well, that glass was invented before women were even allowed in bars. It’s a glass. It’s not for men or women, it’s just a glass.

You get a lot of tech people that come in, and you’ll have a group of six and every single one of their cocktails is completely different from the next. Same with students. Actually, you’ll have younger female students — you can tell from the big San Jose State sweatshirt — who are sitting there, drinking whisky, Old Fashioneds.

And again, you’ll have these construction workers drinking something really soft and sweet, like an English Cosmo. Not to mention, people’s flavor preferences and taste preferences change. If you take me for example, I swore up and down about bourbon for the longest time. And then I got more into scotch, and it became, “Well, if it’s not smoky, if it doesn’t taste like you’re chewing on campfire, you shouldn’t drink it.” And right now, I’ve been kind of on a rye kick. I completely abandoned scotch.

It definitely seems like rye has become more popular in the last couple years.

Yeah. It seems like it was this forgotten whiskey, and all of a sudden, everybody’s drinking it. And some people will argue with me quite a bit, but in my opinion, rye is easier to get into than anything else. Because—

It has such a nice sweetness.

Yes, absolutely. And it’s very smooth. Some people, when they’re drinking a spirit by itself, they’re always complaining about the burn or it’s too sharp back here, and rye doesn’t do that. Rye just really just showcases a lot of flavor and seems to be really smooth all the way down.

Did you have to build the bar in singlebarrel? No. Believe it or not, this building has had a bar in it for a very long time, dating all the way back to the Three Star Saloon, which I believe — and you might not want to quote me on this one — but I believe it’s the early 50’s. It may even be up in to the mid-40’s.One of the cool things — and for some reason this building is hard to find information about — one of the cool things about our bar downstairs is, it’s actually built inside of old elevator shaft. Why? I have no idea.

It sounds like you’re a pretty big history buff.

I try, I read a little bit. Sometimes if something kind of gets on my feathers, I definitely look for it.

Are there any other cool things about the history of that particular space, or of maybe this area, or San Jose that maybe people don’t know about?

There was a huge bootlegging issue here in San Jose. They have tons of pictures of the original city hall — not the one on Heading, but the original — with cops busting up old stills and stuff like that.

There’s actually a lot of bottling that’s still done here in San Jose on the east side off at King and Mayberry. What else? Nirvana played in this building (399 S. First St.). They played right in front of that mirror.

This Art District now, used to be the Red Light District in the early 80’s and late 70’s. There was a nightclub that was down the way called 369, but if you stood across the street and looked at the front of the nightclub, it used to have those old 1970’s glass blocks. Rumor has it that they were built to look like hypodermic needles because that’s what the place was used for back then. When you stood across the street you went, Yeah, I could see that, because that shape was still there.

I’ve heard that the bartenders here have to go through somewhat extensive training. Tell me about that.

It’s about three to six months, and it is always evolving. Between Cache and Tomoyo both, they are constantly trying to perfect it. I have never seen a person really put so much into developing a training program, and it is by far one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.

Both Cache and I definitely feel that training needs to be both educational and hands-on. So, you’ll see times when somebody’s behind the bar, and if they’re in training, somebody’ll walk over and grab a hold of their arm and go, “No. No. Okay, right there.” When somebody’s training on the floor, they will have a shadow. They’ll go to pick up a glass and somebody’ll grab them and correct them.

Cache is definitely been the mastermind behind the training program. But it’s one of those things where it takes a village to raise a child. Training comes from everybody.

If we have a trainee bar tender back there, where somebody isn’t actually standing behind them the whole time, you will find another bartender — one of the more veteran bartenders — walk over and go, “Your elbow’s not in the right place. You’re letting your hand dangle. Your posture is slumping.”

It really does take a lot, and it takes a little bit of everybody.

—Transcription services provided by TranscribeMe.com.

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