The first time I met Sean Hoard, he and Jeffrey Morgenthaler were doing a spot as guest bartenders at Portland’s Rum Club. My husband commented that he liked the Misfits t-shirt Sean was wearing. Sean explained that he had bought it from a homeless guy on the street (he noted that his girlfriend was none too impressed, but insisted it was a great deal, if in need of minor tailoring). I had little information on Sean’s previous gigs, so this was my first introduction. I had heard whispers of a new endeavor underway; something to do with juices and syrups. I was left with only a memory of a dude in a second hand T-shirt, who was very well regarded in the industry and clearly a talented bartender.
I came home to Vancouver curious and intrigued. I learned that Sean had a rich and storied history within the bartending community. His first job in the industry was barbacking at PDT, where, under the tutelage of Jim Meehan, Sean worked his way up to bar manager (more on this later). Sean eventually decided to make a triumphant return to his native, Portland, OR. He worked alongside Jeffrey Morgenthaler at Clyde Common and Daniel Shoemaker at Teardrop where he eventually became bar manager.
Fast forward to present day and the aforementioned little endeavor is not so little after all. After years behind the bar, Sean, in partnership with Daniel Shoemaker, founded The Commissary; a fresh-pressed juice and small batch syrup company which delivers ingredients to Portland bars and restaurants on the daily. The company has been received with open arms by the Portland bartending community and their products are now used in some of the city’s most notable establishments including Clyde Common, Expatriate, Multnomah Whiskey Library and Teardrop.
On our most recent trip to Portland, we had the opportunity to sit down with Sean and retrace his steps from aspiring athlete to music business student to barback to bar manager to small business owner- an impressive and captivating journey. Enjoy!
1) When you were a kid, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?
I thought I’d be a famous athlete. At five I thought I was going to be a doctor because my mom was a nurse. And then as I got older I thought I was going to play all the sports. My mom saved this thing I wrote in fifth grade where I said I was going to go to the University of North Carolina because they had a great soccer program and a great basketball program. In high school I played sports and was fine at them. But then I got into music which is how I ended up going to NYU. At the time they had a really good music business program and I wanted to own a record label. So that’s how I ended up in New York.
2) Was there a specific moment/experience/conversation that you can recall that made you decide to make a career of bartending?
I was a barback at PDT and at the time was working at Def Jam. My bar manager back then knew it was my birthday and knew my parents were coming to town. It was the first time they had been to PDT. I was downstairs juicing pineapples and they came in, unbeknownst to me. Jerry came down and said “Sean, we need you upstairs!” So I came rushing up. My parents were sitting there and there was a daiquiri made for me and my manager basically cut me and made reservations for us at Death and Co. I had just started at PDT a few months prior and I was amazed by that idea of service, even with the people you work with. My parents thought it was so special and obviously we didn’t pay for anything. We had Crif Dogs and went to Death and Co. and they were amazing hosts. I just felt like if this industry looks out for each other and itself this way…..and I’m working in the entertainment industry and I hated everyone I worked with and hated everyone I worked for. It was my dream job. I love hip hop. To go from NYU to Def Jam- that’s what Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons did. But I was like wow, fuck this. I should be bartending.
3) How did you land the job at PDT?
Aaron Polsky got me an interview with Jim for barbacking one day a week on Saturdays. I had written a business plan in college. Basically I wanted to open a venue and my advisers told me I couldn’t run a venue unless I knew how to sell booze. I had no restaurant experience, so I asked the only kid I knew that had a job in a restaurant. He worked at White Star which was one of Sasha [Petraske’s] bars and he knew Jim pretty well because he had been a regular at PDT since it opened. I went in in a suit and a briefcase and I stood in the phone booth for like 10 minutes. When I finally got in the host, who I love now, was like “Who are you?” And I was like “Uhhhh…..I’m here for an interview with Jim Meehan.” And I had my briefcase and all that was in there was a pen and three copies of my resume. Jim was polishing glasses and he was like “Hey, what’s up? You’re Aaron’s friend? Can you start Saturday?”
4) What is your favourite memory from your nights spent at PDT?
My last night at PDT I wore all black and we were training Jeff Bell. Jim had told him, without my knowledge, that he was going to close for me and we’d all go across to Bua which is the best bar in the world. At that point, it was maybe 11pm and the whole bar was just my friends. PDT is like family to me and to see the whole bar filled with my old co-workers was amazing. We were listening to the music I wanted and eventually Jim just said “You’re done.” And I’m like “What do you mean? I have to break the bar down.” And I look over and Jeff was already breaking my station down. We all just went over to Bua and got loosy goosy and had a great night. I’ve done that for everyone that has had a last night when I’ve been managing a bar since.
5) So you studied Music Business at NYU. If you could make a cocktail for any musician, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you make them?
There was a drink dedicated to me once I left PDT. The back story there is that I love blue curacao. My friend Jacob Briars taught me to love blue curacao and I just do. I had to hide it at PDT a lot. Jim didn’t like having it there. But I like to make blue drinks and we’d hide it downstairs. It became this whole game where he would try to find it and I was like “No! We gotta make blue drinks!” So John deBary whom I just love made a drink called The Shark that is this blue, beautiful, monstrosity of a cocktail. It has butter washed rum and it’s delicious. Every time I go I have one. And it became Nas’s favourite drink. Nas came in and drank it all the time. Doesn’t know who I am. He’s tight with Jeff Bell and John deBary. He comes in and he just crushes The Shark. So I feel like it would be insincere if I said anything but make Nas a Shark.
6) What drew you back to Portland?
My family. I grew up here. To live in New York you have to be in New York. You have to need New York. But for me it wasn’t sustainable. I had my family here. I loved being from Portland. It was so much of how I identified even in New York. People would meet me and they would ask where I was from and I’d be like “What do you mean? I could totally be from here.” And they’d know immediately that I wasn’t. So it became such a defining characteristic. To be able to return to Portland and actually be from Portland was pretty special. And to have my family here was amazing.
7) Party Patrol- explain.
Party patrol was a rallying cry a couple of years ago at Tales of the Cocktail. There was a big group of us like Sammy Ross and Brent Farron and Nate Dumas and my buddy Art who now works for Ransom. We had all had a long night at Tales and needed to pick the energy back up. We were at this Partida Pool Party and Nate sat with my Jammy Pack (which is a fanny pack that plays music) listening to Iron Maiden super loud and smoking a cigar. Jim [Meehan] had just given me a bottle of Bonded Old Fitzgerald which we don’t have in Oregon and we just sat drinking whiskey at a tequila party sitting in the corner, listening to our own music, smoking cigars. It was this absurd moment and we needed to name it something. And that’s not to say that it’s exclusive or against whatever is going on. It’s just this idea of fully embarrassing having a good time.
In hindsight it’s not even the best name aside from the fact that it’s an alliteration. The trademark is already taken. When you Google it, party supply stores in the Midwest come up. And our logo is a red Solo cup which we can’t use anyways. Dixie would sue us. But you never have a red Solo cup when you’re having a bad time. No one has red Solo cups at a wake. Champagne, red Solo cups and punch. Nobody drinks that stuff when they’re unhappy. Plus- I was watching Sons of Anarchy at the time and I’m not cool enough to ride a motorcycle but I really wanted an excuse to make motorcycle cuts. So I formed a gang!
8) Where did the idea of The Commissary come from?
Daniel [Shoemaker] and I were going to open a bar and I said I would love to use a lot of these ingredients but I don’t want to pay someone to make them. At the time, Teardrop had two full-time prep people which is kind of unheard of for a bar. I said why don’t we just pool our resources and we split the labour, they can make twice as much. And then this location we were really interested in didn’t work out. We were kind of disenchanted with the whole process of opening a bar because so many bars had opened. Portland is such a small town and we thought we should wait it out. We talked to guys like Jeff Moregenthaler and asked if they would be interested in a concept like The Commissary. They told us if we could do unpasteurized juice they would be on board.
At the time I was looking at not bartending 4 or 5 days a week just because I was up late and drank too much and this was an interesting way to transition into a somewhat normal schedule which I’m really grateful for (as much as I miss the cash economy of bartending). It’s nice to wake up at 6:30 or 7 not that hung over. So the idea was born out of wanting to do a second bar. There are the Clyde Commons of the world and the Teardrops and they will always have fresh ingredients but I got really interested in all the other bars around town that everybody went to and getting them to use fresher products.
9) What was the most challenging part of moving out from behind the bar to moving into the kitchen? Best part?
When you’re a bartender you get told “Good job” 3-4 hundred times a night. And if you don’t do a good job, the guest tells you so and it’s an opportunity for you to do an even better job and provide a special moment for them. I think that I was really addicted to that. So much of my identity was tied to being able to make anywhere from 100 to 300 people super happy in a night. When you start your own company or go into a different job you don’t get that instant gratification over and over. You have to find it elsewhere.
In terms of the most rewarding part: Say you have someone that comes into your bar and tries a margarita for the first time and they’re like “Oh my gosh, why is this so good?” And you explain that you used fresh lime juice and good tequila and whatever else you put in your margarita. I get to do that now on a bigger scale. It’s nice to be able to reach even more people. It’s fun to see programs transition from pasteurized juice to quality juice and not quality spirits to higher quality spirits. We get to see them get excited and then their guests get excited. It takes the scale up a notch. If your goal is to be able to serve people good drinks, I get to help more people have good drinks which is super rewarding.
10) Have you been able to reach those bars that wouldn’t traditionally use your product?
Yes. It’s challenging but it’s the best feeling when it happens. Even getting bars to use fresh sour mix feels like such a win for me. It’s hard because it’s more expensive and you have to do it every day and with pasteurized juice there’s less waste because you get to use it for a month. I underestimated how much work it would be to convince people that fresh juice is delicious but it’s incredibly rewarding when you do get through to people.
11) What is your favourite product that’s coming out of The Commissary these days?
We have an account where the bar owner lived in Germany and played rugby. He drinks vodka on the rocks but he told us that he really likes Glühwein. And I was like “What the hell is Glühwein?” My business partner, Daniel, explained that its just like German mulled wine. So we developed a mulling spices syrup. We’re having the owner heat wine and add brandy. And now his bar can make this a la minute. I love being able to do bespoke products for people so it changes all the time. That aspect of the company is very fun because the goal of the company is to be a service. I don’t want to have a catalog of all the things we sell. I want to be able to say to somebody “What do you want to make at your bar that is a pain in the butt to make?”
12) Are there any questions that you wish I would have asked that you want to answer?
I think Portland gets a reputations as a city that supports it’s own and takes care of the local guy. It’s been really amazing to be a part of that and see it come to fruition. To have guys like Ryan and Jeff thrown their weight behind us early was really special and speaks to the community. I think when I moved here, I just put my head down and worked a lot. I went to events but wasn’t a member of any guild or union. But it’s really impressive to see the way the community at large really embraces it’s own and takes care of it’s own. That’s not to say you should always buy local all the time no matter what, but Portland really does consider it which is kinda cool. It’s kinda like a Portlandia episode but it’s an amazing thing to be a part of as a small business owner here.