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Catching up with the Legendary Tony Abou-Ganim

By Amira Ansari posted 01-27-2023 11:09


USBG Weekly IGTV broadcast 1.11.23 has been condensed to emphasize highlights and relay information relevant to this blog.

This month, USBG President, @T. Cole Newton, spoke with Founder of the Helen David Relief Fund (HDRF), @Tony Abou-Ganim, to catch up and learn more about the upcoming Pink Tie Party in Vegas on Feb 3, 2023, benefitting the HDRF.

Tony: Well, congratulations. This is my first opportunity to congratulate you formally on your official role [USBG President], and I look forward to you taking the USBG upwards and onwards.

Cole: Thank you, it means a lot to me that the members had the confidence to elect me to the Board of Directors again, and that the Board of Directors had the confidence to choose me as the president this year. I kind of got it by default last year and I wasn't upset about it, but it hits  a little harder when it's on purpose, you know? But now, we're just two weeks into the new year. It's not too late to start making plans. So, it's never too late. You know, you always got to be planning, you always got to be adjusting your plans on the fly. And they have to be both those plans whenever you're planning. It has to be both flexible and forward thinking. You want to talk about planning and that how that works out for your success in your career?

Tony: Absolutely, you know, you have to plan for today and you have to live in the moment and work in the moment and be prepared for the moment but always with an eye on what's next on the future and where you want to go. My cousin Helen David, do you know the Helen David Relief Fund is in memory of when she opened the restaurant bar in 1937. Her vision was simple, you know, treat your guests or your customers at the bar like you did guests and family in your home - and hospitality. So building that solid foundation from the beginning and really looking to the future is what we're doing with the Tag Global Spirits Awards, and in particular the Helen David Relief Fund, looking not just at this year, but five years from now and how we can continue to better ourselves and grow and achieve the goals that we set.

Cole: I would love to hear more about that. I've been in the USBG orbit long enough that I've done charity bike rides. Both here in New Orleans, where I am. I did one in Detroit when we had the National USBG conference there. We went to the Fast Rail club. It was amazing. And so I'm pretty familiar with the Helen David Relief Fund but this Tag Spirits Awards Party is relatively new - just started last year. I want to talk a little bit more about that and if you got five years of plans in the works, what's coming up?

Tony: Absolutely. And the foundation of the Tag Global Spirts Awards is just as fierce as competition, bringing judges from four different continents and spirits from all over the world. The idea though, is to bring that consumer element, you know, kind of what we started talking about - computers and robots - is to bring that end user, the consumer, our customers, people that love to do what we do and meet us and be able to enjoy a drink and learn about spirits and go to a festive dinner, a welcome reception. There's educational tracks. So you know I did a lot of spirits competitions in my life. And I always was like, "Where's the end user? Where's that consumer? We have all these great people together. Why don't we merge that with the end user and let them share in the experience?"

So that's what the Tag Global Spirts Awards are all about. And one thing that Helen always instilled in me was how important it is to give back and you know, she was very philanthropic and that's why I wanted to keep her memory alive but validated really fun to watch was also a very strong advocate towards for women working in the industry. You know, imagine to women opening a bar in 1937. It was pretty rare. So that's one of the things that we've established with the Pink Tie Party, which is going to be wonderful; and I just want to take a minute and invite all of our members who are listening today. Come to Las Vegas, we kick it off with the Lion's Den Cocktail Competition being sponsored by Woody Creek that's on January 29. That's a Sunday, we run through the remainder of the week. And then on Friday, the Pink Tie Party up at Skyfall, it's absolutely gorgeous. Some of you know most celebrated bartenders will be there making drinks with our supplier partners. And it's a beautiful celebration with all the proceeds going to the Helen David Relief Fund. And when we did our, you mentioned, gold bicycle ride. We did our very first bicycle ride 10 years ago in San Francisco. I never dreamed that things would grow into this. So that's kind of, again, the idea of planning, you know, we wouldn't have ever tried to be here 10 years ago. But through that and through the support of USBG, and through building these bicycle rides and different fundraising programs throughout the country. Today we have the Pink Tie Gala. And like I said, I want to invite everyone to come out it's going to be a great great party. And love to see your smiling faces.

Cole: I plan our events. I own a couple of bars. We're always planning events. I plan events, the profits, and event planning is such a daunting thing sometimes. My bar has the capacity to hold 100, give or take, depending on how many tables we take out. I'm guessing there's gonna be more than 100 people with this Pink Tie Gala. And it's such a huge undertaking, and you've got so many different constituents. So you've got the the end user you're talking about... what we might refer to as the enthusiast, not industry professionals, but they love what we do and they often get overlooked in these discussions...

Tony: Absolutely, Cole. First of all, I'm beyond flattered that the team we've been able to put together believes in the overall vision, you know, it's not about a big paycheck. It's really about the vision and the goal and accomplishing something together. I couldn't do it alone. I can't do it with my partners... We have a big team you know, Kyle and Bridget are both leading the way this year. My assistant and who's been with me for 25 years Andrea Day has done an amazing job. Whenever if you ever see a post from me, that's coming from Andrea. You know, I don't think the woman sleeps. But it's a having that vision again. We want to be a little bit better today than we were yesterday. We want to be a little bit bigger today than we were last year. But keeping an eye on five years from now. We know that it's going to take time to build momentum that it's going to take time to get by and you mentioned Suppliers and distributors and partners and you know, they everyone's pressed for what how much they can support and what they can participate in. So we really need to build something really special, that in turn they want to be part of and that's the goal. You know, we want to bring something really special to Las Vegas, spirits competition, but so much more. And we're growing, we're expanding. Like I said, we're primarily with six MGM properties, but we're looking to grow city-wide and like, I just I couldn't be more thrilled and thankful for the team and the volunteers and the party and everyone who believes in what we're doing.

Cole: And having that kind of buy in is really critical. The belief that people have to have on a project of that scope to get everyone, all the ducks in a row are moving in the same direction on that chain together. And I think that's the big part of this year's event. And even with a small team like mine, you gotta have that kind of buy in. People gotta believe in what you're doing - both the guests who come in and spend their hard earned dollars they could spend at any bar in the city, and there are ample there in New Orleans. After all, the staff they're gonna stay invested and to the degree that you need to be to really to do the kind of work that this is it's often very difficult and sometimes pretty dirty and not always as fun as we like it to be. But to have that kind of buy in you really need to be sharing information. You need to be honest and forthright and considerate of everyone's different needs. It's pretty daunting. Like I said, it's a lot.

I really appreciate you talking to you but it's about goal setting for the year. Sometimes people have a hard time setting goals because they feel like a failure if they don't meet them. But knowing it's okay to fail along the way as part of a long range plan. It's something that helps us kind of shift gears and stay out of that failure mindset if you experience what should be a temporary setback along the way. I wonder a little bit if there was that much insightful thinking going on when the USBG was formed, which happened 75 years ago. We're three quarters of a century old now. I know your time the USBG doesn't go back quite that far. But you're one of the people that joined the USBG when it was still just one chapter in California. Can you talk a little bit about your personal history with USBG - what it's meant to you over the years and how you found it?

Tony: Absolutely. Well, I moved to New York City from San Francisco in 1993 to pursue an acting career. I don't know if you recognize me but I was the Alka Seltzer plus cold and flu guy in 1993.

Cole: That was you?!

Tony: (Laughing) That was me, and I met Dale DeGroff quite by accident. I sat at the bar at the Rainbow Room and I watched him work and I watched how he worked with guests and how guests reacted to him and his professionalism. And you know, this light bulb went off and I'm trying to be an actor which, everyone should follow their dreams, but I have this great profession of bartending, which at that point, I had been a bartender for 13 years that I love. And I just said I am going to be the best bartender I can be in at that time. You know, there was no TV shows, book deals or any of that going on and really Dale - what I saw that day, and then obviously Dale and I had been dear friends ever since, inspired me to go back to San Francisco with Harry Dent and reopen the Starlight Room. And I was happy as a clam. I had a great gig. We were doing a fresh program there. Just as this craft cocktail resurgence in plastics was the tipping point because we gotta remember back then you couldn't just Google the groaning and get 100,000 hits in a nanosecond yet actually get a book and kind of research these things. So I read search as this got to be something out there supporting body that, you know, familiar that just a family of what we love to do. We're behind the bar, and I came across the United States bartenders Guild, and I remember him writing a letter to Jose Ancona, and he wrote back accepting my application into the Guild. And that was 1996. So I've been a member since 1996. And it's it just was incredible. I would go down to Southern California, my red jacket on that, you know, I was gonna wear it today. But it doesn't fit anymore. And God bless those guys. They kept the USBG alive.

So from being something really, really prominent in the United States 75 years ago, as you mentioned, Cole, to almost disappearing completely and through that when I then moved to Las Vegas and met @Francesco Lafranconi, who came over from Italy. He was a member of IBIS, we sat down and said we need to open a chapter of USBG in Las Vegas, and that was the second chapter. So to grow from that to where we are today, which I'm not exactly sure what the number of chapters are, but it's just mind blowing to me. But again, that's almost part of if you build a great foundation and you can grow that organically, great things can happen...

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