Florida Keys Business
Sunday, July 6, 2014
Bartending: Give it a shot
Elite serves up professional bartending skills

Paul Hansen and Ljubica Lazarevic are ready to shake things up. (Or stir, if you prefer.)

"I tried learning on my own, but wasn't moving as fast as I wanted," Hansen said. "It took the mystery out of all those bottles and pushed my confidence to where it needed to be. It was a very positive experience."

"I was interested in a different perspective, specifically from behind the bar," Lazarevic said. "I wanted to know bartending A to Z. All of a sudden, I was fast and accurate. It just clicked."

Hansen and Lazarevic recently graduated from Elite Bartending School and Event Staffing. They both trained on the school's Key West campus, which is run out of Rick's and Durty Harry's on Lower Duval Street.

Elite launched in Miami in 2009. Co-owners Austin Gagnon and Gordon Eagerton teamed up with local bartender Josh Goldurs to open the Key West campus earlier this year. Gagnon and Eagerton are scheduled to open a third Elite campus in Fort Lauderdale in October.

The school is state-licensed and accredited and features a 40-hour program designed with the professional bartender in mind.

"We help develop the mechanics, artwork, style and skill sets required to do the job, with particular emphasis on speed and high volume," Gagnon said. "This is real-world bartending."

Elite helps graduates find work, as well.

"We open the doors to success," Gagnon said.

A good bartending job will start between $20 and $25 per hour (including tips).

"If you're not making that amount minimum, then there's no point," Gagnon said.

Bartenders working special events can make more, depending on the size of the crowd and length of the event.

"The markets in Key West, Miami and Fort Lauderdale are similar," Gagnon said. "We're confident that graduates in Key West can work major events both on the island and on the mainland."

Elite students are educated on hundreds of different types of alcohol and cocktail recipes.

Bottles of colored water and trays of finger sponges dyed red, yellow and green - representing cherry, lemon and lime garnishes - are used in the hands-on training process.

Students on the Key West campus rotate between more than a dozen bars at Rick's and Durty Harry's, experiencing the pace of mixing cocktails for several people mingling intimately at one bar versus pouring shots for a steady stream of partiers flying in from the dance floor at another bar.

In addition to completing a written test, students taking the final exam are asked to demonstrate the proper count for pouring and to mix cocktails picked at random.

"I learned how to make more than 130 drinks, any of which can be on the final exam," Miranda Schmidt said.

Schmidt, who graduated from Elite's campus in Miami in January 2013, said that she got a job at a popular bar on South Beach less than two weeks after graduating. She has also worked a number of events in and around Miami since then, including the Cadillac Championship world golf tournament, the Ultra Music Festival and events at the W South Beach hotel.

Hansen, a native of New York who has worked bar security and bar back jobs on Duval Street, and Lazarevic, a native of Serbia who works as a cocktail waitress, want to use the training to find their own bartending niches in Key West.

Hansen and Lazarevic said that they're eager to work more with Goldurs, as well, in continuing education workshops. Elite offers the workshops half-price to its most promising graduates.

"We were lucky to have an instructor like Josh," Hansen said. "He's got lots of experience and is great at what he does."

Goldurs is an Elite co-owner and bartender with 15 years experience who brings the arts of "flair" - the use of fire in working the bar - and "mixology" - the further refinement of cocktail craftsmanship - to higher education.

In addition, Elite offers any graduate with 10 years of bar experience who makes at least 98 percent on the final exam the opportunity to train to be an instructor.

"We're also looking for the charisma and dedication required to teach," Gagnon said. "It can be a challenge. At one point, we hired 10 to teach, but only two worked out."

Gagnon said that he and other Elite faculty members are pleased to be working in partnership with the owners, managers and staff at Rick's and Durty Harry's.

He also said that he enjoys the chance to work in a town that offers the bar experience on a much smaller and more intimate scale than Miami or Fort Lauderdale.

"Miami can be a town of false promises," Gagnon said. "Key West is a community with so many avenues and synergies."

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