Sitting on the patio at Nashville’s Pinewood Social with Matt Tocco, I’m reminded a little of my grade school years. It’s not the liquor bottles or the coffee bar, obviously; a penchant for those particular pastimes didn’t enter my consciousness until quite some years later. But somehow the swimming pool, bocce court and bowling alleys bring me back to summer camps and birthday parties, while the inside row of “work tables” has a distinctly academic ring.
It’s fitting since Pinewood’s parent restaurant group, Strategic Hospitality––for whom Tocco runs the majority of bar programs––has been heavily influential in informing Nashville’s current hotter-than-Prince’s-chicken-on-a-southern-summer-day food and drink scene.
In fact, Strategic’s venues have served as a learning platform for Tocco himself, who arrived at The Patterson House in 2009 with no experience of which to speak. “It was all Greek to me. Alchemy Consulting (of Violet Hour in Chicago and Pouring Ribbons in New York) taught me how to bartend. They wanted people who were blank slates––no bad habits, no preconceived notions––just malleable material they could mold.”
At the time, the dining climate didn’t offer nearly the variety that Strategic and its contemporaries would come to contribute; the town had yet to cut its teeth on the types of drinks being introduced. And by default, front-running for the new cocktail guard forced the group to assume responsibility for educating not only the consumer, but the supplier as well.
“In Nashville, there wasn’t [a cocktail scene] when Patterson House opened. We had to convince a lot of distributors to bring in products,” says Tocco. “I don’t think anyone was really ready for these small cities to be doing that kind of volume.”
With Tocco diligently following the lesson plan at Patterson House, he also hadn’t yet been exposed to the happenings outside of Tennessee. “I didn’t know a lot about what was going on. I remember going to Tales of the Cocktail after my first year and thinking, ‘Well, this is different.’ Then I started reading blogs and following along and traveling. I went to The Violet Hour and worked there for a weekend, and then to Portland to see the scene.”
It wasn’t long before he realized that Nashville had plenty of company in this broadening beverage interest. “It’s exploded––especially in the smaller cities––the Nashvilles and the Louisvilles and the Charlestons and the Kansas Cities and the Austins. That’s been one of the most interesting things to see. The New Yorks and San Franciscos and Chicagos, they’ve always set the precedent, but it’s been so interesting to see the smaller cities do their own thing.”
The Expense of Honesty
1 oz. – Old Forester Signature
1 oz. – Brugal Anejo
½ oz. – Arehucas Ron Miel
1 tsp. – Honey
1 tsp. – Demerara
2 dashes – Woodford Spiced Cherry Bitters
Directions: Stirred, strained, poured over rocks and garnished with an orange peel.
But then in 2012, Tocco’s own desire to do the teaching nearly relieved Nashville of one of its most influential bartenders. After three years at The Patterson House, arguably the most formative venue of this burgeoning cocktail culture, he was feeling the pull of a past ambition––to leverage his dueling degrees in psychology and philosophy, and to pursue a graduate degree toward a career in counseling.
“I was debating my passions––what I wanted to be a career and what I wanted to just enjoy,” says Tocco. While ultimately he did abdicate his spot at Patterson House, it was for a brief stint spent opening Rolf & Daughters in Nashville’s Germantown neighborhood, rather than to enroll in grad school. Strategic then re-recruited Tocco not only to open what would become Pinewood Social–– this adult playground of the food and drink world––but to manage the beverage program for their entire portfolio. Today, it’s one that includes six (and counting in the very near future), each with a clientele and character strikingly distinctive from the next.
Take Pinewood, for example, which is open daily from 7:00 a.m. until 1:00 a.m. It functions as “a place to meet,” according to their website, and customers can choose to do so over a multitude of offerings, be it from cocktail menu, wine and beer list, the array of brunch cocktails, the handful of “Dulces” (including piña coladas and mojitos) to be enjoyed outside, or the more original “Contemporary Pool Cocktails.” Let’s not forget the frozen drinks at the Airstream trailer near the bocce court––and that’s all in a single location.
Downtown on Broadway, you can find Merchant’s Restaurant smack in the heart of tourist-heavy honky tonk heaven, where there are downstairs (casual) and upstairs (upscale) menus. Paradise Park Trailer Resort stands just a few doors away, with its beer-and-a-shot sensibility; and Tocco’s own preparatory school, The Patterson House, is where you’ll find the fiercest of craft cocktail seekers. Most recently, Strategic threw their followers a curveball with yet another venture: The Band Box at First Tennessee Park, home to Minor League Baseball’s Nashville Sounds.
The eyebrow-raising range of this portfolio is how Strategic manages to keep both Nashvillians and visitors compelled, and why they’ve been so influential in shaping the city’s overall drinking and dining scene. Rather than stamping out same-old concepts, they’re constantly innovating, drawing inspiration from, and refining concepts.
Given this gamut, Tocco probably relies on that psych degree now more than the average bachelor’s-prepared bartender. Developing menus, bar design and training programs that keep up with the widely swinging pendulum of platforms requires investigation into psyches both pourer and patron.
For example, the Merchants’ cocktail menu is divided into easily digestible sections like “For Swiggin’” and “For Sippin’.” “[Merchant’s] menu was about appealing to a broader audience and still meeting [Strategic’s] standards. To have a cocktail program that pushes people forward, but also makes them feel accepted,” says Tocco. “There’s a lot of whiskey, a lot of vodka, a lot of local products because you have so many tourists and that’s what they want. On Broadway, it can get three deep at the bar, so it was about making a menu that reads a little easier.”
And it’s not just the customers that drive the menu; acknowledging differences in the blueprint of each bar has also been critical to designing the drink list. “Merchant’s is not the most ergonomic bar, so it was about creating drinks where there aren’t 8,000 touches,” says Tocco. “[Patterson House], on the other hand, was designed to take the time to make those drinks with numerous touches and to talk with the guest and walk them through this esoteric menu. We hold the door for a reason––so the service and the drinks don’t suffer.”
“The Band Box was another thing that pushed me,” Tocco continues. “There, we’re trying to bridge the gap between a restaurant and a concession stand. Opening a bar in a baseball stadium was definitely outside my wheelhouse.”
The ballpark also presented challenges from a staffing standpoint. With Strategic’s reputation, Tocco explains the pressure of creating a cocktail menu for The Band Box that didn’t disappoint their fans, and was realistic for bartenders who worked with less regularity: “[The Sounds] do eight-game stretches and then they’re not back for two weeks, so you have people that are part-time workers.” For the stadium, Tocco has selected cocktails that can be created with less intensive processing on the part of the server. “You’re not jiggering things, but you’re still using fresh ingredients, still trying to balance things. We can’t train everybody how to make every drink. It’s tricky because people know that we do it, so they want to order a Manhattan. It’s about the customer so you want to try to give them what they want, but I can’t have 17 different people make 17 different Manhattans.”
This propensity for having staff that are properly studied in their unique setting is a hallmark of how each Strategic property is run. And though he opted not to pursue a graduate degree, it’s the academic in Tocco that defines his style in the barroom and his pedagogic approach to management. “I read books all day about wine and spirits. I’m studying again. I’m kind of trying to be a professor, but from inside the bar,” he says.
Tocco’s inherent enthusiasm for counseling and educating is evident in the way he talks about his team, with emphasis on nurturing their knowledge and supporting their creativity. “I tell them, ‘If there are drinks you’re working on, talk to me; let’s get them to where they need to be.’ I try to counsel them through it. My goal is to build bartenders’ confidence and knowledge.”
“I’m so glad when we’re able to work on something and then they can own that drink,” he continues. “My hope is that one day it will just be their menu––they can submit drinks and I can [stamps] great, great, great.”
And with Strategic constantly graduating to new phases of growth, Tocco continues to develop ways to prepare himself and his team; he creates study guides and underscores the need to keep learning. “I’m building a glossary. I make a 30-page packet of information; I want them to go over it again and again,” he explains. “I keep laminated copies in a notebook at every server station. I keep an email chain and try to have information going out as much as I can. I’m lobbying pretty hard to have my own lab where I can work on drinks and encourage bartenders to come and experiment with me. I do it at Patterson House during the day; we’ll set up a well and just make drinks––classics, or we work on new drinks together.”
Ensuring that no one bartender is neglected requires Tocco to do constant homework. “It’s a company that’s growing at an exponential rate; it’s rocky at times because you’re plowing a new field. When I change the menu, how the hell do we tell everyone about it?” he asks. “How do we get them the attention they deserve? As a bartender there’s nothing more frustrating than someone changing the menu without your knowledge.”
“I’m trying to build a really strong team of bartenders; I encourage them to go to Patterson House on their day off. If you’re broke, call me and I’ll buy you a drink.” Tocco pauses briefly to greet a few Pinewood regulars.
While bartending is a learned skill, Tocco’s hospitable nature is plainly an intrinsic part of his personality. And when he returns to the conversation, he continues, telling me, “I like that relationship that I have with [the team]. I’m a bartender at heart.”
That core curriculum blending innovation, education and diversification is the stamp of Strategic Hospitality’s properties. Behind the playfulness of each venue is the passion of employees like Tocco and his team, the cocktail scholars that through bar-schooling and the sharing of information continue to set the city’s cocktail syllabus.
Sitting at Pinewood Social’s bar later on, I have the opportunity to sample some of their A+ efforts. I watch as a group of locals toast their bowling victory with Vieux Carre’s and high fives. If this is a learning experience, point me to the admissions office. The course catalogue at Strategic’s school of hospitality is one that I’ll happily study, while enjoying the extracurricular spoils of being an adult.
33 Peabody St, Nashville, TN 37210