New York speakeasy launches its Asia invasion

Hong Kong (CNN) — Pink neon letters point to a party inside.

Spelling out “Psychic,” the signs hang in New York, Miami, Singapore and Hong Kong.

But those standing in long lines outside the otherwise easy-to-miss bars aren’t waiting for the resident clairvoyant, but for award-winning cocktails.

For more than a decade, Employees Only has been a mainstay on the New York speakeasy scene. And recently they’ve expanded into Asia, with the latest edition opening in Hong Kong’s party central, Lan Kwai Fong.

“The name ‘Employees Only’ carries so much weight with the worldwide cocktail community that I feel like they could open one anywhere and people would be lining up to get in,” says Ann Tuennerman, founder of Tales of the Cocktail, a spirits industry festival.

The retro-style bar has received numerous awards from Tales of the Cocktail, including Best American Bar Team of 2015, Best American High Volume Cocktail Bar of 2015 and Best Cocktail Bar of 2011. They also made number 37 on the 2017 list of the World’s 50 Best Bars.

In a list usually dominated by New York and London, Singapore and Hong Kong bars were new favorites, taking up seven spots out of the top 50. Another star of the New York speakeasy scene, PDT, is also opening a Hong Kong location next year, in the Landmark Mandarin Oriental.

For Employees Only co-founder Igor Hadzismajlovic, Asia not only represented this latest trend, but a return to where he backpacked on vacation.

Born in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the 44-year-old moved to New York as a refugee. He said he “started from scratch,” working in a series of odd jobs: dishwasher at a summer camp, an AC unit installer and a bathroom attendant at a Chelsea nightclub.

Manning the bar was never his goal, but even while studying film editing, he was always around a bar, working as busboy, barback and waiter.

Employees Only co-founder Igor Hadzismajlovic

EMILIE BALTZ/Employees Only

“I fell in love with it,” says Hadzismajlovic. “The camaraderie, […] the energy, the fast pace. I was doing something that was making people happy.”

At that point, in the early ’90s, the New York bartender scene was majority female, he says. It has since evolved into a more male-dominated “mixology” industry, which Hadzismajlovic says, came with more complicated ingredients, harder shaking, bigger ice and hipsterdom.

“That term came 10 years later with the suspenders and silly moustaches,” says the charismatic co-owner, who himself sports a finely manicured handlebar ‘stache.

After working at The Park, a high-volume bar in Chelsea with capacity for 1,500 people and three bars, Hadzismajlovic came up with the idea of opening a bar with friends.

They originally toyed with the idea of a restaurant with a swinging Art Deco-style speakeasy in the back, called Employees Only. But they liked the back bar idea so much, they decided to focus on that instead. Then, after opening in 2004, their name choice was labeled the city’s worst venue name by Time Out New York.

But after 13 years with 1,600 square feet in New York’s West Village neighborhood to share among five owners, it was “safe to say I was ready for a new challenge,” says Hadzismajlovic, who now splits his time between New York and Asia.

Employees Only opened in Hong Kong in June 2017.

Employees Only

So he helped open Singapore in June 2016 and Hong Kong in June 2017. A similar curved bar is the main draw, the advantage of which, says Hadzismajlovic, is “at any point, you can see people, and they can see you.”

The menu is a select range of around 20 drinks and definitely less vodka-heavy than a typical South Beach or Lan Kwai Fong bar, with more gin and labor-intensive drinks.

Asia’s drinking culture, says Hadzismajlovic, is very different to that of the bar’s US base. New Yorkers are okay with standing and drinking, whereas Hong Kongers expect to be seated, he says, sometimes prompting Hadzismajlovic to move chairs around like he’s playing Tetris.

Group size is another factor. New Yorkers typically arrive individually or in small groups, while Singaporeans visit in packs. Steve Schneider, founding partner of the Singapore location, says they had to adjust the flow of pacing at the door to deal with the large orders.

But at the end of the day, they both stress the importance of service; it’s not just about cocktails, it’s about charisma.

As well as the mixology craft, it’s about “a hard work ethic, a great personality […] someone you want to hang with, where you always have a blast,” says Hadzismajlovic. “A great bartender has a following.”

And the next location for a secret hide-out identified only by hot-pink neon sign? Maybe Austin.

Employees Only Hong Kong, 19 Lan Kwai Fong, Central, Hong Kong; +852 2468 2755

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