Ba Bar's Eric Banh's bar manager troubles picked up again this Saturday night when bar manager Evan Martin publicly confronted the owner in the restaurant's dining room, claiming he'd had too much to drink. Banh, who strenuously denies Martin's charges, then fired Martin for failing to demonstrate the proper work ethic.
"I really should have done it a month ago," Banh says. "The bar staff has been crying to me and telling me Evan leaves early every night, I mean, literally, 10 p.m. They come in, set up the bar, he doesn't come in until 6 p.m. They couldn't take it anymore."
Martin in turn accuses Banh of mistreating his employees. "Somehow I made it almost eight months, until I shrugged my shoulders and smirked at him one too many times as he was throwing stuff around the bar and using profanity and calling me names and threatening me in front of a packed house," Martin e-mails. "I won't tolerate it."
Banh hired Martin, formerly of Naga at Chantanee, to replace a bar manager who'd used a phony resume to land the job. Martin, a Tales of the Cocktail contest winner, joined Ba Bar a few weeks after the Capitol Hill restaurant opened last summer.
"Evan is a very gifted mixologist," Banh says. "He makes fantastic drinks. But for a bar manager, we need more than that."
According to Banh, the Saturday incident unfolded around 9 p.m., when he met a group of friends at the restaurant. Martin says the busy evening had already been made stressful by a new host and an investor's nephew prematurely distributing the restaurant's new cocktail menus, which were set for release on Wednesday. "I didn't find out until during a rush when people were ordering these new drinks nonstop," Martin writes.
As Martin tells it, "Eric takes up a table in the middle of the rush getting drunk, orders the most complicated cocktails, half a dozen at a time."
Banh recalls drinking only wine. "I sat down and had half a glass of wine," he says. "Evan said 'You've been drinking too much. You're drunk already'." Banh removed Martin at 9:20 p.m.
Martin called the dismissal "a huge load of stress off my back." He adds, "I guess I was always planning on getting fired since everyone else does. The few people that have worked at Ba Bar or at Monsoon for a while are people who are good at taking blows from him constantly."
In 2008, Banh was arrested for assault after allegedly kicking a former employee, an incident Martin cites as an example of Banh's management style.
"It's an absurd, manufactured story," Banh says of Martin's allegations that he created a scene. "I was shocked somebody would pull that kind of stunt. You just don't drink and make a fool of yourself in your own place. That's why I don't allow staff to drink more than one drink at our bar."
Before driving to Ba Bar, Banh was at home, where he doesn't keep hard liquor.
"It's not nice to talk bad about certain individuals, but there's no way I was drunk," says Banh, who suspects he's struggled to find the right bar manager because he's not entirely comfortable with cocktails.
"I honestly don't know anything about liquor," he says. "I'm too old to learn that craft. I don't know what the heck is Van Winkle or Maple Hill. Sometimes I feel Monsoon is so awesome because wine and beer I know quite well."
Banh is now planning to hire a consultant to work with his existing bar staff.
"I know some really good mixologists willing to help us," he says. "Something about the bar world, I haven't been able to find a stable person. I prefer a work ethic. Chefs work way harder workers than the people I've been hiring for the bar."
A shake-up is also underway in the kitchen, where chef Kevin Burzell recently submitted his resignation after months of consideration. Burzell, who leaves on Mar. 10, wants to start his own Malaysian street food operation, Banh says.
"Kevin is one of the best, but nobody can pay him to work anymore," Banh says of Burzell's determination to be self-employed.
Both Banh and Martin agree that Burzell's organizational skills were a tremendous asset to the restaurant: "Kevin and I created the foundation of everything that functions somewhat properly in that restaurant," Martin claims.
Regarding replacement plans, Banh says, "I've been on the phone with Vietnamese chefs, but I want the execution to be high level. They have to understand roasting chicken, and brining. A lot of Vietnamese chefs don't understand the technique of brining. They don't understand that in Asia, the chicken and pigs are much more fresh. Here, you have to use certain techniques. A lot of them think we're crazy to do that."
The mood at the restaurant yesterday was upbeat, Banh says.
"The bar staff is very happy," he says. Still, he's not pleased with the way Martin's tenure ended. He doubts his fiancee would ever encounter a similar situation at Boeing, where she works.
"At least at Boeing, you have HR," he says. "I said to my fiancee, 'welcome to the restaurant business.'"