Behind the Stick with Michele Willard of URBN
Michele Willard, beverage director of URBN Fired Pizza & Bar in North Park, is crafting up unique, complex and balanced cocktails that pairs well with their delicious pies. Her award-winning dessert cocktail, The Flip Dog, can easily be described as an alcoholic peanut butter, jelly and banana sandwich. Michele shares her recipe, defines the perfect cocktail and chats about her journey leading up to her position at URBN.
The Flip Dog
I egg 1 oz heavy whipping cream tbsp of peanut butter 3 chopped strawberries .50 oz simple syrup .50 oz Giffard Banana Liqueur 2 oz Buffalo Trace Garnishes: strawberry slice and candied walnuts
What's the story behind the Flip Dog?
First the name, "flip dog," was the name of the tool used to make a flip cocktail in the 1690s. This variation was made for a competition at the Del Mar Fair a couple of weeks ago. This year's theme was Alice In Wonderland and watching that movie always reminded me of having tea parties with my grandma. She always served peanut butter, jelly, and banana sandwiches, so I wanted to make a drink that encompassed all of those components. This drink literally tastes like an alcoholic peanut butter, jelly and banana sandwich.
What makes your version of the Flip unique?
I think it's unique because we took a common dish that children usually eat and turned it into an adult beverage. It’s a nostalgic, fun and delicious experience!
When choosing a bourbon, why did you pick Buffalo Trace?
I chose Buffalo Trace. I personally love Buffalo Trace in cocktails. It isn't as spicy as some and the price is very reasonable.
What's the key component of this drink?
A flip should contain a whole egg and cream, but the main spirit is always the key component. I would say every component is key for this cocktail, though. What reactions do you get from customers when they try this cocktail for the first time?
"It's delicious!” and "Wow, this really taste like a peanut butter, jelly and banana sandwich."
What's a good dish to pair with this cocktail?
This is a dessert cocktail, so I would say drink your dessert! I always drink my dessert.
What kind of experience can diners get at URBN?
URBN provides a warm, welcoming, unpretentious and fun atmosphere. We have a very diverse crowd and that adds to the experience. I can't think of too many moments when most people are not laughing, smiling, or having a good conversation. It is great for parties of 2 or parties of 50.
About Michele Willard
Are you from San Diego?
I am a San Diego native! There are few of us left in this city, including my family.
How did you get into bartending?
Well I was a financial controller that worked in a high stress office for years, which is completely opposite of what I am doing now. Then one day I decided I wanted to move to New York and become a fashion designer. I had already racked up a bit of education debt so I needed to have a job while I was attending fashion school - and one that provided a decent amount of income.
At that time, My friend Nate Stanton had just opened Craft & Commerce, and I was a tequila soda sipping accountant that worked Monday through Friday from 6am to 6pm.The only nights I was out past 9:30 was Friday and Saturday. I had never worked in the service industry previous to Craft & Commerce nor did I know anything about cocktails. This experience was humbling and addicting to say the least. One of the best of my life.
After leaving Craft & Commerce it was obvious that I wanted to stay in this industry and not go to New York. So I met Jon Younger, a business owner and an amazing human. I did my first cocktail menu project with him for a small sushi spot. It was not close to amazing and I was not ready for that job yet but it was well received. From there I ended up scoring a job at URBN with Jason O'Bryan, he was the bar manager at the time and one of the most underrated and knowledgeable bartenders I know. He took me under his wing, and it first time in my life that I felt comfortable behind a bar and fully appreciated and accepted.
What has your journey been like leading up to your current position as the beverage director?
The journey started out as a means for design school and ended up being something that inspires me daily. The struggle was real though, I just didn't become "beverage director." I have an amazing curse. I am a really intense, driven, hardworking and extremely hard on myself. So with that, I took on every amazing opportunity I could get my hands on. I went to every educational event, I surrounded myself with the most talented people in the field and I let the world of cocktails and spirits consume me. I was working seven days a week, more than my fair share of double shifts. Now as Beverage Director at URBN, I have found a need for balance and I'm trying to find that daily so I can be a better leader and person. This road is not for everyone, but luckily, I have met some amazing mentors along the way. They have given me the knowledge to do what I am doing now. Some of my favorites that inspire me daily are Christian Siglin, Jason O'Bryan, Eric Johnson, Ian Ward, Levi Walker, Anthony Schmidt and Paul Sanguinetti , just to name a few.
What's your thought process when creating a new cocktail?
It depends on the customer or the location.
I ask some key questions. What spirit? Direct or refreshing? What style? Then I will start a play in my mind with different spirits, taste profiles, etc. Always straw tasting along the way. It's usually something I’ve been dreaming about or something I've wanted to work with and haven't. Next, I will come up with something I think they would enjoy. My one key thing is to always ask if they are enjoying it. It is so important to give a customer what they want.
Each of our locations are very different and they will continue to be. I love that about all of them. So, for example, in North Park, I usually have a little bit more fun and freedom to be crafty while using new and different spirits, juices and random syrups. Our East Village location is a little tricky but I have found a great love for it. It’s more vodka-based with a lot of volume! I am redoing the menu next month and I want to stay with a spin on classics but create something a little different for the staff but that are still fast, fun and easy to execute. If you have ever been to BASIC, you know it’s one of the first bars in East Village next to the ballpark. People go in looking for simplicity and a really good time. Define the perfect cocktail.
The perfect cocktail is different for everyone, but my perfect cocktail is probably not going to be yours. But to define my perfect cocktail, it would have to be one that is balanced and complex at the same time. What's you're favorite cocktail to drink?
My favorite cocktail changes from day to day. But The Hunter Thompson (Lion Share), The Christopher Oaxacan (URBN) and any tiki drink from Jesse Ross at Sycamore Den are really my thing right now. What's your favorite drink to make behind the bar?
I love making old fashioned variations, any fizz variation and tiki variations. What is one thing you wish people understood about bartending?
I think many people view it as a summer job, but like anything in life, it’s what you make it. I came from a corporate background and some of the smartest people I have ever been lucky enough to meet or work with are bartenders and not the CEO's or CFO's I used to work with.
What trends are you currently seeing in San Diego?
I think San Diego is really into tiki, agave and vodka. Vodka seems to be making a comeback.
What should everyone stock in their home bar?
It depends on what they like. But every home bar needs some great ice, tins, jiggers, strainers, bar spoon, muddler, peeler, juice (lemon, lime, grapefruit, etc.), simple syrup and some great spirits.
What do you do in your spare time when you're not creating cocktails?
I enjoy spending time with Coco, my 7-year-old rescue pit bull, yoga, surfing and I really enjoy just being in Mexico every chance I get. One of my best friends, Will, loves to take groups to Mexico for dinner, so we try to do that at least once a week. What's next for you?
It's hard to say. I was dipping my foot into alcohol sales and I loved it, but being a beverage director and a brand ambassador is almost impossible to do well at the same time, unless you don't sleep. Which I didn't for at least three months! The one thing I would love to do is open a bar.
3085 University Ave., North Park. (619) 255-7300 or urbnnorthpark.com
Facebook | Instagram | Twitter
Click here for more 'Behind the Stick' articles.