I’ve been meaning to interview Jimi Watkins, the head bartender and creative force behind EXP Restaurant + Bar’s drink menu, for quite some time. It hasn’t been for lack of trying, either. From playing email tag to chasing leads of his whereabouts at parties and gatherings, I’ve tracked the illusive Watkins across the greater Vancouver area in an effort to learn more about the construction of a video game bar.
The problem? Jimi is as busy helping get EXP off the ground as a person can be without forgoing sleeping entirely. Fortunately, I was able to track him down for a quick talk over some beers this last week. With the continuous din of an overworked SkyTrain running in the background, we talked about just how much this tireless mixologist has given to the dream of a place where gamers can drink and relax.
New Job Unlocked: Bartender
Michael Rousseau: What’s your background? How did you get into tending bar?
Jimi Watkins: I wouldn’t say it was by accident, but it wasn’t planned. I got laid off from a job I had years ago, and shortly after a friend of mine called and said, “Hey, I heard you just got laid off. Wanna do some barbacking at Bar None?” I said, “What? You know I know nothing about that” and he said it was fine, they would train me. It just went from there. As soon as I stepped in, within a couple of shifts, I knew this is what I wanted to do. This whole lifestyle is just awesome. You’re around people all the time; it’s never the same thing twice. Being a people person, it’s really “me.”
Getting into EXP, the LCBC, and Community
Michael: How did you meet up with Brian and get involved with EXP?
Jimi: Actually, that’s an interesting story. I’m pretty sure it was on either Shogun Gamer or Gamedeals’ Facebook that I saw a post about it and I thought it was really cool, and I would check it out when it opens. I wasn’t going to comment, and I kinda scrolled by the story. Later I scrolled back up and said, “Man, this is awesome, gotta get me a job there” as a joke, and Brian replied, “Apply then!” So I sent him my resume, and a little bit of time went by, and I didn’t hear back from him.
Then Brian from Gamedeals told me that Brian [Vidovic] didn’t get my resume, so I resent it. The same day, within hours, he called me and said, “Let’s meet up, let’s have an interview, I really want to talk to you.” We met up downtown, and it wasn’t even really an interview, just chatting about everything. He said he had to talk it over with the other partners to set up a second interview. A week later, I met up with him and Juliana and their advisor, and the advisor basically said, “Yeah, hire this guy.” I went from there, just doing small things. When you come into a project this big, you start with the small things, and from there it just got bigger and bigger until we’re at where we are now. When we open, it’s going to be insanity. All this hype… I didn’t expect this!
Michael: What was it about working in a video game bar specifically that drew you to it?
Jimi: Well, playing games and serving liquor are my two favorite things ever. It’s funny, when I heard about EXP, I said “Why didn’t I think of this sooner? It’s so obvious! How did I not put two and two together before?” It’s such an awesome idea.
Michael: It is an awesome idea to have a place where you can play games and drink, but with the LCBC issues surrounding your liquor license, what do you feel is going to draw people to EXP before you’re able to get those issues hammered out?
Jimi: The culture. The fact that even though we might not have games to start -- I have no doubts that we will, a few months after opening, I have no doubts about that -- it’s about the culture. It’s a place to meet like-minded people. It’s not like going to another bar where you’re going to find two people like you. You’re going to find gamers. You’re going to find people who think like you, act like you, people you can make friends with really easily. There’s also the events, the talks, the game releases, podcasts being recorded at EXP, Barcraft, e-sports on the TV… it would be awesome to play [games], but I think just seeing the success of things like Barcraft, it proves that something like that can work without having games to play.
Games and Libations
Michael: You talked before about how, in the same way Miranda is coming up with video game-themed dishes, you’re coming up with video game-themed drinks. What goes into creating a video game-themed drink?
Jimi: Honestly, the first step is finding a character in a game, an item in a game, and then creating a general theme around that. If it’s a character, what would that character drink? What would it taste like? If it’s an item from a game, what does it look like in the game?
Take the Batarian ale from Mass Effect. Man, that must be harsh as fuck to drink! So, you make it look like it, and then you build the taste around it. For me, it’s easy to make liquor taste good. Presentation is almost higher in this regard, because it’s not just a cocktail culture here. It’s not enough to make something that tastes good that doesn’t have to be true to its name. In this case, it really does. It’s about what I name the drink. So it’s kind of weird that it’s the opposite here: name the drink, then build it, with taste in mind, but not as the paramount factor.
Michael: So it’s more about the novelty of the drink and the design over the taste?
Jimi: Yeah. The example I always use is one that has the presentation, the taste. Everything is there. It’s going to pretty much be our flagship martini-style drink. It’s the Hadoken. Blue raspberry vodka, shaken up to give it a nice cold crystallized look, then Hypnotiq around the outside of the glass. Around the middle, blue Alizé, so the layering gives it that multi-tone effect like a fireball, all shimmering. So I named the drink, made it look like what it’s named after, then made it taste good.
Michael: Can I pay extra to get the EX version?
Jimi: Oh fuck, if you want! There’s also the Shoryuken, which is red. If you want the EX version of that, we can give it something that’ll punch you in the dick.
Michael: That one will probably knock down on hit.
Jimi: Oh, yeah. If we can get certain liquor in there, with our license, we may be able to have over proof liquor, and if we can… there’s the Megaton. Basically, it’s a hand grenade with Absinthe 151 dropped into Red Bull and whatever I decide is going into the bottom. Some harsh liquor. It’s not supposed to taste great; it’s just supposed to blow the fuck up.
Michael: In opening up a video game-themed bar, with all of the issues surrounding liquor and video games, what’s been the biggest challenge in getting the bar portion of the business open?
Jimi: As a whole, honestly, just making sure that the liquor can be there. Just making sure I’m not putting all of this time into the menu and the bar to just have them up and say, “Just kidding, haha, you don’t get your license.” We’re beyond that now, but for a while, everybody knew what was happening. The board just wasn’t budging. That was the hardest part, knowing that all the hard work I put in might be for naught.
Clientele and Culture
Michael: Speaking a bit about clientele, what kind of group, in terms of age range and demographic, do you see making EXP their home?
Jimi: Since we’re close to a lot of campuses, I definitely see a lot of students. And that’s great, because we’re that place you can go hang out after a rough night at the studio. Need to blow off steam? Great, come see us; that’s what we’re here for. Then, there’s the core demographic gamer, the 30+ crowd. Teenagers and students can go anywhere and have a good night.
Gamers who are a bit older just want to relax; they don’t want to go to nightclubs and bars. They don’t want to have the shrieking 19-year olds in the ear all night. Like we talked about earlier, they want like-minded people.
Michael: I’ve noticed that at some Galaxion nights, due to miscommunication, or whatever there are some… off-culture people in the house who don’t quite fit the gamer vibe. Is there a fear of some “norms” showing up and clowning on people and making it uncomfortable?
Jimi: I know exactly who you were talking about! Well, I’m sure it’ll happen. They might do it on purpose, they might just walk in and not realize. It’ll happen, but I don’t see it being a huge problem at all. If you’re a group of dudes acting like jackasses, nobody’s going to take you seriously. You’re going to look like an idiot.
Eventually, the name will be out there, and people won’t bother. We have a no bullshit policy. People just want to go out and chill, and don’t need to put up with shit just because they want to play a video game in public. If you go to EXP and start making fun of people for playing games, you’re just a sad person.
Staffing the Bar
Michael: Most people probably think that staffing a video game bar is the easiest thing in the world, just because you have so many applicants who want to be involved. Has it been difficult to find the right people for the space?
Jimi: That’s a tough question. There’s definitely not a lack of applicants. Everyone is enthusiastic about it, so a lot of people apply who have the right attitude; they just want to help out. There’s also the fact that we’re still a business. We have to make sure we have the right staff for the business, and more importantly, for the customers. We have to make sure that we didn’t hire someone just because they were enthusiastic. We need the people who make the right fit. I’m not saying you have to have experience. I’ve already hired two people who have no experience in their respective positions, but they had the right attitude, the right energy, the right mindset.
Of course, being a gamer with the right attitude is a huge thing, almost more so than having experience. You can’t just be a gamer and love games; that’s not going to be enough. You really have to show the passion for games and people. There were a few people [who applied] who definitely had the passion for games, but when it came down to the energy, they’d be great at a different restaurant or bar. Just not exactly what we’re looking for. Even though my inbox is inundated, I appreciate everyone who applies, because it shows how much support we have out there. It’s beyond insanity.
Michael: Are you fully staffed and ready to go at this point, or should people still send in resumes?
Jimi: Still send! We’ve got a few people on board, but we’re still looking for more, so absolutely, send in resumes. Even when we open, send in resumes, because you can never tell. If we open and realize we’re understaffed and need more people, we may be in the position where we need to hire on the fly.
Michael: Plus, turnover.
Jimi: Yeah, we might hire someone whom we thought would be a good fit, and they thought they would be a good fit, but the place just isn’t for them. It’s the nature of the beast. It’s a start-up. It’s not going to be easy. There are growing pains. Not everything will go smoothly. Brian and I talk a lot about what we need to do up until opening. There will be things we didn’t see coming, and we’ll have to roll with them.
Settling the Tab
Michael: In closing, is there anything you want to say to the people desperately waiting for EXP to open?
Jimi: It’s finally happening. Finally. I know there were some people who had their doubt, but trust me, it’s happening, and it’s going to be better than what anyone is expecting. We waited long enough, and you guys have waited long enough, so if you come in with expectations, we’re going to do our best to be above that.