For those in the business, the role of head bartender at the Savoy’s American bar in London is much more than a job – it’s the chance to join a prestigious club of just a handful of people and to earn a place in history.
In its more than 130-year existence, only 13 people have held the role, inventing cocktails such as the Moonwalk and the Hanky Panky, and serving clientele including Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill.
But in recent months, turnover in the role – as well as other key positions at the central London hotel’s two main bars – has been at unprecedented levels. A mass exodus of staff has prompted the question: what is going on at the Savoy?
Last week, Chelsie Bailey became the American bar’s latest head bartender, a moment the hotel lauded as “an exciting new period in the bar’s history”. But her appointment came less than a year after her predecessor Shannon Tebay, who became the first woman to hold the role in nearly a century, took up the post. She had been appointed to reopen the institution in the wake of the pandemic after Maxim Schulte left after just two years following its Covid closure in 2020.
Tebay declined to comment on her departure. But when she took on the role she said she was “thrilled to take on the role”, through which she hoped to “give a voice” to other women in the industry.
When Schulte left, he said he was leaving a “dream job” prematurely because he “could not align my vision and goals with the future structure and plans of the Savoy”. Typically, people remain in the prestigious role for several years – or even decades.
Other high profile departures include Declan McGurk, the former director of bars, who left in 2020, and Elon Soddu, who left his role as hotel’s head mixologist last year. Meanwhile, the Savoy’s other bar, the Beaufort, is currently closed for refurbishment.
Soddu, who quit the Savoy after six years to open his own bar, Amaro, describes the hotel as “a machine that was working very well for several years that suddenly stopped working completely”. He added: “To restart all the machine, it was not very easy.”
Although he loved working there, the lockdown changed him, and when he returned he didn’t feel the same any more. “Before [the pandemic], it was always about the bar thing,” he said. “We always had big personalities, people with big egos, big knowledge, and it was always a challenge between us of who was the best. Who was doing the best things? Who had the best knowledge? Who was delivering the best service?”
But now, he said, this aspect of the job has become “a little bit lost”. “Not only at the Savoy, it’s been lost in a lot of hotel bars. Very few hotel bars recovered well from the pandemic.”
Such is the scale of changes at the hotel, which made hundreds of staff redundant during the pandemic, that around 40% of staff at the American bar are understood to be new hires, while 60% are said to be from the Beaufort. Some former employees have started their own projects, and many are thought to have left for rivals such as the Connaught in Mayfair, which did not require staff to leave during lockdown.
Many bartenders who may previously have come to London are going elsewhere to get a better quality of life, said Soddu, who created dozens of drinks while at the Savoy, including the Composer.
Unlike working for an institution such as the Savoy, he now has more creative control. “When you work in a hotel, you have five to 10 managers on top of you so you always need to ask for authorisation, authorisation, authorisation. Here, anything I want to do, I just do it.”
Claudia Carrozzi, president of the UK Bartenders Guild (UKBG), said the issue is symptomatic of a wider problem across the industry – both in the UK and globally – and has seen a huge loss of knowledge following bar closures after the pandemic. “A lot of hotels and bars made everybody redundant. There is a lot of knowledge that is gone – everything has to be rebuilt. This doesn’t give much stability to places looking to redeliver the standards they used to,” she said.
“The other factor is, because with Covid and Brexit together, we lost a lot of talent. A lot of people left the country, they’re not able to come back or they have decided to embrace a different industry. In many places, the whole team is new. There are a lot of staff shortages. It is a global matter.”
Peter Dorelli, 82, who was head bartender at the American bar from 1984 to 2003 and remains a regular visitor as a self-appointed “quality control officer”, said the pandemic “created headaches” at the Savoy and that they ran into staffing problems because of the redundancies they made.
Despite all the changes, he insisted the American bar was “doing extremely well”. Many bars, especially at the top level, are struggling to get staff, he added, and are making cuts to opening hours as a result.
The Savoy’s managing director, Franck Arnold, said: “The Savoy, like most of its peers, had to make changes and redundancies early in the pandemic. The lockdowns gave everyone time to reflect, and hospitality saw a lot of movement, with people leaving the industry or taking the chance to embark on new projects. The Savoy was not immune to that.
“But this is in the past and we have built a strong team, welcoming back many talented colleagues and enrolling great new team members who bring additional energy and vision.”
Dorelli, who describes himself as “the godfather of British bartending”, said London was “just about still leading” the world for cocktails but that other cities, including Paris, Rome and Amsterdam, were catching up fast.
July 24, 2022 at 11:03AM Miranda Bryant