CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Regan Onikama, owner, director and instructor at Bartending Academy Inc., kept a sharp eye last week on Rio Martell's drink level. "Bartenders make it look easy, but it's harder than it looks," he said.
Belly up to bartending school
A graduate of Hawaii's oldest liquor academy is now calling the shots
HONOLULU'S 24-year-old Bartending Academy Inc., Hawaii's oldest bartending school, is under new management.
Regan Onikama bought the academy this month from its original owners, the Reb'll family, for an undisclosed sum.
An academy graduate, Onikama isn't that much older than the business, and has been able to drink legally for just less than eight years. Onikama also graduated from Mid-Pacific Institute and the University of Hawaii, with a finance degree.
Now the owner, director and instructor of Bartending Academy, Onikama was 9 years old when Hawaii's minimum drinking age changed from 18 to 21 on Oct. 1, 1986. Servers can be 18, however, and he started tending bar at 19.
The soon-to-be-29-year-old also owns Innovative Mortgage Solutions Inc., an independent mortgage brokerage in Honolulu.
Onikama was one of Bank of Hawaii's billion-dollar babies, a member of the team that first hit the $1 billion mark writing residential mortgages in Hawaii in 1998.
As Bankoh restructured, many members of the team, along with Onikama, broke off to form and join Hawaii HomeLoans, which was purchased by Central Pacific Bank last year.
Prior to the acquisition, he went off on his own because the timing was right, he said.
Onikama had been writing mortgage loans by day and wielding drinks by night, first at the former Kahala Mandarin Oriental Hotel and then at Sansei Seafood Restaurant & Sushi Bar, but he quit bartending to start his own mortgage company.
"I go out and find the best rate I can for my clients. I'm not tied down to any specific lender or any specific rate, for that matter," he said.
Rick Reb'll had been running the school and "he wanted to move on to other things," Onikama said. Rick and his father Richard "still help me out a lot," he said.
Pat Michelman, a 25-year industry veteran, is the school's other instructor.
Onikama and Michelman teach a two-week program two times a month throughout the year, for tuition of $450, plus tax, which covers instruction and materials.
CURRICULUM includes bar set-up and equipment, fundamentals of liquor, art of mixology, speed pouring, liquor laws, customer service and cash-register management.
There is room for up to eight students in each class and summers are the school's busiest season, he said. Classes are taught from 10 a.m. to noon, or 7 to 9 p.m.
"The last night class had eight students and our current day class has five students," Onikama said.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Regan Onikama, owner, director and instructor of Bartending Academy Inc. on Beretania Street, talked with Camie Jirschele last week while Rio Martell mixed a practice drink.
Students who successfully complete the course receive a bartending certificate the school says is internationally recognized and qualifies them for employment. Then, bartenders are required to undergo additional server training and registration with the Honolulu Liquor Commission.
Bartending Academy provides internships and on-the-job-training as well as lifetime job-placement assistance for graduates.
Some alumni are working at Sansei, Tsunami's King Street Cafe, Paradise Cove, Oahu Country Club, Punawai Lounge at the Ocean Resort Hotel and Centerplate, the Aloha Stadium concessionaire.
WHILE NOT specifically endorsing the Bartending Academy, Dale De Groff, director of beverage arts at Halekulani and a world-renowned mixologist, believes training is key for any profession.
"You get out of it what you put into it. Do you want to be a beer-and-shot bartender, or do you want to make a soufflé? Where do you want to go with this?"
Bartending was a noble profession in the 19th century, De Groff said, as politicians, bar owners and bartenders were contemporaries and important decisions were made in pubs, or public houses.
Prohibition "damn-near destroyed the profession of bartending," he said. From about 1912 to 1932, a generation of people did not consider bartending honorable work, because the speakeasies in which prohibited alcohol was sold were run by criminals.
When Prohibition ended, "being a bartender was no longer acceptable, the skill level was low, and in an environment like this, short cuts were needed," such as sweet and sour mix, De Groff grumbled.
"The customer suffered, the quality of the drinks plummeted because of all the crap in them," he said.
He's big on fresh lemon and lime juice as basic bar ingredients, and high-quality ice that doesn't melt quickly. He has been quoted in national publications, such as Gourmet magazine, on the topic of ice. "I've been a fanatic about that," he said. De Groff has had special ice makers installed at Halekulani, where he regularly teaches seminars.
De Groff's start in the hospitality and restaurant industry came as a dishwasher at a Howard Johnson's in New York City in the 1970s. He became a waiter and in 1976 "got a job as a bartender by lying," he laughed.
Bartending "is sort of the forgotten profession in the hospitality industry," he said. "The bartender is always the last person hired, the bar is the least thought of ... it's sort of allowed to take care of itself, which is wrong, of course."
"Those days are rapidly coming to an end, because the emphasis is back on fresh, classic, well-made and interesting cocktails," De Groff said.
Due to public demand, owners are scrambling to find out how to upgrade bar service, he said.
De Groff counts restaurant industry legend Joe Baum among his mentors.
"He is one of the guys who took us out of the meat-and-potatoes-and-iceberg-lettuce-days of the 1950s," De Groff said.
HE WAS instrumental in the founding of the Four Seasons restaurant, where the cuisine changed with the seasons to reflect seasonal availability of ingredients, "which we hadn't done since we were an agrarian society," De Groff said.
De Groff and four partners, also industry experts, have established Beverage Alcohol Resource LLC -- or BAR, not to put too fine a point on it -- to extend America's decades-old culinary revolution to the distilled spirits and mixology industries.
"These two interconnected worlds still lack an authoritative source of knowledge and an accredited credentialing body," the New York-based company Web site says.
BAR's two-day beverage fundamentals course at $1,750, or equivalent knowledge, is a prerequisite for its 12-week intermediate certificate course or its four-day Certified Beverage Professional intensive intermediate course. The tuition for those is $3,000.
BAR also plans traveling classes.
Bartending Academy is not as high-falutin or hoity-toity, "but it gives (students) an edge," Onikama said. "It gives them a leg up on the competition as far as them getting a base of knowledge."
"Bartenders make it look easy, but it's harder than it looks," he said.
Employers will provide additional training, according to their style of bar service, "but at least they have that base knowledge," Onikama said.
While the Reb'lls were eager to sell the school to someone who would continue their vision, Onikama has also created an additional service, geared toward the industry.
Bartending Academy's consulting service is new and as yet untried.
Onikama would observe a bar's operation for a week, point out what is being done right and what areas could use improvement. "We're not trying to say, 'We know more than you guys,' " he said.
The consultation might result in complex corrections or simple steps, such as more careful pouring for truer measures and better inventory control, or say, moving the garnish supply to increase efficiency.
"What we want to do with the consulting side is have the bars reach their potential," Onikama said. "The bottom line is to have the bar make more money."