Badass Women in the Detroit Beer Industry: Sara Farmer .

by Courtney Burk of Batch Brewing

I sat down with Sara Farmer, the general manager and beer buyer of Checker Bar and Pop+Offworld in Cadillac Square, and shared industry stories over a delicious burger and pint of Bell’s Brewery’s Two Hearted.

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Your origin story— How did you find yourself working in the industry? 

I started serving at Sign of the Beef Carver when I was 16 years old. And I knew I wanted more money. I wanted to sell booze. So, when I turned 18 I went to Friday's in Southfield. I became one of the best servers and had been memorizing 5-10 drinks a week by writing them in my serving book and studying them every shift. I would learn all about the ingredients, where they came from, and memorize the recipes ounce by ounce. I would tip my bartenders out double and when I sold the drinks on my list that week they would let me make them. I was determined to be a bartender. Then, I told management if they didn't promote me I would quit. Thankfully they didn't call my bluff!

It was sometime in my late 20's that I reconsidered what I was doing with my life.

My family kept asking what I was doing with my life and when I was going to get a real job. I think that’s a common theme for those of us working in the industry. At the time I thought maybe it was time to “grow up” and had one of those moments – I had gone to Wayne State on an academic scholarship and studied environmental science and geology. I was only a dozen credit hours away from a double major, but I knew I was already living and doing what I wanted to do. So, I decided to get serious about my craft.

I started doing my own event bartending on the side. Weddings, parties, shows, you name it. I became serious about learning wines. When I worked for PGA National Resort and Spa, not only did we host the Honda classic but there was a members club there that had some really great people. Often members would get a bottle and give me a glass knowing I was studying, allowing me to further my education by both tasting and chatting about them.

I also competed whenever I could. Competitions are great for expanding your creativity and knowledge. Also, I've won some amazing prizes along the way. Hello, trip to Miami for 2. A stay at Fountaine Bleu, a private concert at Liv for 50 of us with FloRida, trips to New York, and California, money, and lots of booze. I also used them as networking events. The attendees often include liquor and beer reps, their bosses, owners, managers from local bars and restaurants, and top notch bartenders that are active in perusing a better bar scene.


What drew you to Detroit?

I think I was 22 when I first started working downtown. As a Detroit firefighter on injury, I was sent to community relations division, which was housed at the old headquarters (now the Detroit Foundation Hotel and Apparatus Room). Already a long time resident, I fell in love with my city all over again and it was the nightlife that had me head over heels.

I began working weekend nights at The Good Life Lounge. At that time the city wasn't what it is today and the economy was even worse. Then, the super bowl came to town. I'd never made money like that before. So, the following year I went where it went… to South Beach. I deposited so many one hundred dollar bills the week after Miami I didn't even notice one of them was fake. Thankfully, the F.B.I. investigation on my account proved me innocent, but I was out a hundred bucks.

Southern Florida was on another level when it came to bartending. I learned how to do some flair because it was pretty much a requirement on Ocean Ave. The trend of puckers and flavored vodkas was also coming to an end and the beginning of the resurgence of craft cocktails was beginning. I had done some mixology competitions in Michigan, but this was another level. And I soaked it all up. Spending most of my winters tending the gold coast and my summers back home a few blocks from Comerica Park.


Who’s been your greatest influence in the industry?

One of the most influential people in my career came into my life around this time, Heather Raye. She was the General Manager at Coaches Corner. She taught me how to throw a party! She also showed me how to create spreadsheets, write a schedule, and order beer and liquor. She introduced me to liquor reps and local police officers. She showed me how to run a security team.

The same holding company I worked for under her also owned many other businesses. So when I was promoted to manager, I was moved to another location - a gentlemen's club downtown called The Grind. I learned a lot more there. Probably more than most would care to know. Eventually though, I was moved back to Coaches Corner as their General Manager.


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What does an average day look like for you? Or what could a few days look like, since in this industry no two are the same?


For the last 4 years I have been at Checker Bar, right in the heart of downtown Detroit, where I am the bar manager. As a boss I wear many hats. Today for example, a pipe decided to start leaking and as soon as the pipe was fixed the computer system went down. I spent the next few hours getting that back up.

That’s nothing compared to what happened to me several years ago on opening day at coaches Corner though. You know how people say why do I need to learn all these complicated math equations? Well, I was glad I had paid attention in class. The end of opening day that we did around $50,000 worth of sales and the computers crashed. I spent the next four days in my own little hell. The data from the day was unable to be retrieved, literally none at all. So, the owners of the company told everyone to leave me alone while I figured it out. It was then that I found out what the Pythagorean Theorem and all the other, what I thought was mathematical nonsense, was actually for. And on day 5 had figured it all out and took a day off.


Speaking of days off, when you have one what are you up to?

So, on my days off I am conflicted. I love being at home with my pups. Hennessy is my oldest. She is a 3-year-old Mastiff. At around 120lbs, she is the biggest, sweetest lap dog I've ever had. I got her from a neighborhood guy who had puppies when she was 7 weeks old. She could fit inside a ball cap at that time. When I went to pick out which dog to take home with me she was sitting next to a bottle of Henn and had the exact same coloring. The name just stuck.

A year later I got another neighborhood dog. This time, a smart and sneaky German Sheppard pup that I swear is part fox. She’s similar coloring to Hennessey so she became Remy. And I do love cognac, but I'm really more of a whisky girl.

I live a few blocks from Belle Isle and my dogs love to swim, so often I'm there enjoying nature in the midst of a city not known for it. I also love people. I try to check out new venues and pay homage to the people that got me where I am today, my customers. I love the service industry and prefer working for places that cater to the everyday person. If you're trying to catch me on a bar stool and not behind the stick it's possibly at The Keep, Third Street, The Baltimore or the Well. 



Favorite beer at the moment?

I'm generally drinking beer so I don't chase my whisky with whisky. My current favorites are Batch Brewing’s Anton’s Animals (a kettle sour that is fermented with a Belgian witbier strain), Hitachino Nest white ale (A Belgian white ale, brewed in Japan, flavored with coriander, orange peel, and nutmeg), and of course it's Oberon season right now and I love me some Bell’s Brewery. Yes, I have a type. And yes, since I do the purchasing for Checker Bar and Pop+Offworld, you can find those there!

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Your favorite part of being a beer buyer?

This may be one of the favorite parts of my job… the samples. I love sitting down with my beer reps and nerding out on fun beer facts while we sip on cold ones. Though unfortunately, time often doesn't permit this, even if I schedule it on my day off. If I show up to work I'm subject to be putting out a fire somewhere. So, I really love when the reps drop off beers for me to sample at my leisure. Often that is at 4am while eating the dinner I intended to put in my mouth at 10pm, let get cold, and am thankful I remembered to get out of the fridge before I left work.


How many beers do you feature at Checker Bar and Pop+Offworld?

There are about 50 beers we carry in a can/bottle and 12 tap handles that repeat upstairs and down. I try to keep on that list a good mixture of styles and points of origin. Of course, there are quite a few Michigan beers because I'm from here and we're good at brewing beer. But I like to remember there's a whole world out there and lots of great beers. 

What challenges have you faced being a woman in the industry?

Women have different challenges from men. A bartender I work with every weekend is constantly approached as the person in charge. He will listen patiently to their problem and tell them they need to talk to me. The look of amazement on a lot of their faces is still amusing to us. Especially in those instances where I’ve cut them off and they want to go above my head. In the past I’ve also dealt with bosses that didn't believe women could run a business. You don't have to like me, but you will respect me. 

Just for fun, what’s your craziest industry experience?

A crazy lady broke a window and I thought it was an accident. I went out to get her info for insurance because where I worked would cover the costs and it was not the first time it happened in the lot. And then she swung at me. She got that first punch, then all my daddy taught me came in to play and she didn’t get a punch in after that.


Her boyfriend then jumped in. He didn’t lay a punch either and the police broke it up. Turns out my shoulder broke off my collarbone, later causing two blood clots in my lungs, giving me a 20% chance of living. Three months off of work and almost a month in the hospital with tons of physical therapy. I was almost healed and then I went fowling and I swear to you two days later my mobility in my arm got better. I’m not saying fowling can cure you, but at least you'll have fun doing it. 

 

Any advice for women in the industry?

Pro Tip: Every day is not a red lipstick kind of day.

Thanks, Sara!

Make sure to check out Checker Bar and Pop+Offworld in Cadillac Square. They’re two of our favorite relaxed spots in the city— burgers, beer, pizza, and games… what more could you want?