Q&A: Kiomi Gornik, Front of House & Bar Manager
Apr 13, 2022
Longtime bartender Kiomi Gornik parlays her 23 years of crafting cocktails and cultivating a clientele of loyal regulars into her new position as Front of House & Bar Manager at Dread River. She has assembled a team of talented bartenders and thoughtful servers built on trust, respect, honesty and support—and under her leadership, they are thriving and delivering exceptional service. And there's nothing that pleases her more as all of the preparation, hard work, and personalized service is most rewarding "when people leave the building beaming and thanking us for making their night perfect," she says, adding, "That’s why we do this." I sat down with Kiomi to talk shop about the bar, meaningful relationships with customers and coworkers, the restaurant industry as an art form, chiweenies, roller derby, and more. Meet Kiomi Gornik!
How did you get into the restaurant industry? Tell us a bit about your professional journey.
My highs-chool boyfriend’s mom was the accounting manager at the Tutwiler Hotel in the late ‘90’s, and since she did payroll, she saw how much the food-and-beverage department made, and encouraged me to try it! I started at a sports bar when I was 19, and 23 years later, here I am. I've tended bar at dive bars, sports bars, beach bars, sushi bars, historic hotels, modern hotels, casual dining, and some of the best fine-dining restaurants in the country. I came out from behind the bar to become manager at a high-end corporate steakhouse, but I don't think that was the right fit for me. When I was approached with this opportunity, I took it and haven’t looked back.
What makes a successful bar manager?
I’m still learning that! You have to be proactive and creative, be a good teacher, lead by example, develop relationships of mutual respect and trust throughout the entire team, and also be the hammer that comes down when someone isn’t pulling their weight. You have to be everywhere to support, see everything to correct, make sure everyone is on the same page, and sometimes pick your battles.
What is most challenging about your role?
All of the above.
The best part is knowing that you made someone’s day, or made their special day really unforgettable. We host a lot of private events where people are celebrating once-in-a-lifetime moments: engagement parties, 50th anniversaries, 50th birthdays, baby showers, bridal showers, bachelorette parties, you name it! We’ve gotten some really good feedback from our guest reviews both through OpenTable and social media, but the best is when people leave the building beaming and thanking us for making their night perfect. That’s why we do this. Also the relationships that I’ve formed over the years, both with coworkers and guests, I wouldn’t trade for anything.
What are the bad recommendations, misguided assumptions, myths, or terrible trends you see in the bartending? Bust the myths for us.
It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive to be good, and good is a relative term. Drink what you like unapologetically. Everyone has different preferences—that’s why there are so many different products out there. Not everything is for everyone.
Describe a cherished memory or memorable moment from your career.
I actually had a very heartwarming conversation a couple weeks ago that will stick with me for life. I got a call from one of my former regulars to catch up, as we haven't seen each other in a few years. For a long period of time, this gentleman would sit at my bar several nights a week and have dinner, a glass of wine, and maybe a scotch nightcap. He was my father’s age, a successful neurosurgeon and professor, but his wife had recently passed. We bonded pretty strongly, often crying on each other’s shoulders as he dealt with his grief, and I, my divorce. We became friends, and I’d even meet him for dinner sometimes on my night off. When he called me recently, he wanted to tell me that he was writing a book about his life, and I was the inspiration for one of the characters in his book. He told me I was one of five women in his life of almost 80 years, to have a strong positive impact. It was so gratifying to feel like I made a difference in someone’s life, just by doing what I do.
If you could go back 10 years, what advice would you give yourself?
Stop going out with your friends and coworkers after work every night, and save your money! [Laughs] I probably could have retired by now.
What is something that most people would be surprised to learn about you?
Before I started in the restaurant industry, I worked at Sears Auto Center in Fairfield. People were often surprised to see my 17-year-old blonde self coming out to check their batteries or tire tread! I know an absurd amount about tires, alignments, brakes, batteries, and alternators for a career bartender.
Also, everyone who knows me knows this, but new friends are always surprised to learn that I played roller-derby on the Birmingham team for five years. It was a very physically challenging hobby, but also very rewarding and empowering.
What do you like to do when not working?
When the weather is nice, I like to get out and hike or do something in the sunshine! If it’s cold or rainy, I might spend an entire day binge-watching some show on Netflix or Hulu or some such thing. It doesn’t even have to be a good show, it’s just there for mindless decompression. [Laughs] I also really enjoy cooking at home, trying new recipes or trying to recreate dishes I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing from some of the amazing chefs I’ve worked with over the years.
Do you have a mentor or role model, and if so, how have they influenced you or what have they taught you?
Probably the one bartender who sticks out in my mind as teaching me the most useful skills of technical and efficient bartending, as well as the other aspects of how to be a good bartender, is my old friend Eric. He taught me how to develop and maintain regulars, making them feel special, while making sure no other guest felt slighted. We worked together at Ocean restaurant in Birmingham in the early 2000s. Culinarily, working for Frank Stitt for over seven years taught me how to be passionate about good food, and enabled me to view this industry as a true art form, not just a job.
Any guilty pleasures?
[Laughs] Plenty! Spending a whole day binge-watching a show is one of them. Spending too much money on good food is another. I feel like we all deserve to enjoy a fabulous meal every now and then, and have someone else cook it and clean up! Getting my nails done every three weeks is the only girly pampering thing that I do. Shopping is only done out of necessity for me, not pleasure.
Favorite Birmingham spots, eateries or otherwise:
Birmingham has so many awesome places, it's really hard to pick. Probably because of the schedule I’ve been on my entire adult life, Marty’s will always have a soft spot in my heart. After a long night at work when you’re hungry and tired and maybe a little grouchy, it was always great to have a place to go to get a delicious burger or patty melt and not feel rushed to get out quickly because it's closing time. The challenge then became to get out before the sun came up! When Marty Eagle was still alive, he was always such a warm and welcoming face, and always willing to listen to the challenges of my day, as I had done with so many guests during my shifts.
Mornings are my quiet time. I don’t sleep very well, so I’m usually up way too early to be gung-ho about the long day ahead. I watch my birds at the feeder on my balcony, water my plants, play some solitaire or sudoku, read (or reread) a book.
Pets (type of animal + name):
My mom has custody of my dog, Reese, the chiweenie. He’s a chihuahua and dachshund mix. We adopted him and his sister, Ginger, when they were tiny pups, but it became quickly apparent that my current job did not allow time for caring for a puppy, so we let the siblings stay together at my parents house. They are 2½ years old now—and inseparable. I just pay the vet bills. Oh, and then there's my neighborhood birds. No vet bills required, but they sure eat a lot!
Superhuman power of choice?
I think telepathy would be incredibly useful. If we could just know what people are thinking and feeling, then we wouldn’t have to worry about communication breakdowns, trying to understand others who aren’t good at expressing themselves verbally, or even trust that someone is being honest. You would just know. Also teleportation, so I could be on time for once in my life!
Favorite travel destinations:
There's nothing like the beach! When I lived in Florida, I missed the topography of the hills, mountains, deciduous trees, and actual changing seasons—but I can never wait to get back to having my toes in the sand.
Inspirational motto or piece of advice you live by:
The noblest art is that of making others happy. – P.T. Barnum
And the serenity prayer. One of the servers at Bottega wrote the serenity prayer on a slip of paper to give to me. I kept for years in my tip jar. It helped me get through a lot of hard nights!