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Behind the Bar: Kacie Shortridge / Laura Lee's

Behind the Bar, RichmondBrandon DayComment

Despite being a newer addition to Virginia's thriving dining scene, Laura Lee's is no spring chicken. Under ownership of restauranteur extraordinaire Kendra Feather, Laura Lee's is set to take southside Richmond by storm. While Laura Lee's summons a number of inspirations for its concept and ambiance, the real magic lies in the execution of its bar menu and offerings.

You can thank Kacie Shortridge for Laura Lee's delightfully unique and honest cocktail menu. A veteran of another Kendra creation, the award-winning Roosevelt, Kacie brought her expertise and creativity to develop Laura Lee's bar program. In a world full of a million iterations of Manhattans, Kacie isn't afraid of being more an Uptown Girl... or an Uptown Squirrel, which coincidentally is a cocktail right off her menu.

Tell us about yourself…

I'm Kacie, and I head up the bar program at Laura Lee's, Kendra Feather's newest restaurant in Forest Hill.

How long have you been bartending?

I've been bartending for over a decade. At first, it all happened by just helping friends out that were in a bind at different dive bars here and there. Initially, I liked the money that came from it and the crazy environment that surrounded it all. Later, I found an appreciation for making a solid cocktail and expanding my knowledge of the history that comes with being a bartender.

What’s your favorite thing to drink? Any guilty pleasure drinks?

I love a good Negroni. They are perfectly bitter and make me feel all warm & fuzzy inside. My guilty pleasure? A Bigroni - that's a double Negroni.

Outside of work, what do you find yourself doing?

I spend most of my time striving to be as loving and excited about life as my dog Nico.

Tell us about your bar… 

The bar at Laura Lee's is very feminine and warm. That was Kendra's vision from the start, and that is what inspired me to be a part of it. She envisioned a modern-day version of the fern bar.

For those of us who aren't so hip, what's a fern bar?

The "fern bar" was a movement that started in the late 1960s and continued well into the 1980s. Fern bars looked like someone's living room and had a much more laid-back atmosphere than their preexisting counterparts. The standard decorations in fern bars were beautiful Tiffany lamps and, as the name suggests, live ferns. Beyond just the ambiance, the fern bar was important because, for the first time in modern American culture, women were joining men behind the bar. As a result, women slowly trickled in as customers as well.

Why were fern bars so important in bringing women into the bar and cocktail scene? 

Prior to the rise of fern bars, it was illegal in most states for women to bartend, and women weren't welcome in the local pubs. I used to bartend while I lived in California, where women were officially barred from "pouring whisky" as late as 1971. If women weren't barred from the bar scene legally, they were socially at least.  Once fern bars brought women in and behind the bar, the newly introduced feminine energy began to balance out the bar scene.

Along with the change in clientele, there was an addition of new, fruity cocktails to the menu. This is where classics like the Harvey Wallbanger and the Lemon Drop originated. These new options were easier on the palate and not so boozy, and began the movement of breaking away from Prohibition Era speakeasies and the dark taverns that preceded them. Fern bars still had scotch and whiskey, but they offered a lighter alternative to drinking.

What’s the vibe at your bar?

Even though we are a new addition to the area, we have a lot of fantastic regulars already. We have a lot of good-looking groups of ladies coming in to grab a drink, so it's great to see the fern bar feel is thriving. And where there are good-looking ladies, the rest will follow... Seriously though, it's been great to see that our bar is a welcoming environment across the board.

What’s the neighborhood and bar crowd like?

I live in this neighborhood and I love it over here! There are a lot of young families and a huge artist community here that some folks don't know about. Everyone is really involved with the community and cares about what's happening. Our bar has attracted a lot of neighborhood folk who are likeminded and laid-back. They all are lovely to talk with and they have been so supportive as we settle in and get our bearings.

Another interesting part of fern bar history - because the atmosphere of the fern bar was brighter and more welcoming, it became the first of the "neighborhood bars", where there was something for everybody. All of this history heavily inspired and influenced the program at Laura Lee's. Through the bar program, I have a little something for everyone and try my best to make the menu approachable and light.

What’s your favorite part about working there?

I'm happy to be a part of something new for this neighborhood. People have seemed very receptive and excited, and that makes me want to work as hard as I can to keep things fresh and interesting.

Back to you…

What are your thoughts as a woman working now in the modern bar and cocktail culture? Are things different?

Women have most definitely made a strong name for themselves behind the bar, and there's no going back. In my own experience, women bring nurturing attitude and fluid energy behind the bar, more so than men alone. Of course, my absolute favorite is a mix of both masculine and feminine energies working together. When a man and woman can hold down a bar together, I feel like everyone instantly becomes more relaxed. There is something for everyone's comfort level and it eliminates that feeling of disparity between the two.

Women patrons have also been a huge part of the current cocktail movement. Today, you'll always find women right there in line to taste the next boozy concoction you've crafted and they are more than willing to tell you if it's balanced or not. It's awesome to see women take ownership over that knowledge and to become experts in the field.

As far as some people still living in the past, I've pretty much heard it all over the years. Sexist comments still get made and I don't think it's going away anytime soon. If it's in our society, it's going to be in our bars as well. Not too long ago, a man said to me, "You make a pretty good bourbon drink for a woman." Um... thanks?

Not only is your cocktail program pretty fantastic - it’s also intelligent and quippy. How do you go about naming your cocktails?

There's a few inside jokes here and there that I like to slip in, but most of the cocktails were named right before we opened the doors. I had thought about all of the cocktail recipes for so long, I forgot about actually naming them. In a delirious state, Michael Smith, the General Manager, and I named them. He has helped me ever since.

What personality traits or skill sets make for a great bartender?

I honestly think that a welcoming and warming smile goes a really long way, no matter what. I will still tip really well on a bad drink or slow service if the bartender has an awesome personality. When I'm behind the bar, I just try to be friendly and do my best to help them unwind. If there was one thing that I've always wanted to be better at, it would be to tell a killer joke. I just can never remember the punchlines to save my life.

What is it like developing a cocktail program for a brand new bar?

Developing a cocktail list for a brand new bar was intimidating and a lot of fun at the same time. I would definitely say that the hardest part of the process was not getting our ABC license until the day before we opened the doors. I had so many ideas that had to magically come together at the last minute. No sleep, lots of drinking, and nerves galore...

Name two things that are staples found on your bar.

Gold spray paint and Gumby. One's useful, one is for good luck.

Can you share a Belle Isle creation with us?

My Belle Isle cocktail is called the Dirty Bird. It's a play on a drink that came out of the 70s called the Jungle Bird. Instead of using rum, I used Belle Isle Cold Brew Coffee and I spiced up my simple syrup with some ginger! When I first tried it, I fell in love with it for the combination between bitter and tropical flavors.

The Dirty Bird

Ingredients:

  • 2 oz. Belle Isle Cold Brew Coffee
  • 1/2 oz. Campari
  • 2 oz. pineapple juice
  • 3/4 oz. fresh lime juice
  • 1 oz. ginger simple syrup*

Preparation:

Shake all ingredients, strain into a hurricane glass over ice, and garnish with your choice of tropical fruit.

Recipe by Kacie Shortridge

*Ginger simple syrup:

Allow 1 cup water, 1 cup sugar, and 1/2 cup peeled and chopped ginger to simmer for 30 minutes, then strain.

Photos by Joey Wharton