Everyone thought Cedd Moses had lost his mind when he used his life savings to open 10 bars in struggling downtown Los Angeles. Not only would those venues help lift the communities around them, they’d go on to set a new standard for bars in LA, setting the stage for one of the greatest bar success stories in American history. Moses attributes this remarkable success to one thing, Pouring with Heart.
In this love letter to the bar world, Moses shares the secrets of what it truly means to be of service, pulling back the curtain on the magic a guest feels when in the presence of a bartender they love. Pouring With Heart demolishes the myth of bartending as a dead-end gig by using data and decades of experience to break down what it takes to cement a legendary career behind the bar. Here’s my conversation with Cedd Moses.
This is The Author Hour Podcast, I’m your host Benji Block and today, we’re honored to be joined by Cedd Moses, he’s just released a new book. The book is titled, Pouring with Heart: The Essential Magic Behind the Bartenders We Love. Cedd, thanks so much for joining us here on Author Hour today.
Cedd Moses: Thank you, Benji. Excited to be here.
Benji Block: Absolutely. Your book is exciting and you outline a lot of your story— which is a wild one— that I’m excited to get into here in a minute but maybe let’s start here. Just tell us a little bit about where you’re at these days and what led to wanting to write this book in this season of your life?
Cedd Moses: Right now, I’m the Chief Vision Officer for a company called Pouring With Heart. We named ourselves after the practice and that we talk about in this book that really helps build regulars in your bars. We’re growing rapidly, we’re one of the largest bar groups in the country and we’re on a mission to build 2,030 careers by 2030 in the bar business.
Benji Block: Wow.
Cedd Moses: Yeah, it’s exciting! We’ve dealt with some obstacles this last year with the pandemic but we’re still on track and really excited about the future of building careers for tons of folks.
Benji Block: I love that vision. With a vision that size, that keeps you busy, what makes writing a book in the midst of all of this the right thing to do?
Cedd Moses: Well, it’s really— I found my purpose and reason for living in this business and building careers for fellow misfits, that’s what I call them.
Benji Block: Yeah, I love it.
Cedd Moses: Yeah, I’m a misfit. I just love bars and I love— I don’t want to work in [a] traditional American nine-to-five job, be told what I need to wear to work and how I need to wear my hair and whether or not I have tattoos or not.
Benji Block: Right.
Cedd Moses: I love the bar business because it’s full of characters and people that really don’t want to work in a nine-to-five, [who] want to be themselves and I want to build careers for those folks because they’re a lot like me, which makes it really fun to come to work every day, building careers and setting up these people up for success. Currently, we have about 400 people that we built careers for, so you can see we’re working to grow five times our size in the next eight to nine years.
Benji Block: Amazing.
Cedd Moses: We have aggressive goals but we are on a mission. Writing this book was kind of an outpouring of that feeling. I just had it internally and I just needed to write a book about this because I’m so excited about building careers for folks in the funnest business there is, in my mind.
Benji Block: As someone who does not work in that industry, this book is still extremely fascinating and was really fun to pick up. Your idea of the reader is what, that misfit that wants to work in that industry, right?
Cedd Moses: Yeah, ideally, somebody that’s thinking about it, thinks that might be a fun way to go, but I also want to break some of the myths about the business. But it’s also written for people that are currently in the business and maybe not feeling fulfilled, not hitting their goals in the business. So, with my experience over the last 25 years and building, making tons of mistakes, and learning along the way, I want to share what I’ve learned and the magic I found in the business with those folks so hopefully, they can find more fulfillment and more success as well.
Finding the Magic and Falling in Love
Benji Block: Yeah, that shines through in the book. It’s not hard to fall in love with going to the bar, I’m in love with that part, right? You’ve been in love with the bar world, behind the scenes, the people, the business for a long time and so I just want to ask, what originally sparked that interest in you?
Cedd Moses: Well, I think I‘d worked in traditional jobs and I really wasn’t fulfilled at work and I ended up hating my job, didn’t feel appreciated with the people I worked with, just never felt fulfilling so I’d spend all my off time going to bars and closing down bars and hanging with the characters in bars and I felt bars and bartenders were some of the only people [and places] I could hang with and just be myself and be appreciated for who I was.
That’s hard to find in society today. I started up a bar with some friends just as kind of a side project and really fell in love with it, fell in love with the business side of it and the people. I think those people really changed me and made me a more outgoing, fulfilled person in my life.
Benji Block: That first bar is Golden Gopher?
Cedd Moses: The first one I did was with a buddy called Liquid Kitty.
Benji Block: Okay.
Cedd Moses: Back in 1996. That was how I kick-started it, yeah, but then later I went on a mission to build 10 bars in downtown LA with what was then Skid Row and the first one down there I did was called the Golden Gopher and that’s where I really kind of found myself in the business.
Benji Block: Take me back to Liquid Kitty real quick because I think Golden Gopher might be one that more people are familiar with. What did you learn there that then translated into this vision that becomes the long term, “We’re going to start 10 bars down here”? And obviously, it’s grown far beyond that. What did you learn in that initial Liquid Kitty phase that turns into more down the road?
Cedd Moses: Well, I made a lot of mistakes. I hadn’t really found the magic in the business, I was drinking too much, partying too much and making a lot of mistakes but was still successful despite that. I couldn’t believe the success that I had right off the bat and— we had, with an old high school buddy, and I learned a lot about what not to do, that’s for sure.
Benji Block: Sometimes that’s the best way to learn.
Cedd Moses: Yeah, but was successful despite that but later on, I fell in love with downtown LA and I knew I had to quit my former job when I fell in love with the bar business and went on a mission to build 10 bars on Skid Row. I really had to get my shit together, so to speak, and so I took what I learned from Liquid Kitty and set off on an ambitious goal to build 10 bars, really discovered kind of the magic and to the business along that ride.
Benji Block: People didn’t think you were crazy at all, right? To try to start this on Skid Row?
Cedd Moses: Oh my god, people thought I’d lost my mind, and just doing one bar downtown at the time was considered just insane because downtown was just so dangerous back then. It had the highest murder rate in the United States. Anybody that worked downtown got the hell out of there as soon as the sun went down.
Benji Block: Yeah.
Cedd Moses: It was just not considered safe, it was not considered a place to go for nightlife at that time, back in around 2000, 2002, but there was so much potential. All these amazing buildings and old dive bars, the bones were so great it just drew me to these buildings, and I knew if I could open 10 bars, I could really change the city and make downtown a destination again for people to go out.
Benji Block: Cedd, are you the type of personality that when someone tells you, you can’t do something, it fuels you and makes you want to do it even more? Or when someone would kind of laugh off this idea of starting 10 bars, was it scary to you? Did you start feeling imposter syndrome? What’s the feelings you were getting when people were doubting the success of this idea?
Cedd Moses: I think it gave me even more fuel because I really believed in it.
Benji Block: I love that.
Cedd Moses: [I believed in it] so deeply but when people were second-guessing me, I just added fuel to the fire that was burning deep inside me to do it and pull it off and somehow, we did, and it really changed— helped change downtown LA at the time.
Benji Block: I got to read the Golden Gopher cocktail recipe— this was in the LA Times they printed in the newspaper for opening night. The ingredients for Golden Gopher, one crack infested, rundown building with a rare liquor license, $500,000 cash investment, three crazy owners wanting to open in a neighborhood of drug dealers and pimps, one insane designer wanting to rip the roof from 20% of the building, one badass bar staff, 90 cases of booze.
That is quite the ingredient for starting something. The vision there. I mean, talk about that bar because it had, what? A hundred years of history? But it was at the lowest of lows.
Cedd Moses: It really was. I’d been there 10 years previously to walking back in there when I decided to buy it with my buddy, and it was just a completely different bar. It had been overtaken by the 18th Street gang, which was the most dangerous gang downtown at the time. I mean, it was— the walls were kicked in, smelled of— the smell was so foul that you couldn’t – it smelled like a crime scene or an open sewer basically.
It was in really rough shape but it had so much great history. I mean, Teddy Roosevelt apparently rode down on horseback at the opening of this bar in 1905.
Benji Block: That’s a good story.
Cedd Moses: I just love old bars and the history and you can feel the characters and the souls that have drank there in the past. Charles Wachowski used to hang there and drink there, it was legendary. It was a legendary place so I was just in love with it, so we did everything we could to take it over and fortunately was able to work out a deal with the landlord and pick over that building but it was in dire straits, it was begging for mercy, is what I talked about in the book.
Pouring With Heart
Benji Block: Well, let’s get at what this book gets at, which is this idea of pouring with heart and I want to quote you here as we dive into some of this. You said, “The magic you feel in a bar comes from the bartenders, pouring with heart inside it. We were lucky to discover this at Golden Gopher.” Talk to me about what that means, what’s the DNA, this mantra of pour with heart?
Cedd Moses: Yes, it’s something I discovered along the way that when building the Golden Gopher and we basically had to take over a bar that had no business, it was just a front for selling crack out of the bar, the bartender was putting the money in his own wallet and the owners were making illegal drug deals. There was no built-in business and downtown was dangerous and nobody wanted to go out at night so we had to figure out how to turn this bar around.
At the time, my first priority was to survive and make sure that my staff survived and were safe, so that’s what we focused on and along the way, we learned that that diversity and our instinct of survival is what made the bar successful because it brought us together to become family and to look out for each other in a big way. I remember the first day, I was just talking to my team like, “We have to have each other’s backs. We have to. Anybody that doesn’t have everyone else’s back on this team is off the team because somebody is going to get hurt.”
And at the time, we were getting death threats from the gang that we’ve taken over the bar from. It was sketchy but that bond that we built by looking out for each other and having each other’s back every day, there is no hierarchy. There is no— everyone was brothers and sisters and we just all were in it together to survive and look out for each other and then we translated that onto our customers when they started coming in.
It was just a magic that fueled the success of that bar. Within a year, that bar was packed and full of regulars and people that were diehard fans that couldn’t imagine going to any other bar.
Benji Block: Cedd, when adversity is driving success I get that. I think across industries that definitely shows itself to be true. I wonder as you’ve seen momentum, as you’ve seen success, how have you continued to create that environment of Pouring with Heart?
Cedd Moses: Well, we’ve really made it our mantra, and researching this book, I actually researched the science behind why it works as well and I bring that up in the book. But as a company and as a bar group, we’ve really— that is really our mantra, and we even named our book after it and my company after it because it’s so important and critical to driving successful and driving regulars through our bar and driving a great culture within the bar, but I don’t want to give away all the secrets—
Benji Block: That’s fair.
Cedd Moses: On this podcast but it really is the magic ingredient that we’ve discovered and based on the title of the book, the reason that people fall in love with the magic that bartenders drive regulars to the bar with and the reason that customers really fall in love with their bartenders and want to go back to a bar.
Benji Block: Yeah, explain to me the difference and you do such a good job in the book of the difference between hotspots and heart, right?
Cedd Moses: Right. That idea that sometimes bartenders were— and everyone assumes that successful bars are the ones that are the trendiest and the hottest bar in town and so forth, but I’ve learned along the way that that really isn’t a sign of long-term success. The trendy spots they come and go. Night clubs, for example, tend to be a little more trendy and have to stay relevant and hip and so forth. Whereas a bar’s long-term success, I’ve discovered, is built on is building regulars and being authentic and being there for customers, and really drawing people back that want to be at the bar.
Benji Block: When you think of the characteristics of those types of bartenders that are drawing those kinds of people back, but you call them “legends” in the book, what do you think creates a great bartender?
Cedd Moses: Well, my evidence shows it’s bartenders that pour with heart and that it’s not just based on a great cocktail. Anybody can, with a great recipe in their hands and some practice can make a great cocktail, but the bartenders that actually pour with heart, take individual care with each customer and listen to the customers and are there for the customers and put their heart and soul into serving that customer, those are the people that are going to draw back regulars and those, in my mind, are the best bartenders.
Building Community and Culture
Benji Block: For those looking to get their foot in the door, looking to jump into this, any tips there?
Cedd Moses: Any tips? Yeah. The book is kind of riddled with. In the book, you really start your career as a bartender as a bar back, which is really kind of a bartender’s apprentice-type position.
Benji Block: Okay.
Cedd Moses: It’s a tough job but you really learn all the chops, all the tools that you’ll need to be successful as a bartender from there, working as an apprentice under another good bartender. You know, it’s tough work but you’re sharing the tips and you really, within a year or two, you’re ready to take on a bartender job and as long as you are pouring with heart and know the cocktail recipes, you’re going to be successful, in my mind.
Benji Block: One of the things I find interesting about your story, Cedd, is that you decide this vision of building a number of bars all in proximity together. Some would look at that and go, “Okay, that’s kind of a detrimental vision, because these bars are going to take customers from each other”, so you had to be very strategic in different offerings and making these things unique. What is sort of your favorite part of that ideation process and how did you go about that creative journey?
Cedd Moses: Well, I have done a lot of research, R&D, so to speak. My friends tease me about it, “Your R&D sounds a lot more fun than our R&D” because I have traveled all over the world to bars and distilleries and studied drinking cultures around the world and there are certain bar districts that are really successful throughout the world and LA at that time really didn’t have a great bar district, so to speak— an area where you could just bar hop from bar to bar and to pay no cover charge and make a night of it so that you don’t say you’re really going out to one specific bar.
You say you’re going to a bar district and from there, you just hop from spot to spot and find where you want to hang for the night and in LA we didn’t really have that.
My vision was to build a bar district, build a community of bars that were all individually different, but all offered opportunity where everyone’s welcome, there is no cover charge, all serving good, specialized drinks and a staff that was pouring with heart there for their customers was the vision that kind of started to drive our success. Once we created that location, now downtown LA is the biggest nightlife destination in the city of Los Angeles.
Benji Block: Yeah.
Cedd Moses: It is a big turnaround from where we started but it really just— you know, when people feel welcome and there’s other options and it’s a community of fun bars to go out to, bars and restaurants, restaurants eventually came into the area as well, it drives people into it because you’re looking to go out and have a good time.
Benji Block: In your R&D experience, best bar hop districts that you’ve been to outside of LA, what are a couple?
Cedd Moses: Oh my god, there are so many.
Benji Block: Just a couple that come to mind.
Cedd Moses: Well, Ireland, trying to remember the name of the district there, but there is a district in Dublin that’s got the most bars per block that I am familiar with. I mean, every block has got— half the block is bars and it’s just bar-hopping central in Dublin, and Ireland anyway has just a great drinking culture in general. People are so welcoming, such a great sense of humor, you just can’t help but have a great time. So, that’s one of the great drinking cultures I think around the world.
Within the United States, I mean New Orleans has just got an amazing drinking culture. Amazing bars down there, amazing history, and a timeless, that timeless feeling that feels like the bars have been there forever and are going to stand the test of time and be there forever, despite any pandemic that comes along. The New Orleans bars always seem to come out of any kind of disaster and thrive once again. It’s just such a great drinking culture down there and such great people.
Those are just a couple of good examples, but every major metropolitan city generally has a good bar district. But, at the time LA didn’t have one, so we were just kind of providing that platform for people to go out and have a good time and feel safe and—
Benji Block: It paid off.
Cedd Moses: Yeah. Yeah, it did. It worked out but now, we have a much bigger vision that’s really about building, building them out across the country and now we’ve been entering into other cities and had a lot of success in those cities as well.
Benji Block: Yeah, paint a picture for me. We’ve kind of talked 20 years in the past, let’s look forward 20 years. What are you hoping for, imagining, dreaming up? As we start to conclude, I’d love for you to paint that picture of what you hope to see both of what you’re building in bars and general, kind of in your space.
Cedd Moses: All our goals are set on building careers for people in this bar business, in the bar business. The number of bars, we look at the money that we make in our business as fuel for building more careers and to build more careers, we’re going to need to build more bars. In order to get to 2,030, we have to make— we’re going to have another 140, 150 bars by 2030, which sounds insane, right? But we’re on a mission to do it.
Benji Block: Ambitious.
Cedd Moses: Yeah, we find there’s opportunities everywhere and now, my company, the passion, and the amazing people that are in it are so fired up within our culture to build this, I mean, they are almost doing it without me now. It’s incredible that people are just so motivated and we’re spreading out throughout the country and building careers for more misfits and it’s been a blast.
In the next 10, 20 years we’ll have— we hope to have— being about 20, 24 markets and have thousands of careers that’s we’ve built. And also hope that we can make a dent on having a better culture in bars in general, other proprietors looking out for their people in a better way and more people pouring with heart means more happy faces every day and every evening too. So, we think we can make an impact on the world in general.
Benji Block: Cedd, it’s been such an honor to talk with you. I’m sure there are going to be those that want to stay connected to the work that you guys are doing, how can people do that?
Cedd Moses: If they’re interested in opportunities with us, go to www.pouringwithheart.com.
We’re looking to hire folks and create more careers for more people. You know, I think that’s got to be the most exciting way to stay in touch with us, join[ing] us in building this vision across the country.
Benji Block: Well again, the book is, Pouring With Heart: The Essential Magic Behind the Bartenders We Love. You can get it on Amazon today. Cedd Moses, thank you so much for joining us on Author Hour.
Cedd Moses: Thank you so much. Take care.