On Switching Careers and Opening a Bar with Marlene Thorne of Famous Last Words

If you live in Toronto, Marlene Thorne is a familiar face in the bartending world. She owns Famous Last Words located in the Junction in Toronto. She also seems to always be at every booze-related event in the city –  and if she is unable to make it, she’s sure to send one of her bartenders to be there. This woman wants to soak up all of the knowledge to be better and to help our industry become better. She is also a familiar face for Bartender Atlas as her and Lucas Twyman write our monthly Boozy Bookshelf instalment. When Marlene left a big corporate job to open her own bar, I am sure a lot of people around her were wondering just what the heck she was thinking! But she hasn’t looked back since. Blending the skills she learned from the corporate world with bartending and bar ownership has offered her a unique perspective. We just love her. We love her drive and we love her dedication to everything that she does. Marlene took some time to talk with us about how she ended up where she is today and all of the challenges that she has faced with switching her career and becoming a bar owner.

Bartender Atlas: When did you start working in bars?
Marlene Thorne: 
In the mid-90’s – I worked at the campus bar at Carleton and then a few places in the market in Ottawa.

BA: What style of bartending were you doing?
MT: “Style” might be a bit generous…it was 90% pouring draft beer and making gin and tonics, with an occasional cosmo thrown in to keep things interesting

BA: Before opening your bar, Famous Last Words, what were you doing as a career?
MT: I’d spent more than 15 years in the corporate world, most of it in marketing for large packaged goods companies. I also spent a year at Google, where I learned that selling advertising is not really my bailiwick.  

BA: What made you leave that to then become a bartender and bar owner? What was the appeal of bar ownership that drew you in?
MT: I got downsized after a corporate merger and decided to take some time to really think about what I wanted to do next. They encourage you to think about what you love to do and what makes you happiest…for me that was the cocktail catering I’d been doing for events at the companies I worked for. I was happiest when I was creating drink menus and making infusions and standing behind a bar (even though they were usually pretty makeshift), so I started to think about how I could build a career in hospitality. My first instinct was to ease into it…either get a job as a bartender, or create a catering company and work private events. But with my limited experience that was going to be harder than I thought. In some ways opening my own place seemed easier (which obviously I realize in retrospect was completely absurd), but I met with a successful bar owner through a friend who within 15 minutes of talking to me told me to just do it. I liked the idea of being my own boss and of building something tangible.

BA: How do you think your experience and skills with your past career have helped you in the bar industry?
MT: I think my background in business has been absolutely invaluable; building a business plan and managing the financials is so critical to being successful. I’ve launched a ton of products over the years – some more successful than others – so I also know that having a good concept is critical, but delivering a great product experience and making sure people know about it are pretty key. I’ve worked on a lot of teams and managed a lot of people over the years, so I understand how important it is to create a sense of professionalism and respect in order to build an environment where people want to contribute and grow.

BA: Famous Last Words is a book-themed bar. Why did you want to open a themed-bar and why books?
MT: I’ve been a huge book nerd my entire life. I was one of those kids whose favourite place in town was the library, and I just couldn’t ever have enough books around me. I didn’t really set out to open a “theme” bar, but when the idea of books and cocktails came together in my head it just seemed too perfect not to do it. It allows for so much creativity…coming up with new cocktails that are inspired by books is always an interesting challenge. And I love the idea that it’s a place where you can come and hang out with a book and a drink, even if you’re by yourself. It feels like a really approachable, comfortable space and it’s a great way to start a conversation with someone. Not everything is about books, of course; we’re also kind of music nerds, too. We’ve amassed quite a vinyl collection that we play every night and we had a band in for our one-year anniversary. It was so much fun that they’re coming back on the Saturday of the family day long weekend for a few sets.

BA: Besides being a bar, you also host a bunch of events. Tell us what those are.
MT: We have events for book lovers every Tuesday, like publishing industry nights, silent reading parties, book exchanges, our in-house drop-in book club…last month we had our first ever Book Bingo, and in February we’re doing romance trivia with the folks from Harlequin on the Tuesday before Valentine’s Day. We’ve recently started a theme night once a month with feature cocktails that are available for one night only; the “Books of Star Wars” and the “Cocktails and Shadow-Truths” (our Neil Gaiman tribute) have been pretty popular; this month on the 21st our theme is Canada Reads, so we’ll have a cocktail inspired by each of the shortlisted finalists. We host a monthly reading series called Junction Reads on the last Sunday of the month, and of course we have our cocktail classes!  Each one is themed around an author, a book or a literary aspect of cocktail culture, and we get to teach people how to measure, pour, shake and stir their own cocktails (with some interesting literary context and some good tips and tricks thrown in). We do a lot of private classes as well – bachelor or bachelorette parties, birthdays, or groups of friends just wanting to do something a bit more interesting together. The classes have been a huge hit; it’s so nice to see people really enjoying themselves while they learn something.

And it’s not really an event, per se, but one of our favourite things is our “Bring Your Book Club” promotion – in partnership with kobo books we make a charitable donation to Frontier College’s literacy programs, offer a discount on the bill and create a custom cocktail based on the theme of what the book club is reading.  It’s hugely popular and a lot of fun for us as bartenders (and book lovers). Occasionally we’ll have 3 or 4 book clubs all in at once – those are some of my favourite nights at FLW, when pretty much everyone in the place is talking about books!

BA: What were your biggest challenges at the beginning?
MT: Oh god, so many. I was basically useless behind the bar for the first couple of weeks. And we were so busy! I hadn’t ever really done any high-volume cocktail bartending, so I was so, so slow back there. It didn’t help that we had close to 50 drinks on our list. Thank god for the incredible pros on the team who carried me until I figured out which way was up. I also hadn’t dreamed how much would be involved in the day to day running of a bar – all the procurement, the social media, the data entry, the inventory…I was working at least 16 hours a day and was perpetually exhausted. I had no idea what services were available, so I was doing everything myself – like calculating payroll in a spreadsheet and writing cheques out by hand, while still working open to close at the bar six nights a week. I’m pretty sure I existed on spicy salsa and pure adrenaline.

BA: What do you wish that you knew about owning a bar before diving into it all?
MT: That somewhere around 90% of it is cleaning! Kidding aside, I wish I’d understood just how much work it would be. I was used to putting in long hours and being under a tremendous amount of pressure and stress at my previous jobs, but when it’s your own place and your own money it’s a completely different ball game. And I didn’t exactly think it was going to be glamorous, but I didn’t realize how many clogged toilets I’d have to plunge and how many frantic calls I’d have to make to the glass washer repair guy. When you’re the owner, the buck stops with you – you have to be 100% committed to it to make it work and you can’t be afraid to get your hands dirty (figuratively and literally). And there is seriously so, so much cleaning.  

BA: Do you have any advice for those wishing to switch their career like you did?
MT: Leaving a stable and lucrative career to take a chance on opening a bar was completely out of character for me. But I loved the feeling when someone tasted one of my drinks and raved about it; it made me so happy to know that I’d created something that someone else enjoyed. And I still get a rush some days when I walk into FLW or when I look around on a busy night and every seat is full, knowing that the place only exists because I dreamed it up and turned it into reality. So if there’s something that you know would make you happier than what you’re doing, go for it. Life is too short not to do what you love. That said, make sure you understand your motivation and how it might affect other aspects of your life. I’m very lucky to have a supportive partner who has come to terms with the fact I work every weekend, never cook anymore and can’t drop everything to head off on a spontaneous vacation like we used to, but that was definitely an adjustment.

BA: What about any advice for anyone wishing to own their own bar?
MT: First of all, figure out why you want to do it. What are you motivated by? If it’s money, there are much, much, much easier ways to make a living. If it’s glamour, do I have news for you! But if it’s because you have a great idea and you want to create something and you’re willing to work your ass off and keep working your ass off, then do it.  

If nothing else, make sure you:

  • Understand what your place has to offer that makes it unique (what will make people want to spend their money at your establishment rather than the one down the street?) and how you’re going to let people know about it
  • Build a realistic, sustainable business plan (I can’t stress that enough – read the article in Toronto Life about that guy who ruined his life by opening a restaurant and learn from it: opening a bar is expensive and will always cost way more and take much longer than you think)
  • Surround yourself with people whose skill sets complement yours
  • Have a vision, and see it through – people will give you advice, whether you’ve solicited it or not, so you’ll need to decide what you’re going to take on board and what you’re going to outright ignore

And once the place is up and running:

  • Don’t take your eye off the ball and don’t rest on your laurels; you should always strive to be better than you were the day before.  People are coming to you for an experience (or otherwise they’d just drink at home), so figure out how to consistently deliver a great experience.
  • Take the long view: it takes time for patterns and trends to emerge, so you don’t want to make big changes based on one night or one week (or probably even one month). Test things out before committing to larger-scale changes, especially if they’re going to require capital.
  • Most importantly, understand that the people you hire will be your biggest asset or your biggest liability. They are the face of your business, and if you’re doing it right, they’ll also become its heart and soul.  They will be a huge part of why people come back – or don’t. So create a culture of respect and professionalism and fun. Give them an opportunity to share their ideas and be creative, and let them know their contributions are valued.  And make sure they’re people you actually want to hang out with…after all, they’re the ones who’ll have your back when you’re in the weeds on busy nights and the only thing standing between you and abject boredom on slow ones.  

 

Marlene, thank you for taking the time to talk to us (in between all of your cleaning – haha!). 🙂


Jessica Blaine Smith
Co-creator at Bartender Atlas
Jessica co-created Bartender Atlas with her bartender husband Josh Lindley. She is a full-time photographer based in Toronto, Canada. In her professional life, she documents the lives of others. Her camera has taken her all over this beautiful world from Cuba to Trinidad to France to New Zealand and Australia. While not a bartender herself, she definitely loves a strong cocktail, preferably one that is brown and/or smokey. She also loves poutine, pilates, other peoples' children and, of course, sitting at all of your bars.
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