Interview with San Francisco Rising Star Bartenders Mo Hodges & Brian Felley of Benjamin Cooper

by Sean Kenniff
June 2016

Sean Kenniff: How did you get your start? 
Mo Hodges:
I'm from outside Philly but lived in Denver for 7 years before moving to San Francisco 4 years ago. Did work-study job in college, banquet bartending and pouring wine. I studied metal sculpture at Elizabethtown University near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. 

SK: What was your first formative bartending experience? 
MH:
When I moved to Denver, I was kinda kicking around and ended up bartending with a guy named Justin Watson—who's now in the oil business—but he taught me the dance. He showed me how to handle people when I was a 23 year old punk; he gave me the chops. Then I worked at Vita, and did some forward thinking cocktails. From there, I worked at the Squeaky Bean where Sean Canyon took over the bar program. I really started honing technique there and getting creative. Then I did a brief stint at Tag with Chef Troy Guard. He was really in to produce and would bring in ingredients and drop them off at the bar. I worked with fun guys there and everyone wanted to experiment behind the bar. 
Then I decided to move to San Francisco as a challenge; Denver was beginning to feel small. I cruised out here and my buddy introduced me to Brian [Felley] who had just opened Big. They were like, take this and run with it. Big was a menu-less bar. The whole staff is here now [at Benjamin Cooper] and we've been open a year. 

SK: How are you involved in the local culinary community? 
MH:
There is a real sense of togetherness in the bar community here. I don't think it was as friendly before, more clique-y. But things are different now. We have an active Bartenders' Guild and people check their egos at the door. There are a lot of people doing a lot of really cool things. Our focus is on hospitality, first and foremost: we consider the guest in front of us. 

SK: What is the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
MH:
Construction. Cocktails and assembling a team were the easy part. The city of San Francisco likes to throw up a lot of hurdles. It's much easier to open a tech company here than a bar. Keeping the menu current is also a challenge, we try not to leave the same things on too long. 

SK: What is your five year plan? 
Brian Felley:
I want to open more bars and get more involved in the management side rather than the daily grind, but still really be involved.  
MH: I feel the same as Brian. I want to bring everyone up by creating more opportunities for bartenders. We're quietly working on another bar concept right now. For us, it's about filling a void and a niche. The idea can evolve from just seeing a place in the neighborhood.  

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