2016 San Francisco Rising Star Bartenders Mo Hodges and Brian Felley of Benjamin Cooper

2016 San Francisco Rising Star Bartenders Mo Hodges and Brian Felley of Benjamin Cooper
May 2016

Before forming the union that birthed Benjamin Cooper, Mo Hodges was a starving artist with a prosaic degree in metal sculpture and a bright future as an iconoclast. Brian Felley was working his way up from an hotel bar in Albuquerque to mixing and managing at San Francisco restaurants including Fleur de Lys, Oola, and Garcon.  

Hodges, who grew up outside Philadelphia, made the move to San Francisco from Denver, where he’d originally gotten into cocktails as a 23-year-old, post-grad punk, working at spots like Vita, Squeaky Bean, and Tag. He arrived in San Francisco just as Felley was opening tiny bar Big on Post Street in 2012. It was creative kismet. The bar was menu-less, and the cocktail inspiration limitless. Drinks were inspired by the farmers market and the community of bartenders that formed around Big. 

Big’s run ended in 2013, with Hodges and Felley moving on to consulting gigs that eventually lead to their next project: slightly bigger and slightly fictitious Benjamin Cooper. Not a historical figure or storied bartender, the name is the joining of their mothers’ maiden names. At hospitality-forward Benjamin Cooper—situated covertly and cooly within Hotel G—the duo mixes a whimsically progressive list of drinks that changes daily. Referring to their menu as weird yet balanced, Hodges and Felley believe that if you like every cocktail on it, then they’re not pushing themselves. 

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

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? 
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? 
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?
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.