Interview with Rust Belt Rising Star Bartender Joe Robinson of Standby

by Sean Kenniff
December 2016

Sean Kenniff: How did you get your start? 
Joe Robinson:
I’m from the Clarkston suburb of Detroit. Got my first gig at the Clarkson Union, a bar- restaurant with American comfort food and 50 taps inside a church. It was ahead of it’s time. I hopped around and worked with them again when they opened another spot. Then through Craigslist I got a gig at Roast. I worked there with Travis Fourmont; we started Bail Out Productions and realized that we might have something here—a career. We did a pop-up called Whiskey Rebellion, the first cocktail pop up in Detroit. Our buddies that owned Green Dot Stables were generous enough to give us the space. We thought we’d do 75 to 100 people on a Sunday. We had two kegged cocktails, plus 10 on the menu. That was in 2011, when it was quiet around here, and 500 people showed up.

SK: What did you do after that success? 
I kept working at Roast, I still needed to learn. I traveled when I could to see what was going on in other cities, and it was so inspiring to go and see and bring back ideas and make them my own. I’ve learned the most from traveling, places like Booker and Dax, Employees Only. It’s been a weird road to here: I worked for a year at place called Antietam, but we had creative differences and parted ways a few weeks after opening. A year later, we  [Standby] opened. We get 100-plus people on Saturday nights. Lights and music are adjusted throughout the night as more and different people fill the bar. It’s gets crazy in here. 

SK: Who's your mentor?
Travis Fourmont is my mentor, he came from Portland when no one here knew what a negroni was, and he rolled in with house cherry bitters and his tool kit—all this stuff that I didn’t know people still used, like bar spoons. He’s a big reason for the take-off of the cocktail scene here. He showed me the classics and how to build cocktails, and then we got in to the weirder stuff like Snake in the Grass. 

SK: How are you involved in the local culinary community? 
It’s an exciting time because forever the attention has been on New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, these big markets, and deservedly so because they started the movement. But we have stepped up our game. The goal with this place is I don’t want people in Detroit to be like, “this place is good.” I want people to go back to their cities and say, “you gotta go to Detroit and go to Standby.” The [Bartender’s] Guild is strong here, and their national convention is coming to Detroit next year: we’ll roll out the red carpet. 

SK: What's your five year plan? 
We’re celebrating our anniversary as you’re asking me this question! We’ve got a couple other things in the works. I’m dedicated to Detroit. I moved here shortly after I started working in the city, and the people and sense of community and everybody working together toward something bigger then themselves drew me here before I knew I was going to do this. The quality of the people here is very high—thoughtful, intelligent people. I want to fill a void and not do something just to do something. We’re so excited to do new things, like Gramercy Tavern has been around a long time and they constantly evolve and stay relevant—that’s what I want to do here. I want to be an institution and not just “the new place” because that can fade pretty quickly. It takes a lot from opening a place to something that is timeless; there is no formula. You have to figure out as it goes, and just like Roast did for me and Travis, create better opportunties for people that work for us.