Shift Drinks: Todd Bernard


Along with Theresa Chan, Todd Bernard co-owns Empire in Portland, Maine, where he also serves as Operations Manager. He is pictured here with a Margarita.

Check back in next Wednesday for a Shift Drinks interview with Chan.

Why did you select a Margarita?

I am a fan of tequila. It's fun and sweet and has a lot of elements of what I consider to be the perfect cocktail. It's very simple and very forward.

What is it about tequila that you enjoy? Does it agree with you most of the time?

Most of the time. Certainly with tequila it can go off the rails. It can have the propensity to do that. But really, tequila for me has a similar effect of a Red Bull in that it kind of fires me up. One glass of wine after work or one beer is going to put me to sleep but a margarita or a shot of tequila is good motivation to make plans for the evening.

Tequila can be a saucy temptress. It can be like, "Hey, c'mon. Let's party." And then the night is over.

"Let's play a little bit. Just one more… and another."

Am correct in believing your work with Empire to be your first full foray into the realm of food and hospitality?

Yes, though I have been around it my whole life. I was doing all of the events — weddings and corporate dinners — on Diamond and Chebeague [Islands] and I have worked at restaurants at all capacities since my first job washing dishes when I was 15. I have always been around it, but this is the first time I am involved where it is partly my own place.

Having as much experience in this arena, why is it something you decided to continue to commit to?

It's interesting. There are so many other opportunities in the world to make easier money while facing less stress. But this work is one of those things that has its own gravity and there are addicting qualities about that energy. You're always meeting new people and being introduced to different situations. There is a level of excitement about that. A few other Dim Sum places have opened in Portland but at the time we opened there was nothing else like it here. It was interesting that with all the sorts of places we had by way of restaurants, there was not a place to get this kind of food so there was something attractive about that. I was attracted to this because it felt like something Portland really needed.

Did the fact that you were opening something new make you at all nervous about how it would be received?

Of course. It is a huge commitment by way of money, time and energy. In restaurants, you have to live the project. You're ego is out there and you are putting yourself out completely. You don't want to strike out on that. There was certainly some anxiety about that, but we're confident enough. I felt pretty good about it too, with the space and the location. And being in on this with Theresa, with her background and family history, was a really good fit, so I don't think we were coming at this just hoping we would have a win. With the venue upstairs, and with a restaurant right here on Congress Street, there were already a lot of great opportunities in that equation.

Part of what you do—and what so many in your position in the industry do—is about making yourself vulnerable and putting you and your team out there. More than ever before there are so many outlets for people to comment on and have opinions about what you do. How do you weather that?

Some of the things people take issue with, and the energy they put into expressing those issues, continue to be surprising. But since 2000 I have been putting myself out there in various ways to be critiqued or criticized. I have a pretty thick skin around it. I used to do these high end weddings on Diamond Island and you have to have thick skin for that stuff. But I also appreciate that feedback when it is thoughtful and it's part of the conversation. Some of the feedback we get is really balanced and we consider it when thinking about improving this place or we may incorporate it into future ideas.

For me, it's written into the business plan that you're not going to make everyone happy. There are going to be people with issues, either personal or professional, and that's just a part of it. It doesn't, though, outweigh the excitement of it. Of course if you catch me on the wrong day, it feels like bullshit, but that's just part of the game. When you've been at it long enough, you just let it roll off you and don't really give a shit.

NOTE: This interview originally ran in October of 2014.