Around Town: Ryan Maybee
In her new series, Food Editor Grace Pritchett shares a drink or two and a bite to eat with some of KC’s most prominent food personalities– and shares the insights and good times with us!
Ryan Maybee is a bartender and restauranteur behind some of the best cocktails in town with businesses like Manifesto, The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, and J. Rieger Co. He started his bartending career in 1999 at Pierpont's at Union Station, which spurred his interests in hospitality and history alike.
While Ryan can usually be found “at or behind a bar”, I sat down with him at one of his favorite restaurants in town, Happy Gillis, to talk Kansas City, cocktails, and how he defines success.
How did you get into the industry?
When I was sixteen, I wanted a car, so I told my dad and he said: "get a job." My first job was as a busser in a restaurant; I've literally never done anything else.
You've always held restaurant jobs?
Yeah. I paid my way through college as a bartender at Pierpont's and I just loved it. I really, really loved it. That's where I decided it was going to be my career. I was lucky enough to land a job as an apprentice bartender for the opening of Pierpont's and it all just clicked. I was good at it and I loved it, so I decided I was going to open my own restaurant one day.
Were you more attracted to the people side of the job or the cocktail side?
Initially, it was the people side of it. I loved being behind the bar, providing hospitality and all that, but then I realized that there was a creative element to it. I could take an artistic approach to the job. I realized it could become more than just a job.
What keeps you in this industry?
Honestly, I don't think I could possibly do anything else. Once you get into it as an entrepreneur, as a small business owner, it's hard to break away. You become committed to the industry. And I love that about it.
What would you do if you couldn't be in this industry?
Uh. I'd be an astronaut.
Is that what you wanted to be when you were younger?
Yeah. First, it was an astronaut. Then I was going to be a professional baseball player for the Royals. So I would have to do one of those things if I wasn't doing what I'm doing now.
What do you hope for the future of J. Rieger?
One of the most urgent things is what we're doing in the Electric Park neighborhood in the East Bottoms. We're really trying to revitalize that neighborhood and bring back that part of Kansas City history. Not just because it's our home, but because it has an amazing story that not a lot of people know about. So we would love to breathe some life back into that neighborhood and make that story more well known.
What do you hope for the future of the industry?
I think the industry is headed in a good direction and we're going the right way. There's been tremendous growth and diversification. There are so many opportunities now. When I started as a bartender, that was the end of the road at the time. There was no growth past that. That's not the case anymore.
Of course, there's still work to be done. We still have a lot of archaic laws in the United States as a holdover from Prohibition. The laws are just outdated; they were written in the 1930s. You know, some states are still under Prohibition. [Writer's note: Kansas is one of them.]
How has your idea of success changed as you've moved through your career?
There's this perception with entrepreneurs. When you start your own business, you're basically giving yourself a 90-hour/week job. But people think owning your own business is amazing because you have freedom and money, and it's just not realistic. I learned from the beginning that I pay everyone else first. I pay my vendors, my employees, the rent, the utilities, and the last person I'm going to pay is me. And there were many times when I didn't think I was going to make it, but I kept going.
My idea of success really shifted when I learned to stop worrying about my personal income and focus on my community. I was like, I'm not going to be rich. You don't get rich owning a restaurant, but if I can pay attention to what I'm doing for my community and take pride in the jobs that we're providing for people, then the culture that we're building and the family we're creating is more important than being rich. It changed the way that I felt about owning a business every day. Being a business owner and providing for people, whether it's your neighborhood or your employees- that is success.
Be sure to visit J. Rieger Co’s distillery for a firsthand look at the passion Ryan has put into bringing the brand to life, in a neighborhood that’s sure to boom.