Elite Bartending bursts onto Fort Myers scene
Grayson Fernandez bobbled a bottle of rum, preparing to mix a Mai-Tai as the seconds ticked by.
Wait. Something’s not right. It’s mid-afternoon and the club is nearly empty.
The rum wasn’t real, so the drink wasn’t authentic either. The pressure the 21-year-old felt was simulated. An instructor was keeping an eye on the seconds as Victoria Ho, a fellow student, looked on.
It was the third day of class for the pair, learning on a perfect January day at a new school in downtown Fort Myers. Elite Bartending School, doing business locally out of Celsius Night Club and Cowboy Up Saloon, brings a fresh schooling option to the area.
Elite was established by Austin Gagnon in 2008 on Miami Beach. It has expanded over the years, with other locations in Fort Lauderdale and the Keys. Regulated by the Department of Education, the school focuses on efficiency and accuracy in practical settings.
“We just saw the need for a different kind of bartender education,” said Gagnon, 33. “Speed … that’s what you need.”
Miranda Schmidt, 24, director of the Fort Myers location, is an instructor who works in a bar one night a week, in part to keep up with the latest drink trends.
“I like to stay in the business,” she said. “I like to stay current.”
Students 18 and up must pass written, oral and practical tests to complete the 40-hour program and earn their licenses. Day, evening and weekend classes are available. Throughout the $650 course, instructors emphasize practice, ask lots of questions and nurture confidence.
“There’s a need for it in an area like this,” Gagnon said. “The hospitality industry is changing and growing.”
Elite has an affiliation with FGCU’s Office of Continuing Education and Off-Campus Programs.
“It’s just one of many of the professional development offerings that we provide,” said Paul Thornton, executive director. “I think that it fills a need in the community and so we thought we would give it a shot.”
Thornton explained that it’s another way for students to find out about the bartending school. There’s a registration link on FGCU’s continuing education site, allowing people to enroll.
“We’re trying to have a diverse portfolio of offerings,” Thornton said. “We want to appeal to a wider audience.”
Not only does Elite focus on education, it also offers nationwide job placement, event staffing and custom mixology workshops.
So far, Elite has trained more than 40 people in Fort Myers and over 3,000 in all. The school isn’t done expanding.
“We’re moving up Florida,” Schmidt said.
“We want 100 schools,” Gagnon added, and he wasn’t joking. “We know our product works.”
Two of the graduates of the Fort Myers school are Angie Berger, 31, and Brett Ball, 21.
“They have great resources,” Berger said. “I didn’t know what to expect. My class was tons of fun. It’s in a real bar and I think that makes a difference.”
Ball, who just landed a job at Vegas Lounge on Colonial Boulevard, likes that the school is so practical and intimate.
“You get to meet new people,” he said. “You have people encouraging you to get better.”
Ho, a 22-year-old junior at FGCU, likes the flexibility of being able to work events, without a big commitment. Elite staffs events big and small, including Ultra Music Festival and Hess South Beach Seafood Festival in Miami.
“You can go to different events and it’s a skill you can use everywhere,” she said. “It’s very hands-on. They tell you the do’s, the don’ts and give you pointers.”
Kip Notbohm, who owns Celsius Night Club and Cowboy Up Saloon, said the arrangement with Elite “has been going great. After I met these two, I knew Fort Myers was ready for something like this.”
Notbohm, who has been a part of the downtown Fort Myers bar scene for 20 years, has already hired two Elite graduates.
The bar owner won’t be hiring Fernandez, a budding music producer who wore a Corona shirt as he manned the bar. That’s because he is preparing to move to Los Angeles to break into the music scene there.
“I saw it had good job placement and it translates well,” Fernandez said of Elite and bartending. “I’m going to chase the dream.”
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Elite Bartending School
Address: 2213 Main Street, Fort Myers