If you’ve stopped by the Friendly Spot sometime in the last three years, you’ve met bar manager Junaid Syed. The personable Chicago transplant stumbled upon Friendly after leaving a job in the Stone Oak area, which kept him away from his Southtown home. The 29-year-old talked to the Current about hopping on board at Friendly, what’s so great about IPAs and the most unnerving question he gets at the bar.
How did you end up in SA?
I moved here five years ago on a whim. I graduated school in December of 2008. I was on my parents couch, looking for jobs online, sending my resume out, but the economy was really bad. I thought it was a good opportunity to move away for six months. I’d gone to Austin in 2007 for South by Southwest, and I fell in love with Texas. I realized San Antonio was a nearby. So I did some research. Reports were coming out about how the economy was doing OK there. I was blown away when I found an apartment in King William for $600 bucks a month. I called the landlord, she said to come check out the place, I pulled $2,000 out of my account and drove my little Hyundai Accent down here. Six months turned into five years.
Tell me about how you started working here.
I saw that they’d posted an ad on Craigslist and I had been here before, but I wasn’t a regular or anything like that. I came in dropped off my resume and I got a call from Steve, who was the general manager at the time. I came here to meet him, rode my bike over, he had his daughter with him and we went into that office and it was cool. He talked to me about my background. I think they initially brought me on board because of my experience with wine. I’d been dealing with wine at the Mediterranean place [where Syed worked before joining the Friendly team].
What was your first day at Friendly like?
My first day was a First Friday in April. My next day was the King William Fair. I remember working and it seeming like there were 1,000 people here. All I was doing all day was throwing away trash. It was a madhouse. I remember thinking, ‘maybe I shouldn’t go back.’ (Laughs). It was really hard, being outdoors and working in the heat, the sheer volume and the long hours … but I stuck with it.
What made you stay?
Everyone became a family to me. The people I work with right now are the closest people to me. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else now. Through the years, I became a bar lead, then they made me bar manager and they gave me more responsibilities.
What’s your favorite thing about working here?
Being able to have people try something they haven’t tried before and have them really latch on to that. Seeing them just really enjoy something that they never would have tried. The selection we have here is pretty unparalleled. We have 400 bottles and 76 taps. It’s so easy for someone to walk in and try a different thing, or get the same thing. I respect the level of adventure that people have when they come here. We get to use our knowledge and our prowess with the product and find something that matches them. A lot of people are scared of trying new things and that’s where we come in.
What was SA’s hook?
I don’t know what it is about the Mexican culture. I’m Indian … my parents are from India. I grew up in a very strict Muslim household … no one in my family drinks now! I grew up very different from most people in the city. Maybe that’s why I appreciate it. I used to pray five times a day, go to the mosque; I used to be a Sunday school teacher in high school.
How did you get into beer?
Just drinking it. I tell new employees that come here—they are overwhelmed, much like customers—but the only way they’re going to understand is by drinking it. There’s a certain process about it where you’re thinking about the texture and effervescence, in terms of flavor. It’s not just beer. It’s a whole experience.
What’s the most frustrating question you get at the bar?
‘What’s good?’ I don’t think people ask it to be frustrating, they just ask it because they don’t’ know. But when you ask someone like me who drinks a wide variety of beer, it’s hard for me not to sound snarky when I say, ‘well, everything’s good.’ That’s something I struggle with a little bit and I know the rest of the staff does, too.
How do you recommend a beer?
You try to describe several flavor profiles and find what appeals to the customer. You ask if they want something dark or light, something aggressive or easy drinking … something bitter or something hoppy. All those descriptors I just used also apply to beers. It all depends on what you’re used to and what you’re in the mood for. That’s what I try to extract out of them.
What’s your beer of choice?
I don’t know what happened, or how it happened, but I became addicted to hoppy beers. Before I started working here, if I was drinking a good beer it would be a Blue Moon or a Stella. Now, I almost equate [them] with Bud Light and Dos Equis. People that worked here used to drink IPAs and my palate grew accustomed to them. Now it’s an insatiable desire.
9:00 pm, February 23, 2014: We have removed a question about a sensitive family topic at the request of Junaid Syed.