Founded in Decatur, Illinois in 2009 with the premise of serving world class food at reasonable prices and creating a refuge for original art and music, Donnie’s Homespun Pizza combines a menu featuring a fresh fusion of wordly flavors with an extensive collection of craft beers and wines. In 2010, Donnie’s outgrew their original location and moved to the larger building next door, which featured a dining room, bar and stage and enabled Donnie’s to become the hot spot for local music and touring acts that it is today. Donnie’s later opened a second store in Springfield, Illinois, featuring an expanded food, beer and wine menu.
Serving drinks at Donnie’s Decatur location is bartender and beer aficinado Steven Horton, who began his serving career at Olive Garden but, like so many others, found a home at Donnie’s Homespun Pizza.
What is the atmosphere like on an average night at Donnie’s Homespun Pizza?
My dad came to see me tend bar one night, and the only thing he could say about the place was, “This is straight out of the ’60s… groovy, dawg!” He’s always had an odd sense of humor, but he was right — Donnie’s is run by an old deadhead, and it shows. There’s all kinds of local art on the walls. Some of it makes you scratch your head, but in a good way.
And music. We have local music every Friday and Saturday night. Every Wednesday, we have an open mic night. Since our bar is pretty much right across the street from Millikin University, we get A LOT of college musicians. I feel very lucky to be able to work in a place that supports local art.
What do you enjoy most about working at Donnie’s?
The freedom. Most night, I am the only employee working. The bar is small, but it gets packed. And when it does, that bar is mine. I run it like it’s a big chess match. There’s a certain high that comes with successfully serving a huge crowd, and when everyone pats you on the shoulder, telling you that you’re doing a good job, it makes you feel very appreciated.
But the freedom really comes into play when we’re not busy. The bar is still mine, and I do with it what I want. If that means I want to try a new vodka infusion, then I will. If I want to try creating a new cocktail, I will… the owners are usually impressed when I sell something that wasn’t even on the menu the previous night.
The other thing I like most about Donnie’s? The beer. Mmmm, Old Rasputin Imperial Stout…
How did you get your start as a bartender?
I went to the open mic night. I had long hair, and the guy I sat next to at the bar thought I was his friend, who also had long hair. So he started talking to me, and only after a couple minutes did he finally realize I wasn’t his friend. But by that point, we were already pretty friendly with each other. So he asked me about my life. I guess I impressed him. He offered my the job the next day.
But how did I start? I started terribly. I had never had experience bartending, and I struggled with my job at Olive Garden of all places. But they gave me the freedom to learn how I wanted. I research and researched. I looked up every “mixology” article I could find online. I watched YouTube videos. I went to craft beer tastings and wine tastings. I utilized the vast resources that this century makes available to us. I quickly improved, and now, I have fun trying to stretch the limits of my industry knowledge daily.
What skills or traits should every good bartender possess?
Not many people would say this, but I think the most important skill is efficiency. Yeah, it’s great if you make a beautiful drink. It’s even better if it tastes good. But if you take too long to do it, you shouldn’t be doing it for a job. At least where I work, efficiency is king. But what makes someone efficient? I’d say it is different for everyone. You just have to practice and learn. Some key tricks are to grab all your well bottles and keep them handy for when you run out — you know, just generally, know where everything is. Guess what kills efficiency? Getting drunk and/or high while working. Don’t do that.
Another big skill — learn! Don’t be that bartender that doesn’t know the difference between an IPA and a pale ale. Come on! It’s fun! You learn by DRINKING BEER (or cocktails, etc.). Who could ask for a better thing to learn?
What’s your most interesting cocktail creation?
The thing about Donnie’s is that it is a craft beer bar, but the “spirits” supply is very limited. I mean, come on, we serve amazing pizza, vegan sandwiches, and a rotating assortment of world-class beer! Know your niche, you know… still, I try my best to create fantastic cocktails with what we have. So far, my most famous cocktail creation is officially known as the “spiked snowcone.” It is a crazy concoction of seven ingredients, and it somehow actually ends up tasting like a snowcone.
Here is the recipe if you are interested: 1.5 oz spiced rum, 1 oz blue caracao, 1 oz melon liqueor, 0.5 oz hawaiian schnapps, 0.5 oz watermelon liqueor, splash of orange juice, splash of sweet and sour mix, fill with sprite, shake with ice, and strain into an ice-filled pint glass. Lemon garnish.
What’s the best food item on the menu at Donnie’s?
There are ten different specialty pizzas. There’s a San Fran Veggie, a Mexicali Blues, a Bavarian, a Philly Alfredo… so basically, if you’re from somewhere other than the midwest, you have a good shot of finding a pizza style you’ll like. Personally, my favorite food on the menu is not pizza though. There are many vegan options that are healthy and delicious. And exotic – I can’t stop eating the spicy curried chicken. I just love coconut curry! They could make a menu item called the curried curry and I’d still eat it.
What do you drink when you’re not working?
I love beer. My favorite types of beer are either IPAs or imperial stouts. I like going to craft beer bars and order a flight. It’s fun to try different types and compare. My favorite thing about beer is how it can improve traveling. Sure, it’s fun to go travel somewhere and sight-see, but it’s more fun to travel somewhere and drink all their local beer!
If you could travel anywhere in the world — primarily for the purposes of sampling the local beer or cocktails — where would you go?
One day when I have unlimited money, I want to visit Brussels in Belgium with my wife (we’re not married yet so I hope this doesn’t jinx it). I am guessing I would spend half the trip exploring historical and beautiful sites and half the trip learning about and tasting the many varieties of the best beer in the world, Belgian beer.
If you had to offer one piece of advice to someone just starting out as a bartender, what would it be?
Don’t get mad at people who don’t tip. Because there’s always going to be that guy that tips you too much for nothing, and then it all equals out. You know what — don’t get mad about anything. Life is too short. Sometimes, I work with people that think it’s their job to get mad. Why are you so mad? Just have fun!