Inside Track: Crafting a better cocktail scene
Reserve’s Adam Fortuna uses bartending experience in Seattle to expand offerings in native Grand Rapids.
After eight years of exploring and gaining critical acclaim from Seattle’s bartending scene, Adam Fortuna returned to his native Grand Rapids. The certified sommelier and assistant general manager of Reserve Wine & Food has his sights set on raising the bar for the area’s craft cocktail scene.
For Fortuna, the service industry initially seemed like nothing more than the easiest way to make money while having time for other interests. During his high school days, he had several friends working at Perkins Restaurant and Bakery who convinced him to apply as a server.
“I basically talked my way into becoming a server with no experience and quickly realized I was pretty good at it,” he said. “The feedback I got from my bosses and my guests was generally good.”
During college, Fortuna started serving at a restaurant in Mount Pleasant called The Brass Café, which was more focused on fine dining. The chef-owned restaurant offered 150 microbrews, as well as spirits and liqueurs Fortuna had never heard of before.
Coming from a corporate environment like Perkins to a locally owned restaurant gave Fortuna the perspective of two very different business models.
“You learn a lot of things working corporate — speed, efficiency, following rules, doing things a regimented way — which I think provides an awesome baseline for the rest of your life … and then when you go to a more casually structured place … you put it into a more personal experience,” he said.
Fortuna bounced between majors during his college career. Initially, he thought he wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps and become a pharmacist but switched over to economics, realizing he enjoyed the mathematics and statistics involved.
“I was like, ‘OK, I could get into this. I like monetary theory,’” he said. “All of these things I consider extremely boring now, I was like, ‘OK, I’m really into this, and I’m good at it, so I’m going to pursue that.’”
Fortuna continued working for The Brass Café until his wife completed her masters. They later both decided it was time for them to leave West Michigan and see the world.
“We took a trip to Seattle, and it kind of solidified the fact that we wanted to be there,” Fortuna said. “It was a good way to make a jump to a big city without going to New York, or L.A. or Chicago.”
Fortuna and his wife initially rented a house with a college friend who moved out with them. Neither of them had any jobs lined up before they made the move.
Fortuna believed he would take his degree in finance and try to find a career in that field, but his service background caught up with him.
“Kind of similar to Perkins, I had one friend in Seattle, and she was a waitress,” he said. “And she was like, ‘Hey, if you need money, we need people. I know you have experience.’”
His first serving gig in Seattle was with Sazerac, a restaurant and bar owned by Kimpton Hotels. While working his way to the top, through serving, managing and bartending, he realized the restaurant culture was different in a larger market like Seattle than back home in West Michigan.
“There’s less of a stigma about working in restaurants,” he explained. “I feel like the question you get in Grand Rapids is, ‘Hey what are you doing next? Are you working toward something?’ But there are more foodies. There are more beer people. There are more wine people. People are taking it more seriously.”
With this revelation, Fortuna began to consider a serious career in the food and beverage industry. Eventually, he got sick of the corporate life again and decided to write in an application for an up-and-coming Italian bar and restaurant.
At the time, chef Jason Stratton — famous for appearing on “Top Chef’s” 13th season, being named in Food & Wine’s Top 10 Best New Chefs in 2010 and multiple James Beard Awards — was opening an Italian-focused bar and restaurant called Artusi.
“I really respected the fact that he was never classically trained,” Fortuna said. “He just started as a dishwasher and worked his way up, and that was super inspiring to me.”
Fortuna wrote a cover letter to Artusi in 2011, boldly claiming Stratton would be remiss not to hire him. Even though he had very little experience working in Seattle, he sold himself as the hardest worker they would ever meet.
“(Stratton) cites that cover letter to this day,” Fortuna said. “That got me in the door.”
Within a year of working at Artusi, Fortuna was promoted to bar manager, and within two years, he became general manager of both the restaurant and the bar.
Fortuna attributes his career at Artusi as the springboard to his career in fine dining. He said he had never seen a chef like Stratton who cared as much about both the diners and the kitchen staff.
“There’s a pretty big dichotomy between the kitchen and the floor,” he said. “I’ve never seen a chef care so much about service … little things, like you open the door for every guest, you fold a napkin a specific way … which at times was annoying, but at the end of the day, the little attention to detail I think is what sets places apart.”
Even after he left Artusi in 2015, Fortuna still maintains contact with Stratton, whom he considers a great friend and mentor.
“For the things that I’ve done, I could always go to him for advice,” he said. “I really miss working for him.”
Fortuna received a series of accolades during his Seattle career, including being voted by the public as best bartender in Seattle in 2013. Later, The Daily Meal, a New York publication, notified him that they had listed him as one of the top 25 bartenders in the county.
“I think primarily what led me to get accolades was service,” he said. “You can make someone the best drink they ever had, but if your service sucks, they’re probably not going to come back. … You’re the beacon of the neighborhood. People come and sit at your bar with their problems or their joys or with their celebrations.”
In 2014, he got his certification as a sommelier, or wine expert, having to pass a rigorous series of tests for his certification. He also took a short break from Artusi to bartend at Rob Roy, a world-class, “Mad-Men” era cocktail bar.
“They had 400 whiskies. They had every spirit you could possibly imagine,” Fortuna said. “We were hand-carving ice. We were just doing crazy techniques. … It was really wonderful.”
But the bar had minimal food and very little in the way of drinks other than cocktails, and Fortuna realized he couldn’t be satisfied doing the same thing for too long.
After he left Artusi, Fortuna applied to Stateside, a French-Vietnamese restaurant. Even though they had no open positions, the chef was so impressed with Fortuna he brought him on board, and Fortuna ended up taking over the restaurant’s beverage program.
In 2016, Stateside opened a bar called Foreign National, with Fortuna as the opening bar manager. He said it was the first time he had control over almost every aspect of operations, from inventory to staffing, cocktails and training.
“It was almost like an ownership role even though I wasn’t an owner, which was a really cool and really valuable experience,” he said.
After Fortuna and his wife had their daughter in 2016, they decided the cost of living in Seattle was too much to raise a family and moved back to Grand Rapids shortly after.
“I feel like we came at a really exciting time for the city because I think it’s slowly acquiescing into a mid-level market … especially with restaurant and bar offerings,” he said.
Now serving as assistant general manager of Reserve, Fortuna has his sights set on expanding the city’s drink culture, which includes opening his own craft cocktail bar later on. He also wants to help promote the professional, career-driven, service culture he experienced in Seattle.
“I just want to help foster a community of people who are professionally minded,” he said, “The people who are doing this for a career, I want to help be a part of the movement that justifies their decision to do it. Yes, you can make something out of this, yes, this can be lucrative and you can feel good about what you’re doing.”