Life behind bars
Three decades in, hospitality lifer Eric Snyder still loves the people, the ambiance and the stories of a good neighborhood watering hole
It’s an exceptionally warm mid-June evening, and around the horseshoe-shaped bar of the Montana Meat Company on Centennial Parkway, three-dozen pairs of eyes are focused on ice. Specifically, the Chicago Blackhawks closing out the Tampa Bay Lightning in game six of the Stanley Cup. A lone barkeep slides from one parched patron to the next, filling glasses, bumping knuckles, slinging quips that keep the room buzzing long after the Hawks hoist Lord Stanley’s sacred Cup.
“That’s my hometown!” roars a portly fellow clad in appropriate Windy City fan wear. “Next round is on me!” As the room breaks into ecstatic applause, Eric Snyder — the affable, 54-year-old overseer of this exceptionally happy hour — fires back. “Hey, Harry, I know what you do for a living! Are you sure you can afford to be so magnanimous?” He proposes a solution. “Tell you what: This victory round only, half-price! Just for you, man. Oh, and by the way, I’m a King’s fan, so don’t think this is easy for me!”
Personality and mad people skills are the key ingredients to Snyder’s long tenure in the food-and booze-service world, an intoxicating ride that began at the outset of his favorite decade, the ’80s. “I got my first job as a barback in a place called the Spaghetti Warehouse,” he recalls. “It was across from the state capitol in Austin, my junior year at University of Texas. First night on the job, the bartender — his name was Mark and he had hair like Burton Cummings — gets into a fight with the manager, who fires him then turns to me and says, ‘Okay, dude, you’re up!’”
Diploma in hand, he blew out of Texas and returned home to Los Angeles, where he landed a job at Mom’s Saloon in Brentwood, which his family owned. It was a popular destination for thirsty UCLA students and affluent West-Siders. Those were the days of wine, whiskey and women, and Eric fell in love with watering-hole culture, 13-hour days and the alchemy of proof and people.
This was L.A., so of course he has a celebrity story. “One night, British recording artists Howard Jones and Rick Astley show up and try to cut in line. I was managing the place from behind the bar with my mullet, tucked shorts and bow tie. Astley gets right in my face and says, in this somewhat arrogant English twang, ‘Do you know who we are?’ And I reply, ‘Yes, I do, and it doesn’t matter. When people leave and the crowd thins out, you can go in.’ So he starts to get really red-faced and shouts back, ‘Know what I’m gonna do, mate? I’m gonna buy this place and fire your ass!’ And I say, ‘That’s fine ‘cause your music is shit.’ Then I turn to Jones and say, ‘But I dig your pipes, Mr. Jones, so please come in,’ leaving Astley outside in line. If there was a hot-tub time machine, I’d transport myself back to that bar and that decade.”
SHAKEN TO VEGAS
“January 17, 1994, we were living in the San Fernando Valley,” recalls Eric. “Me, my wife Vicki and 2-year-old son, Max. Had a guy living next door named Norman who would shoot cheap porn films in his backyard. I get home from work at Mom’s around 2:30 a.m. About 4 a.m., all the dogs start barking on my block. Howling up and down my street. Six minutes later, boom, the 6.7 quake hit — rocked my house off its foundation and freaked my wife out big-time. We immediately started exploring our connections and places to move. I knew the guy that owned a bunch of La Salsas in Las Vegas. He was building them with bars and gaming. On March 8, 1994, we packed up the house and, like the Griswolds, hit the road — not for vacation but for a new life in Southern Nevada!”
The Snyders landed in the soon-to-be developed Centennial Hills area. After managing a La Salsa and then spending 13 years learning the ropes at a bar called O'Aces, he became the general manager of Montana Meat Company, a steakhouse and bar encased in an imaginative barn design, replete with metallic silo. (It’s since opened a second location in Rhodes Ranch.)
“The atmosphere here has always been terrific,” says Meat Company regular Ray, as he and his wife, Nancy, tap away at their video-poker screens. You can find the retired couple at the bar every night when they’re not traveling. The missus slides another twenty into the slot and takes a sip of her non-alcoholic Coors. “For health reasons, I had to stop, drinking, smoking,” she says. “Been eight months now. The minute I informed Eric, he made sure that the bar was stocked with sober beer, because he cares.”
The establishment’s name is inspired by the home state of principal investor Steve Meatovich, though you might wonder if the “meat market” reference was conjured up for more social intentions. “Well,” Snyder confesses, “over the years we have been known as a hook-up spot. Purely unintentional.” But he has a funny story about it. “Guy named James comes in one night in a $3,000 Armani suit. He’s balding, handsome, sort of looked like Ed Harris and visibly nervous, sipping a Tanqueray and tonic. I walk over, fist-bump him and ask what’s up? ‘I’m on a match.com date,’ he replies, voice cracking. ‘Meeting this chick; she’s so incredibly hot.’ I ask him what she looks like. ‘Picture Cher with blue eyes,’ he says. Twenty minutes later, this gal strides in, 5-foot-9, 6-2 in her heels, stunning. And yes, like Cher with blue eyes. He glances at her and squeaks, ‘Tammy?’ She responds, ‘James?’ He nods, and she hauls off and slaps him across the face. ‘You look nothing like your photo; how dare you!’ and storms out. I ask him to show me his profile pic, and it’s this Hugh Jackman stud. ‘Hey, can’t blame a guy for trying, right?’ Four onlookers bought him drinks, including me.”
Snyder’s DNA did not predispose him to sober living. “My father’s struggle with the bottle is the reason why I never loved the booze enough for it to control me,” he says. “He was a fantastic, creative guy despite the addiction. My dad was in the restaurant-supply business — glassware, salt shakers, chairs. He could enter an empty building, sit there with the owner for an hour and map out what his place would look like, design the room in aesthetic detail, furniture, etc., from top to bottom. My dad was a workaholic who didn’t retire until he was 72. He passed away Election Day, November 4, 2008, on his 75th birthday. Fading from cancer and a hardcore Republican, he asked my brother Bobby, a little after 6 p.m., ‘Who won the election?’ Bobby answered, ‘Obama.’ Seconds later, he was gone. True story.”
Stories are one thing Snyder never runs out of.
“I’ll tell you a story about two of my best long-term customers,” he says with a smile. “Tina and Richie — he owns an auto shop; she’s in insurance. They started coming in seven or eight years ago. Not long after I meet ’em, they’re seated at the far end of the bar, I’m on the phone with my wife saying something like, ‘Honey don’t worry, I’ll tow the car to the shop and get a rental. Take you to work.’ I’m not paying attention but Richie leaves, comes back 10 minutes later, tosses a set of keys on the counter and says, ‘Hey Eric, overheard your conversation. Here, borrow our truck for a week or as long as you need it.’ I’m blessed by the good people I’ve met here.
A passionate fan of cinema — his mother was a costumer for Paramount Pictures who worked on Cheers, Taxi and Mork & Mindy — he’s spent his 33 years behind bars examining the characters like Tina and Richie and the disparate others who have populated his establishments. Taking mental notes. Gathering stories. Scripting a dream.
“I wrote a screenplay,” he says. “It’s going to be read by the head of Woody Harrelson’s production company. He’s one of my favorite actors, and I really see him in the lead. It’s about a guy whose been doing this for a long time. A pill addict and boozer, he’s completely burned out. Everywhere he goes he’s told he’s a loser. Then he falls in love with a midget who’s in town doing Willie Wonka and the Chocolate factory, but ODs when she dumps him. He survives and says, ‘F--k this, when I go out it’s going to be in a blaze of glory!’ Can’t give away the ending, but trust me, its crazy and happy.”
As for his own crazy, happy ending? “My son is grown up, so I think I’ll work another seven or eight years,” he says. “Then probably move back to California and open up a surf shop. If I was scripting my last chapter, this protagonist would be wearing sandals to work, making surfboards and eating lobster tacos, spending my final days in a pair of torn jeans looking like Jeff Bridges from The Big Lebowski, without the joint and goatee. The Jew abides. Ha!”