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The Professionals Series

THE PROFESSIONALS

“As soon as I went behind the bar”

Meet Alana Nogueda, young co-owner of Toronto’s own Shameful Tiki Room

By MARTA S


I meet Alana Nogueda for our interview one oppressively hot August afternoon. The moody darkness that’s a constant inside her bar, the Shameful Tiki Room, is a nice reprieve. Within the five-minute walk it takes me to get from home to Shameful, I feel like I’m melting.

The inside of the bar — with its blacked out front window, a touch I’ll admit I found odd at first but now completely get — makes the weather outside feel more sane, or at least justified. Rod Moore’s second outpost here in Parkdale (his first being in Vancouver) is something straight out of a tropical paradise time warp. Thatching everywhere, garlands of flowers, retro pin-ups, heavy wooden tiki masks — the works. Not an inch left untouched, not a piece left feeling unfinished. I feel like at any moment, Elvis Presley in full-blown Blue Hawaii glory is going to sidle up to me, neon drink replete with fruit and umbrella in hand.

Alana Nogueda in her element. // All photos provided by Alana herself

Jay Meyers, Alana’s good friend and man behind the bar, mercifully pours me a glass of water and hands it across the wood. I’m told to have a seat at one of the booths in the back. As I slide in, I notice something on the table between Alana and I.

“Dude,” I say, a smile spreading across my face, “did you make notes?”

Sure enough, there lies a piece of paper where Alana has hand-written talking points for our interview.

“Sure!” she replies. Her eyes widen. “Doesn’t everyone?”

No, they don’t, and when I tell her as much, she reddens slightly and dissolves into laughter.

“I like to be prepared, man!” she exclaims.

I tell her I appreciate it. It’s indicative of her personality. It takes an immense amount of preparedness and organization to do what Alana has done with her bartending career within the course of a year. When I first met her in the early summer of 2015, she was tending bar at the Harbord Room, picking up skills and techniques from then-bar manager Evelyn Chick. Now she’s the co-owner of one of the most original — and fun — bars in Toronto.

Living Las Vegas

Though she was born in Toronto, Alana grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada. Her family moved so that her parents could pursue their music careers while playing lounge acts in Sin City. “We moved to Vegas when we — I have a twin sister — were barely one. We kind of lived out of a hotel for the first couple of years,” she tells me.

Twinsies: Little Alana and her twin sister.

Inspired by her parents, Alana’s dream as a child was to become a musician herself one day. “As a kid, I could always pick up an instrument — I never knew the keys, I just always played by ear. But I never stuck to one, so I kind of grew out of it. I unfortunately don’t play anymore, but I still have this crazy love for music.”

I ask her to tell me more about the kind of music her parents played. She tilts her head back and laughs.

“My parents were in a band called Kahlua and Cream,” she says, smiling. “My dad’s Mexican and he’s very tanned, and my mom’s this blonde-haired, green-eyed lady, so Kahlua and Cream was just a perfect name. They did everything from Gypsy King to Gloria Estefan covers, all live. And some of their own pieces. My dad’s a ridiculous drummer and my mom’s an amazing singer.”

The whole concept of her childhood is pretty interesting. I tell her how I remember driving into Vegas a few years ago and seeing blocks of suburban homes sitting in the desert like outposts of normalcy on the edge of a decidedly un-normal town, and wondering what it would be like to grow up there. On the edge of so much wild.

“Growing up in Vegas was weird. It’s a weird, weird city,” she says, almost gravely. “You just want to grow up as fast as you can. There was a lot of negative things I had to deal with as a teenager.

“I saw a lot of friends go the wrong way. I had family members go the wrong way,” she continues. “I am very happy to say that I didn’t, and that I was very strong in making that decision. But it was sad. It was sad to see a lot of people — some great people — lose their way there.”

But as she mentioned, Alana stayed on the straight and narrow, and began looking for after-school work at the age of 15. She describes herself back then as a skater kid.

“Big time skater kid. And my twin and I have always been little hustlers. Always willing to work and make money.”

So at 15, she got her first job in the industry the old school way — going from business to business, asking if they were hiring. A joint called Marco’s Pizza gave her a chance.

“They were like, ‘Okay, this kid doesn’t look so scummy. She’s okay,’” she jokes. “I did everything there from making the pizzas to cashing people out.”

DAT GLAMOUR SHOT, DOE.

Throughout all this, Toronto remained a constant in Alana’s life. Her grandparents still lived in the city, and every summer the whole Nogueda family would pile into a car and come up to visit.

“As a family of five, we would drive up because it was cheaper,” she remembers with a grin. “Oh, man. Five of us and a dog — it was the worst! It was so bad! But it made for really good memories. And my dad was a monster. He would do [the drive] in, like, three days. Driving sixteen hours a day.”

It was through those visits that Alana fell in love with Toronto. Then sadly, one day eight years ago, Alana’s grandfather fell ill.

“I came up to visit him. He passed away while I was here. And I ended up staying in Toronto,” she shares, simply.

Soon after, her foray into Toronto’s hospitality industry began.

Building a bartender

Her first time behind the bar started with a bit of a white lie. “When I first moved here, my first job was on the Danforth at a Greek nightclub. I said I was 22 — I was actually 19,” she admits with a sly smile. “They just put me behind the bar, and that was the first time I made drinks.”

A short while later, Alana took a gig as a food runner at Brassaii. This was back in 2009 when the nightclub — and King West in general — was quietly grooming a group of young guns who would one day become some of Toronto’s most hard-working and successful industry professionals.

When I ask her when it was that she decided this was the industry she wanted to stay in, she replies literally without a moment’s hesitation: “As soon as I went behind the bar.”

She goes on: “Even just being a bus girl, I’d watch bartenders and think, ‘That’s so cool!’ I was always wanting to find my way behind that bar — whether it was polishing a glass or whatever.”

But Alana had to bus and run food for a year and half before being able to tend the bar at Brassaii herself. She credits that high-volume gig for teaching her the all-important skill of speed as a bartender.

Other places that she credits for showing her the ropes over the last eight years include the bright-burning, now-extinguished Hudson Kitchen — “I learned more about crafting cocktails and spirits there,” she says — and aforementioned industry favourite, the Harbord Room.

When we first met: Alana on the bar at the Harbord Room back in 2015. // Photo by Mike Swiegot

“I’d definitely say every place I’ve worked at formed me in some way into the type of bartender I am today,” she says, graciously.

But what kind of bartender is that, exactly? I want to know.

“I like to make drinks accurately. I love classic cocktails; I love tiki cocktails. I love making drinks — I don’t know what kind of style that is,” she replies, through a bout of slightly nervous laughter. But she steadies herself.

“I love having the ability to make drinks fast — which I learned at Brassaii — but I also have the ability to make them precise and perfect. I think a lot of bartenders are either one or the other,” she continues, tapping the table for emphasis, “and it’s hard to find one in the middle. I feel like I do a good job at that.”

That’s the closest Alana gets to talking herself up throughout the course of our conversation. She’s unnervingly humble, and not at all full of the ready-to-go, off-the-wall stories or humble bragging so many “startenders” possess these days. Like all of the subjects before her in this series; I’m immediately happy to hear her give herself credit.

Chillin’ with the fam in Vegas.

Her favourite part of the job distinguishes itself with a sentiment that I can totally get behind.

“Most bartenders are going to say [that it’s] the interaction that you get to have with people. And I absolutely love people. That’s a big part of it for me,” she says. “But I just love how fun it is. How I get to go to work and have a good time. That’s what I love the most.”

Listen to one of Alana’s favourite guest interaction stories here. It’s sweet (literally):

Building a bar

Being given the opportunity to run Shameful Tiki Room — which she credits, in part, to her win at the Bacardi Legacy competition, prompting Trevor Burnett to bring up her name in conversation with Rod Moore — has been an awesome thing.

“It happened pretty fast!” she exclaims. “I was at the Harbord Room when, over a year ago now, I did Bacardi Legacy, and it kind of put me on the map as like, ‘Oh. This girl can bartend.’”

“Hey ma, I’m famous!”: Toronto’s Bacardi Legacy champ.

Rod followed through on Trevor’s recommendation. “When that happened, I was like, ‘This is cool… But I don’t know if I’m ready for this,’” Alana admits honestly. “That was a really big step in my life, and I didn’t know if I was ready. I was a little hesitant. But I started talking to Rod and we ended up getting along really well.

“What did it for me is I went to Vegas soon after,” she continues, “and I went to Frankie’s Tiki and Golden Tiki and I was like, ‘There’s nothing like this in Toronto.’ There was nothing like it. And so I came back and I signed with Rod. And also, his passion behind this — it’s insane. He cares more about all of this than anyone that I’ve ever met.”

As for what the future holds for Shameful and Alana?

“There’s talks that we definitely want to open a third location. Maybe outside of the country. This is not it for us,” Alana tells me with confidence.

“But for myself? I don’t know.” She pauses for a hesitant second. “I just want happiness. I want to spend my time with somebody and be happy.” We both giggle. I put my hand over my heart.

“Ow, Alana! That’s sweet.”

She laughs but is entirely, justifiably unapologetic. She shrugs.

“As lame as it sounds — I just want to be happy.”


Marta S is a bartender & freelance writer living and working in Toronto. If you or someone you know would like to be profiled in The Professionals, email her at marta@behindtheboite.com.
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