Cocktail Club

Meet the jm Curley bartender who wants to help Boston reach its fullest potential

"Downtown Boston should be an area we all take tremendous pride in as residents," jm Curley's Kevin Mabry said.

Ever notice the sense of camaraderie between restaurant staff and its regular guests? Kevin Mabry was enamored with this dynamic as a teen cleaning floors and working the kitchen at restaurants.

It’s part of what first hooked the local bartender and managing partner at jm Curley’s into the industry, and what keeps him in it today. After years working at places like Bogie’s Place, Hojoko, Select Oyster Bar, Offsuit, Capo, and Lincoln Tavern, Mabry believes bars and restaurants continue to be as important as ever for human connection in the ongoing pandemic.

“Plexiglas, masks, no entertainment — these were all necessary for public safety, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “But the romance was sucked out of the experience and it was just transactional. It felt wrong.”

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He added: “Bars and restaurants should be transcendent places where people feel safe, welcomed, and are able to relax and not worry about the outside world.” 

Mabry, like many of us, is ready to be on the other side of the pandemic, but the experience has also reminded him why he is so passionate about hospitality. “It’s who I am, and those working alongside me have inspired me to keep going,” he said.

The local bartender recently joined the Cocktail Club for late summer long drinks with host Jackson Cannon mixing a gin-gin mule and tequila highball. 

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Ahead of the class, we spoke with Mabry about building a neighborhood bar out of the “combat zone,” the drink that put jm Curley on the map, and a direct way you can help bars and restaurants right now. 

You’ve been behind the bar at some of the most successful spots around Boston. What’s your secret? 

I don’t know if I have a secret but rather a fortune of being a part of some really great teams with very talented individuals around me. I’m a very passionate person in regards to hospitality and that has driven me to pursue endeavors with like-minded individuals to create inspired concepts. 

The one factor amongst all those teams is that every day is an opportunity to be better, to grow, to learn and to perfect our craft. “We’re only as good as our last guests” is a sentiment I try to pass along to everyone I work with. Every guest is sharing their time, their money, and their trust with us. Those are very valuable things. So it’s important and imperative that, no matter the concept, we make strong connections, build relationships, and show everyone a great time, every time. My definition of success is not profits — those are necessary, obviously — but repeat guests who become ambassadors for your brand. That will ensure long-term sustainability in an industry that can be very “flash in the pan.”

Kevin Mabry, jm Curley managing partner

If you were a cocktail, what would you be?

A navy strength gimlet. I’m tattooed like a sailor, swear like one too (sorry, mom), and I tend to understate and overdeliver. 

You’ve seen jm Curley when it first opened and today. What’s been the biggest change? 

The neighborhood. When we first opened jm Curley in Downtown Crossing, it still had the connotation as the “combat zone.” We always joked that we were the neighborhood bar without the neighborhood. We slowly built that up with the help of other establishments and the BRA [Boston Planning & Development Agency, formerly the Boston Redevelopment Authority]. It felt like downtown was about to reach its fullest potential. This past year I would argue downtown got hit harder than any other neighborhood in the state; no offices, no students, no theater, no tourists. We’re slowly rebounding, but we truly need the help of the city to help us clean up the streets, literally and metaphorically, so we can get back on the path we set out on 10 years ago. Downtown Boston should be an area we all take tremendous pride in as residents. And as long as I’m at jm Curley, I want to be a part of that process to reach our fullest potential as a city. 

What has your experience been like since bars reopened? 

I worked all throughout the pandemic. From doing strictly takeout to plexiglass and tables six feet apart. Now that we’re reopened, it’s a sigh of relief, but I haven’t let my guard down. Seeing how easy it was to take everything away from an industry that relies on the smallest of margins to be successful has me on a constant edge. The outpouring of support and seeing guests returning to the bar and genuinely enjoying themselves has given me hope, but it is still a constant struggle. If I hear the phrase “supply chain shortage” one more time …

Can you talk about a drink you are particularly proud of? 

The 21 Temple G&T has been on the menu here since day one and still is one of our best sellers. It definitely helped put jm on the map, and for that I am grateful. 

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Also, I’m proud of myself for taking more time for myself lately. I’ve always put everyone else before myself. And this past year, I realized I was missing a lot of things. I’m trying to find more balance and spend more time with family and friends amidst my busy schedule. I’ve always said, as you make a living, don’t forget to live. Frankly, I’m going to be a bit more selfish and start abiding by that sentiment. I’m not getting any younger.

What is something we might not know about you outside of work?

I’m obsessed with sports. If I was doing anything else, I would have loved to be in the front office of a football team, player personnel, or coaching. I would love to coach football one day; high school or Pop Warner. Sports had a big impact on me growing up and for the same reasons I love bars. 

How can people support you and your colleagues in the service industry right now?

Pick up a shift at a bar or restaurant. Seriously. Everyone is hurting right now and if you want to help, help by joining us and lessening the burden we all have on our shoulders. Our industry across the city, and across the nation, are all thin, and we’ll never fully rebound until we regain a significant portion of our workforce. A shift running food, working the host desk, or answering phones requires minimal training. If you have experience, great, but we’ll train the right candidates for other skilled positions.

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If not that, then join us as a guest and please be understanding. There are so many things that happen behind the scenes just to get that one drink in your hands, that one dish in front of you, and it’s harder now than it ever was. We’re not even close to through this yet, and it’s going to take a great deal of compassion and humility across all walks of life for us to do so. Restaurants and bars are a pivotal element in every community. That much I truly believe.

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