While one of my best gal pals was in town recently, we headed over to the Brick Store Pub in downtown Decatur to meet a friend of hers who worked nearby. As luck would have it, the friend turned out to be Warner Lawrence, the “Beer Buyer” (an official title that, in my estimation, doesn’t come CLOSE to describing his duties or expertise) for the Decatur Sherlock’s. Our initial conversation was so interesting that I asked him to sit down with me for an official interview; so, last Sunday, we chatted again at the Brick Store, the logical place to meet a beer aficionado.
Warner had come directly from work, so we started out by talking about his duties at Sherlock’s. While he does buy beer for the shop and help with the wine buying, serving the customer always takes first priority. “I strive to treat my customers the same way that the Ritz-Carlton treats theirs,” Warner explained. We discussed customer service for a long while, agreeing that finding the balance between catering to higher-end repeat customers and still treating occasional buyers like they are special (without patronizing them) is one of the toughest challenges in the retail and restaurant businesses.
Warner’s path to Sherlock’s began in North Carolina, where he is from and where he did a year of college before realizing, in no uncertain terms, “this sucks.” After some time to think, he decided to pursue a culinary education, so he attended both the Cooking School of the Rockies (a six month program) and the Culinary Institute of America. He has worked at some notable restaurants, including the Magnolia Grill in Durham and Bacchanalia right here in Atlanta. But he admitted to me that despite his impressive cooking chops, “I always hated the line. I’m too slow and too anal-retentive.” He liked the catering game a lot more than traditional kitchen work, and he enjoyed his time at Bold American Catering (a Fifth Group venture) largely because of all of the interaction with clients. But it was after his externship, when he went back to CIA and took his wine courses, that he really figured out what he wanted to do.
So how did he move from a food focus to a wine focus? Persistence! “It’s a sales job on every level,” Warner confessed. He got some phone numbers (including that of one Mr. Mondavi) from his wine professor at CIA and just started calling. Eventually, he ended up at Green’s, where he spent four years. Now he’s settled at Sherlock’s, and he’s comfortable being an unabashed Francophile, having staged in Avignon and identified strongly with what the French call “terroir,” or sense of place. “I’m strong in France and the U.S., but weak in Italy and Spain,” he mused. Warner is currently deciding whether or not to go for his “Certified Wine Educator” distinction. Certainly, he has the knowledge and the passion to succeed in such a venture—but Warner is also a devoted husband and a father, and there are only so many hours in the day.
Speaking of his home life, I asked if he does a lot of cooking when he’s off-duty, and the answer is yes! He claims to make a mean paella (the jury’s still out, my friend, until I get to come over and try it), and he enjoys baking breads. “I also really like smoking meats, fish, and veggies,” Warner said. He is a lover of history, so it’s no surprise that he finds comfort and pleasure in what’s traditional and cultural, “what’s been there for eons.” He despises food television, and the only two food-related publications he reads regularly are Cook’s Illustrated and Fine Cooking.
So what’s always in Warner’s kitchen? Besides Bordeaux (“my first love”), you’ll probably find dried mushrooms, lots of different kinds of flour, cinnamon and allspice (“I like using them in savory dishes”), clarified butter, and grapeseed oil (“for more intense sautéing”). While farm-to-table philosophy definitely resonates with Warner—in fact, when asked about food personalities, living or dead, that he’d invite to dinner, Alice Waters’ name came up—he agrees that it is a difficult and expensive standard to live by, and that he and his wife are simply trying to educate their son on where food comes from. To that end, the Lawrences own a number of chickens! Yes, real live chickens, in the middle of Atlanta. In addition, they buy organic milk, they limit their son’s sugar intake, and they avoid processed foods.
Warner is still pretty young, so where he will go and what he will do in the future is anyone’s guess. For the time being, I know that I am happy to have his passionate and approachable expertise available at my local Sherlock’s. Stop by and see him sometime!