The Innovator: Stephan Hinz

11 Jun. 2019
Meet the first Innovator of the Year at the Bar Entrepreneur Awards

Talk about innovation with a bartender and he will mention new techniques for ingredients or cocktails, flavour combinations, garnishes… Few do seem interested in the machines that produce their ice, or the shape of their shaker, or the physical properties of their glass. There are companies that do that — let’s leave that part of innovation to them and let’s focus on actually producing drinks. It does make sense — they’re in the business of selling drinks, after all. Some, though, want to push boundaries. German bartender Stephan Hinz is one of them, and his many projects have helped him win the Innovator category at the first Havana Club Bar Entrepreneur Awards.

Initially, Stephan was your ‘regular’ bartender, wanting to make a career out of it and to become as good as he could. Originally from Berlin, he moved around the country — Hamburg, Munich — in order to work with some of the best. Eleven years ago, he settled in Cologne — for many, Germany’s true cocktail capital — and ended up at the legendary Shepheard, a bar where many of the country’s frontline industry figures were trained. « I moved to Cologne because culinary education is very good there, and there are a lot of people who like food and drinks. Also, it’s a small city and chefs, bartenders, hotel owners etc are very well connected », Stephan told us.

As both his reputation and knowledge grew, he launched a catering and consulting company. So far, so common, one wants to say. As the business was taking off, though, Stephan soon realised that things had to change: « We figured out we needed more knowledge in the company, we hired new staff and built a database with all the knowledge there was on the market. If we want to make the correct proposal to a client, we need to educate ourselves as well as we can ». The result of this research can be found in a series of books, published from 2014 to 2016 — the first two on drinks and the third on actual service, or, as Stephan puts it, « the real focus » of the drinks business.

The more you know, though, the more you realise your — or the industry’s — blindspots. And here’s what sets Stephan apart from many of his peers: his attitude is pretty much « if you’re not happy about something, change it ». Glasses are a perfect example: « I see things differently from the producer or the supplier. A glass is a container of liquid. It brings the liquid from A to B. And I was thinking that it has to appeal to all your senses. So we studied glasses. » And by study, he really means study: they looked at size, shape, how it reflected light, how it looked on the backbar, how it fit in the freezer… The whole concept in hand, Stephan went to talk to glassware producers. « They told me ‘you’re a bartender, you don’t know what the market needs’ ». Not one to give up so easily, he renewed his pitch the following year and Spiegelau bit. « Today, the Perfect Serve Collection is the best and most successful glass collection of the last ten years », he says — dedicated bar-goers won’t be surprised, as the line has become ubiquitous over the last couple of years.

This could have been enough. Not for Stephan, though. « I bought an ice machine and I was disappointed: the machine didn’t fit in my basement. The machines on the market are huge so you need a big, big room… And I made a big mistake: I didn’t measure my door ». You know what comes next: he decided to develop an ice-machine for real world bars. « I didn’t start with the machine, I started with the room, the environment. The things you can’t change ». After months of research, he was in a position to develop a machine (100% made in Germany) capable to produce high quality ice for bartenders anywhere. « The goal is the ice. The best ice for everybody. The machine is only the equipment »

Of course, more projects are in the works. A clothes line, for example. « Professional sports people have professional shoes and socks. A bartender, if he produces 250 drinks a night, has to lift almost a ton. » And he has a uniform but no dedicated shoes or underwear. Stephan is working on this with doctors and people from professional sports. Straw — an obsessions for the bar industry — is also a focus, with, according to Stephan, the perfect solution on the way and a patent for a unique straw cleaning station. 

All of Stephan’s innovations of course feed his bar, Little Link, in Cologne. It owes its name to its philosophy: « We build links between daytime and evening, between work and fun, between food and drink… It’s the connection between the little things in life. We bring them together and make it fun », Stephan explains. This could also be the name and philosophy of all his ventures, actually: « Today, it’s more important to know who is the expert in tiny, tiny things and you connect the experts in tiny, tiny things to make a big thing happen. As a bartender, you’re supposed to be a good host, a good listener and you know how to connect people or how to communicate. So maybe I’m very lucky to be in the bar business and it helps for certain business opportunities ».

François Monti