Glendon Hartley is ‘nerding out’ about cocktails
How the co-owner of James Beard Award-nominated Causa/Amazonia found his purpose
Glendon Hartley became an entrepreneur in middle school. He admits that back then, his business operated on the wrong side of the law: he stole candy, cigars, cigarettes and the like and sold them to students at his suburban Washington school. “I had people working for me,” said Hartley, who now has 70 employees as co-owner of Causa | Amazonia, nominated this year for a James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant, and Service Bar, which this year landed on North America’s 50 Best Bars list, both in Washington.
But in the 1990s, when Hartley was pulling in $30 to $40 a day at his illegal operation, he was an 11-year-old with “a lot of hubris,” he said. “I didn’t think that anyone’s rules applied to me. I would run through the hallways. I would show up to school late.” When he was caught with a stash of goods and suspended for 10 days, Hartley said his mother understood his motivation. “ ‘I think what you’re doing is you’re trying to make more money for us, for your family. So, I’m not going to fault you for doing that. But you’re doing it in the wrong way,’ ” he said she told him. After that, she told him he needed to “find a purpose.”
Despite a circuitous route that included fashion design in New York City and car mechanics school in Miami, Hartley finally nailed down his purpose in his mid-30s with his two restaurants. “I want to add value to my guests, more so than just line my pockets with money,” said Hartley, 38.
In the beginning
“We were partners,” Hartley said of his relationship with his mother, who emigrated to the U.S. with her family from Trinidad when she was 9. She had Hartley at 19. They grew up together, he said of their close relationship. “I tell everyone to this day my mother is my blood driving force.”
To afford him better opportunities, his mother moved them from Baltimore to Montgomery County, Maryland, one of the nation’s wealthy counties, just outside of Washington. “I was going to school with Hispanic, white, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people. It was a great cultural mix.” While they moved a lot, upgrading apartments each time his mother got a better job, it wasn’t until high school that “I felt safe, like, the first time,” Hartley said. Not only was there a gate around the condo community, there were no more rats and roaches.
His childhood was filled with disparate passions — soccer, art, science, chemistry, and fashion. Of all his interests, fashion eventually won out, and in 2006, at 21, Hartley went to New York City to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology. Despite four years working as a waiter and bartender at chains such as Uncle Julio’s, Ruby Tuesday and Houston’s, he eventually returned to his suburban Maryland job at Uncle Julio’s. “But I always wanted a better job,” he said.
‘Nerding out’ on mixology
Everything changed for Hartley in 2008 when a friend told him about a training program for a new farm-to-table restaurant in Washington, a concept Hartley had never heard of. That summer, Hartley said, he learned the difference between bartending as a service and bartending as a craft. He said he got “so deep into what I was doing,” with the Founding Farmers restaurant group that he left fashion school and his designer dreams. “It was the chemistry that really led me to dive into [the restaurant] industry. I really buckled down and I was like, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ ”
Founding Farmers is where Hartley met his business partner, Chad Spangler, who owns Causa/Amazonia and Service Bar. Spangler, then studying finance at George Washington University, was Hartley’s bar back. “We had a lot of late nights of nerding out about the science of cocktails and things like that,” Hartley said, laughing.
Two years later, “leaning very hard into” the science of cocktails, reading every book that he could get his hands on (“and I never stopped studying to this day”), Hartley left Founding Farmers. “It has to be fluid. You have to seek out different knowledge” from additional mentors, he said. One of them was Derek Brown, a key player in Washington’s emerging cocktail bar scene, who opened Columbia Room (now closed) in 2010.
At that time, Hartley connected with chef Carlos Delgado, Causa/Amazonia’s executive chef. The two collaborated on a Peruvian restaurant that Delgado was contracted to open. Delgado did food, Hartley did drinks. “That was the first time I ever designed and built out a bar myself. Since then, I never looked back,” Hartley said. Despite rave reviews, Opoca, located in Washington’s H Street corridor, was shuttered after two years.
Even as Delgado moved on to work with chef José Andrés, renowned for his humanitarian foundation, World Central Kitchen, Hartley and Delgado continued to dream of their next collaboration. Spangler grew close to the pair, and the three began traveling to Delgado’s native Peru on research missions. In Peru, Hartley fell hard for pisco, a brandy distilled from wine or fermented fruit juice. He had learned about Peru’s national spirit while studying other brandies, such as calvados, cognac and Armagnac, but it was in Peru that Hartley’s passion for pisco peaked.
As they dreamed of their future restaurant, Hartley and Spangler launched a cocktail consulting business to help restaurants rehab their bars. Most bars at the time, Hartley said, weren’t designed for mixology — cocktails with lots of ingredients that take time to make — and it became a money drain. Hartley and Spangler were sure Washington, with an expanding list of award-winning chefs, “wasn’t going to return to the Stone Ages” of mixed drinks. So, as part of their consulting business, they built a place where owners could see what an efficient cocktail bar looked like and where their staff could be trained. Quickly, Service Bar became more than a training ground and morphed into a neighborhood bar where bartenders went to drink.
As speakeasies began dotting the local barscape, Service Bar embraced an identity as the anti-speakeasy — one part Irish pub (“the most welcoming place on earth,” said Hartley), one part great music, one part great cocktail, “with good lighting so people can actually take pictures of your cocktails and post them online so even more people would come,” a concept that, in 2016, was still in its dawn.
A two-level Peruvian kitchen and bar
By 2020, Hartley and Spangler’s restaurant collaboration with Delgado was underway. And, though the coronavirus pandemic delayed the debut of Causa/Amazonia, the restaurant that pays homage to Delgado’s home country opened in the spring of 2022. Located in an alley in the Shaw neighborhood that was already home to some of the city’s top-rated restaurants, including The Dabney and Tiger Fork, both with Michelin stars, the Peruvian restaurant opened to rave reviews. Downstairs, Causa seats around 20 for a six-course tasting menu. Upstairs, Bar Amazonia, with a rooftop bar, holds approximately 84.
While you can get a pisco cocktail at Service Bar, the spirit of Causa/Amazonia is pisco. The U.S. is Peru’s second highest pisco importer behind Chile, but most Americans still consider it novel. Hartley is on a mission to change that. His bar menu has nearly 100 piscos and all eight varietals.
“Pisco is so diverse. One of the things that I love most about it is its dynamic nature,” Hartley said. Pisco comes from “a specific harvest and a specific distillation from a specific year. And this year tastes different than that year,” he said. “That’s what [pisco distillers] have honed in on for the last 400 years.” According to Hartley, pisco needs to “rest” for at least three months before it’s ready for the marketplace, but 99% of the category rests for at least one year. “That’s how you know that it has matured and oxidized enough. The molecules have all settled together, and now they’re cohesive.”
Those who want to taste test Hartley’s pisco collection can order flights of either current or rare vintages. And, because he had regulars who’ve tasted all 30 of his original piscos, Hartley added another 70 to the restaurant’s collection over the first year. Why? It has everything to do with purpose, that concept his mother drilled into him at a young age.
“Adding value to my guests” continues to dot Hartley’s landscape. And so do moments of reflection. “When I look at the path that I’ve had, have I stumbled? Yes. Have I made mistakes? Yes. But all those mistakes have led me to what I’m doing now,” he said.