“Honestly, my dad used to take me to bars with him when I was super young,” he says, “I probably went to Ciao Baci the first time when I was eleven years old.”
Naturally, Thompson didn’t work around a bar until he was in college – a Buffalo Wild Wings in Springdale, Ark, near the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. That’s when his food industry career began, thanks to a co-worker named Kevin.
Thompson remembers, “[Kevin] mentioned he had an interview with Blessings Golf Club, which has a fine dining restaurant in Springdale.” Thompson went and applied and got the job.
He remembers, “The new manager – he liked that I was young and malleable – and he was really into the drink industry. So, he started pushing me in that direction because we didn’t have a bar or bartender.”
From there, Thompson moved with his budding interest and talents back to Little Rock, taking time off college. Upon his return he was able to get back into a routine with his dad which involved cycling, rock climbing, and ultimately celebrating afterwards with drinks. That’s how Thompson knows Tomas Bohm, through his dad, and at that particular time Bohm was working on opening the Pantry West.
Thompson remembers, “My dad made a joke and said, ‘Hey, you know George is moving back for a little while. He might need a job,’ and Tomas said, ‘Orientation starts tomorrow, I’ll see you then.’”
Thompson has fond memories of working at the Pantry. He says, “That’s where I really fell in love with the industry. … I consider [Tomas] one of the best, if not the best, restaurateur in Little Rock.”
After ruling college out, Thompson decided to call Little Rock his home. At that time, the Pantry’s previous bar manager – Shane Parker – decided to move, leaving the position open. Thompson learned a lot from Parker, as he says, “Shane is the epitome of bartender personality. He’s going to make you feel special, he’s going to make you laugh whether you like the product or not,” he says.
To fill the position, Bohm approached Thompson and Gene Lee, asking if either wanted to run the bar and eventually assume the position of bar director. Ultimately Gene would assume the position, marking the impetus Thompson needed to make a move. He landed behind the bar at the Capitol Bar and Grill, which gave him the opportunity to work with legendary Lee Edwards and David Burnette, as well as Spencer Jansen.
At that time, Edwards was readying to leave to join Yellow Rocket Concepts and he mentioned that Thompson could apply to work for the company. He did, and ended up working around the clock to help open Local Lime, a restaurant built specifically to highlight the bar program.
He says, “I feel like that’s where I got my foot in the door with being somewhat known in the industry, other than the big names that I already worked with knowing me. It was an amazing experience – it really was. We had a great crew. We were working with Lee Edwards, not daily, but weekly. Dylan Yelenich was there all the time.”
When Local Lime opened, there was often a four hour wait for a table. Creating craft cocktails in that kind of an environment is a whirlwind – albeit Thompson enjoyed it as he says, “It was wild, but it was a blast. We had to learn to implement speed bar tricks into the craft bar experience.”
Thompson stayed with Yellow Rocket and moved over to Big Orange Midtown to become bar manager there. “I learned a lot about beer, it was the first real beer-centric bar I worked in and I loved the general freedom … they trusted me,” he says. But before he could assume the actual title, he left to help open the Pantry Crest, an opportunity he couldn’t let slip by.
He still remembers the thrill of working at the Hillcrest staple – “I feel like the Pantry Crest is still my baby – I loved it. I really got to, more so than ever before, put a piece of me in the bar.”
Thompson’s next move included a brief stint in Tampa, tripling his wine knowledge before coming back home and settling in at 109 & Co. Around that time, he was approached about working for The Fold and Raduno. “I was more than excited,” he says, remembering taking on the role in early 2016.
He’s pumped to bring in new energy, aiming to give each restaurant more of a solid identity in terms of drinks.
For Raduno, think elegantly upscale, yet a casual place to sit down and enjoy a family dinner or to celebrate an achievement. He says, “I want the cocktails to portray that. I want them to have a lot of classic backbone with a wide array of different balances to match the food.” Think boozy Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, drinks with more of an herbal, Amaro base, maybe even some bubbles, as well. He says, “I want it to expand across the classic range of cockatils.”
In terms of wine, Thompson wants to mix it up a little and show off a few lesser known gems. Beer is another story, as he says, “We’re supporting a little bit of local, supporting a little bit of craft, and supporting what has been missed out on here, the third part, a little bit of classic Belgian and European.”
The Fold is a little more laid-back, with a tropical feel. Think Margaritas and Daiquiris, that include, as Thompson says, “Our unique spin on how we view what would be good, what would be seasonal, and what would be fresh.”
The beer at The Fold includes Mexican lagers and hoppy IPAs and pale ales, as he says, “We want to have a wide array of things that you can drink with that food and have a really nice experience whether you want to sit down, have a quick meal and a beer, or whether you want to drink for an hour or two.”
At each eatery Thompson is firm that everything will be juiced freshly in-house, as well as other things that can be made fresh. For instance, Raduno has a Bloody Mary Bar that complements Brunch every Sunday, and includes two house-made bases – a traditional red and a green tomatillo base.
Throughout his time as a bartender, Thompson has slowly shifted the way he does things, even how he drinks things. “For years my career was in cocktails, and I drank beer and I tried to learn about wine. … It’s shifted so drastically to where I drink so much wine now, and because I drink so many cocktails at work, that I really don’t drink many outside of work anymore, and beer is just kind of a guilty pleasure,” he says, laughing.
Speaking of guilty pleasures, when not working, Thompson can be found rock climbing or cycling, and spending time at a few of his favorite local haunts – The Pantry Crest, The Fountain, and The Town Pump.
If you get a chance, sit down and have a drink with the guy. He says it best, “I love to run into customers at other bars, sit and have a drink with them … the experience you get from bartender to customer is very personal, but it’s a different kind of personal than sitting on the same side of the bar as somebody..”