Ones to Watch 2019 // Tai Nalewajko of The Blue Ocean

Title: Bar manager at The Blue Ocean
Age: 28
Why Watch Him: He gets people to drink outside their comfort zones. 

From his hometown near Flint, Michigan, to film school in New York, then seminary studies in Springfield, Missouri, Tai Nalewajko didn’t plan to end up behind the bar.

Nalewajko discovered bartending by chance while working as a server and cook at Buffalo Wild Wings – a bartender didn’t show, and Nalewajko got the nod. The happy accident sent him down a new path toward St. Louis and stints at bars as diverse as Cantina Laredo, Elaia & Olio, Blood & Sand and Atomic Cowboy, along with a turn as market manager at Kansas City’s Tom’s Town Distilling Co.

It wasn’t until 2017 that Nalewajko found a true home behind the bar when a consulting gig turned into a bar manager position at Delmar Loop stalwart The Blue Ocean.

“I used to drink sake once in a while and didn’t know what soju was until I started at Blue Ocean,” Nalewajko said. “It’s kind of unfolded over the past year.”

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In that short time, the bar program at Blue Ocean has become known for creative cocktails and a stock of hard-to-find Asian spirits, while Nalewajko has become a fixture on the St. Louis scene for both his skills and his personality behind the bar.

“He tries to motivate people to drink outside their comfort zone,” said Planter’s House co-owner Ted Kilgore, who has judged Nalewajko at cocktail competitions and hired him to work at Miracle, a holiday pop-up bar. “He’s so light-hearted. He makes it about fun, not about him or his knowledge.”

Nalewajko’s wanderlust is unabated. He’s helping The Blue Ocean owner Chai Ploentham put together a new concept in Chicago and plans to open his own place eventually – maybe a dive, “dingy but not dirty,” with a playlist heavy on punk and hip-hop, or a small, intimate spot a la downtown Tokyo, tucked away in an alley or an anonymous office building.

“I like the idea of something being off the beaten path.”

Matt Sorrell is staff writer at Sauce Magazine.