Bartender for life

Going the Distance
IMBIBE (Sept/Oct 2014)

The stamina of career bartenders has always fascinated me, so when Paul Clarke at Imbibe suggested I do a story about it, I was happy to pick up the phone and call bartenders and ask a lot of questions. Bartenders have always seemed rather heroic to me — I don’t know how they do what they do night in and night out. And so many do it with such aplomb, and make it seem like it’s nothing. They never mention dealing with bathroom plumbing issues at 1am, or having to come in early to do inventory.

Chefs get to practice their artistry in the back, away from view, and can be as cranky and unpleasant as the job makes them. Bartenders do what they do just a few feet from their customers, and have to remain reasonably agreeable if they want to stay in the game. (Paul Gustings excepted.) And they do this while being undistracted by some dude waving a $20 bill at the end of the bar yelling “Hey, bro, how about some love over here?”

I talked to a lot of bartenders about their experiences and strategies for long-term survival. As is often the case, not all the bartenders nor their comments made it into the piece. I had a whole section on dealing with perception of bartending and self-respect that didn’t make it in. Some bartenders I spoke to said they've had to face down those doubts — parents who had hoped they’d go into law, and friends who figured that they’d grow out of bartending after a few years, and wouldn’t make a career out of it.

My brother long worked as a bartender in California, and his investment banker college friends would fly in to visit him every year. “This is great,” they told him. “We love coming to drink with you. But you know what? If you’re still doing this when you 30, you’re a bum.” (He’s still in the business 20 years later, although he’s been manager for most of those.)

But that perception is changing, like so much else in the craft cocktail world. Steve Yamada, a friend and New Orleans bartender who’s about to open Lattitude 29 with Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and his wife, Annene, talked about that with me.  “It’s a weird thing,” he said. “At my ten-year high school reunion I was freaking out because these people had become investment bankers, and who am I? But it turned out they were more interested in talking about what I was doing than about what they were doing.”