The face of tending bar is changing. Twenty or even 10 years ago, men and women got into bartending as a way to get somewhere else. It was a temporary job, “until you get a ‘real’ job or get through college,” says Kathy Sullivan, owner of Sidecar Bartending.
But that seems to be changing. Today, more people enter the industry seeking a career. And they need to start thinking of the job as a marathon rather than a sprint, says Jim Meehan, a bar operator and educator who opened the James Beard Award-winning bar PDT in 2007. In a speech about “responsible service” for P(our), a collective that connects drink professionals, Meehan talked about self-care. “On a daily basis, we all go into our jobs and our relationships with friends and family and loved ones in deficit,” he says. “We give too much to one thing and not another. If you do that too long, you will break down and those relationships will break down. We need to take better care of ourselves.”
Taking care of yourself means something different to everyone, but many bartenders agree that their job is both physically and mentally taxing. “A lot of bartending is repetitive,” Meehan says. “You shake, stir, lug cases up and down stairs, stand for 12 hours, there’s a lot of bending over. Over many, many years, that becomes a physical challenge as you get older.”
Marcos Tello, director of mixology and education for Mezcal El Silencio, has seen this as well. He says bartenders can get tennis elbow and pinched sciatic nerves, or experience changes in hearing, and even wake up with a “claw” hand, a hand literally curled up like a claw. “Being on your feet, repetitive motions, not eating properly, dehydration—a whole bunch of things can contribute to the deterioration of your body,” he says.
After using himself as a guinea pig, Tello came up with a program, now sponsored by Silencio, to help bartenders. During his Physiology of the Modern Bartender sessions, he teaches pre-shift and post-shift exercises, doles out diet advice and recommends supplements to decrease inflammation and boost energy. And people see results. One bar reported a 50-percent reduction in body pain in its staff, and Tello lost 20 pounds in a year. “Like Jim said [in his speech], we have a ton of bartenders now making this a career,” he says. “And if you’re doing that, you have to look at each shift as ‘I’m going into a workout.'” He adds that “physical, mental and emotional health all are intertwined. By creating some good habits, the other things will start to fall in line, too.”
That’s important because the job can also be mentally and emotionally challenging.
“There’s a lot that goes on in any given shift,” says Jacques Bezuidenhout, beverage director and partner at Wildhawk, Forgery and Verso in San Francisco. “Any given night looks very different. It could be super fun and an even pace, or you could you be slammed, tired and have a group come in who makes everything challenging. You have to ramp up beforehand for everything that may or may not come.”
Meehan likens it to Groundhog Day. “Every day isn’t the same, but that process of starting over with childlike excitement for the next day, which will be similar to the last day, is a mental state you need to put yourself in,” he says. Over time, it demands more emotional and psychological faculties.”
Once he or she is behind the bar, a bartender is in constant motion — physically, but more so mentally. “The process of figuring out which of the five to 50 things you should be doing at that moment … and doing it accurately, requires great deal of thought and awareness,” Meehan says. “And some of those things you can’t teach.”
“You’re always thinking two steps ahead,” Bezuidenhout says. “Not just on the drinks, but making sure people are having a good time, conversations are going, monitoring the intake of alcohol … Every night you’re trying to stay ahead.”
Another thing that can only be learned from experience is handling each night’s curveballs. “Learning how to diffuse a situation or how to connect people — I don’t know that it’s hard, but it’s the part that isn’t as easily taught as how to make a Manhattan to spec,” says Terry Williams, general manager at Houston’s Anvil Bar & Refuge. “Everyone has different personalities and people react differently to different people. Over time, you learn what your strong suits are.”
Like pretty much any job, bartenders are expected to perform no matter what. “If you’re tired, hungover or having issues at home, you have to put on a smiley face and think which of the thousands of cocktails out there will make someone’s night,” Tello says. “When you get off shift, you can feel drained because you’ve given so much of yourself to make people happy.”
Combined with the long hours, feeling drained can strain bartenders’ relationships. “Bartending takes a toll on your personal life,” Williams says. “You don’t have off holidays and weekends, and you miss things — birthdays, anniversaries, holidays. You don’t spend Mother’s Day with Mom sometimes, and you hope she understands you have to celebrate a week later.”
Having an intimate relationship can be hard, especially if your significant other doesn’t work in the industry. You might go days without seeing each other. “It takes a patient person to be with somebody in our profession,” Bezuidenhout says.
Getting married or having children can be the trigger for some bartenders to shift into a new role in the industry. Sullivan went from “weekend warrior” shifts when she was young and single to daytime shifts when she got married and had kids, and today she owns her own business. Meehan gravitated toward management later in his marriage and before his daughter’s birth, in part because the hours are a bit more forgiving.
“If you are serious about the business and like the job, you can do it,” Sullivan says. “You can find the right spot for you.”
There are many more opportunities for bartenders today. They can decide to stay behind the bar for decades, or shift into owning a bar, or marketing, or being a brand ambassador, or starting their own businesses. But now is the time for young bartenders to think about those things, Bezuidenhout says.
“If you’re a young bartender, don’t look at tomorrow or next week,” he says. “Sit down and ask, ‘Do I see myself behind the bar in five years with a positive attitude?’ If not, think about what else you can do in the industry that makes you happy and advances your career. Ask other people about their daily lives and challenges, and think if you see yourself doing those things.”
Meehan shared his experience in his speech because, as he put it, “I wish someone had shared a story like mine with some insight and motivation to be aware of these things and think about them when I was younger.” He adds: “I didn’t have a lot of people or notable examples of career paths I wanted to follow. Now we do. For the people who are saying, ‘I want to do this the rest of my life,’ some of the insights I’ve shared is how they’re going to get to year 30 or 40.”
It’s not that bartending is a bad job, but like any career it has its challenges. Tello says being a good bartender is like a good drink: “In drinks you want balance. And you have to be balanced physically, emotionally and mentally.”