What the Bartender Won’t Tell You

  • Olive Juice.”  Commonly used for dirty Martinis.  It’s not juice at all but rather a brine (aka, salt water).  In all but the most obsessive-compulsive, Victorian wannabe, hoity-toity bars that do things like make their own pickled cherries for instance, bar olives are cheap items bought in bulk from food service distributors like Sysco.  They typically are delivered in gallon jars and come 4 to a box.  When new, both olives and their brine pass for acceptable.  However, they get redistributed to condiment trays where they sit for hours/days while barbacks, bartenders and often unscrupulous customers like to dip their dirty hands.  To boot, in cost savings effort, all the trays (and their accumulated content) will often get dumped back into storage and refrigerated all night for the next evening’s service.  Imagine in the worst cases what might be lurking in there…
  • The sights and sounds of most European tourists instantly incite depression and rage.  This is due to the fact that many of them do not believe in tipping, play dumb, or plain just don’t know.  I don’t buy the ignorance bit much as it’s likely not their first time hearing about U.S. customs.  Furthermore, the gratuity issue is mentioned in just about every guide book on the planet.   Endless European customers either do not tip at all or will commit some awful faux-pas such as dumping $1.78 in coins after lingering for 2 hours and running up a $150 tab.  Industry-speak for these types of folks is “Eurotrash,” unfortunately.  What’s particularly sad is that these customers often ruin the perception in bartenders’ (and waiters’) minds about other Europeans who tip decently and are well respected – of which there are many.
  • Orders for hand-made frozen drinks, coffee and the like are despised.  They take an inordinate of time to prepare.  Time = money.  I can easily serve 3 other drinks in the time it takes me to make one of these examples.  If the bar is slow, no big deal – no issue.  I’m proud to show off my special drink skills.  Likewise, if you’re enjoying several drinks, food, etc., have run up a decent tab and you’d like to end with a coffee or special drink, it’s not an issue.  What becomes a problem, for example, is evening happy hour, the bar is 3 deep, 4 people occupy prime bar space, order 2 coffees, a black&white milkshake and 2 waters and sit there for an hour with refill after refill.  This is a lose-lose proposition for obvious reasons.  Go to Starbucks please.
  • We’re sick.  Unlike your day job with the drab fluorescently lit cube, standard-issue Blackberry, and corporate benefits, most bartenders who don’t have union gigs at high-end hotels cannot call in sick very easily.  Our shifts must be covered not by management but by us.  To boot, we don’t get paid when we don’t work.  As a result, short of a broken leg, most bartenders and waiters will come in sick even if they have something terrible like the Flu.  Obviously, we’ll load up on meds and do our best not to spread the wealth.
  • Fear of a gaggle of female customers.   In my nearly two decades of bartending in major cities, I can tell you that middle-aged men are the ideal customer from gratuity and maintenance perspectives.  Groups of women,  young/middle-aged/old whatever, are the worst especially when it comes time to pay the tab.  In countless instances, again at a busy time, a group of four 23 year olds will arrive, take 10 minutes to figure out what they’d like to drink despite menus and suggestions, order one at a time, then whip out 4 different credit cards and ask to close them all out individually!  In other cases, older sets will sit there for hours, scrutinize and question every item on the bill, argue over who’s paying and how, and finally tip you $1/drink despite cost, time, complexity and food.  The examples are endless.  In general, men don’t exhibit this behavior.  Obviously, there are exceptions.  But, as with other distinct groups, the stereotype has been established for good reason.
  • Maraschino Cherries.  These are prey to the same issues as the olives I mention above.  Maraschino cherries for the most part are/were Marasca cherries from Croatia brined/pickled in Marasca liqueur.  What you’re buying in supermarkets and getting at bars are Imitation Maraschino Cherries.  That is, they start as other varieties.  Sulfur Dioxide, Calcium Choride, Sodium Metabisulfite, and Red #40 are added for processing, preservation and coloring respectively.  Personally, I don’t touch this chemical-laden stuff.  There is an old bar tale of bar cherries taking days/weeks to digest.  I personally don’t believe that tale but it’s been repeated incessantly as a result of modern day industrial food service processing.  That said, like the olive story, there are places where you can buy natural/organic super delicious real-deal cherries if you poke around.
  • Markups.  The markup on spirits is often 300% – 400%.  That’s quite a bit!  The markup on draft beer and and wine can approach 500% depending on numerous factors like dumping four pitchers in foam down the drain.  On fountain soda, it can easily be 1000%!  The house typically makes a lot more money on drinks than it does on food (varies but is often 50% – 150%).  It sounds absurd but it’s not if you stop to break it down.  In running a bar/restaurant, the costs are astronomical and numerous.  The biggest cost is labor – not your bartenders because we either don’t get paid anything or we get some sort of minimum wage which works out to zero net due to some complex formula incorporating anticipated gratuities.  The next biggest cost is often real estate – lease or mortgage.  Then you have dozens of ancillary costs like corporate rate utilities, food/beverage stock, corporate and payroll taxes, licenses, repair/upkeep, numerous insurance policies, violations, and of course, loss – due either to spoilage or theft.  If you haven’t accounted 10 – 25% or so for that last one, you’re extremely naive.   A business owner with half-a-brain will have someone (owner, GM, accountant or all three) sit down and figure out what all those costs are.  The business has to be able to make enough profit to overcome all those costs and provide the investor(s) a an ROI (return on income) however much that may be.  Many business fail because partly because they’ve failed to properly calculate these projections.  Getting of topic a bit, many businesses fail because of lack of sufficient operating capital particularly during slow periods.  Taking this all into account, these are the reasons why a beer your local watering hole might cost $6 while you can get one the same one at the bodega for $2, or $1 or less on a per case basis at a beer distributor.  Don’t hate the bar.  Think of it as paying rent for you to sit there, take in the sights, converse, be served, listen to the DJ and use the bathrooms.
  • No, we don’t remember you.  Almost every shift, some unremarkable customer will yell out my name and say “remember me? I was here last year!” I have no clue who you are dude.  But, most of the time, I’ll play along and placate you.  I’ll go along with your little mind-game cuz (1) I want you to be happy and (2) I’d like you to quickly divorce your wallet from it’s contents.  ‘Nuf said. On the flip side, if you’ve come in several times and have made yourself memorable by either tipping very well (or tipping very badly), we will remember you.
  • Asking how much drinks are before you order.  You do have a right to know how much things are before you buy them – agreed.  However, in a bar, right or wrong, asking for pricing on drinks paints you as someone who (1) can’t afford to be here (2) doesn’t have enough cash/credit on them and (3) is probably not going to tip well if at all.  You may not be able to read that sentiment on the bartender’s face and in most cases, you won’t get scolded but you’ve set yourself up.  In a busy club, you’ll simply get passed up and ignored for the next customer – not so much in a bar/restaurant.  If you’re concerned about being able to afford the drinks at a particular establishment, or if you’re just a cheap ass, it’s probably best to limit your drinking to your couch.  If not, do yourself a favor and ask for the drink menu instead of directly asking the bartender for half-a-dozen prices.  This way, your curiosity will be satisfied without arousing suspicion.

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