You Mad Bro? The Truth About Bitter Bartenders

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If you’re an adult past the legal drinking age in your ‘hood, and have had the good fortune to make it back alive from an evening of even moderate imbibing more than a few times – then chances are you’ve run into a particular type of drink slinger, who with his/her less than pleasing demeanor, has left a particularly nasty scar on the memory of your otherwise stellar evening. At best, you may simply been treated like a cold number by an unexpectedly austere ingrate. On the flip side, perhaps you flashed your cash (and cleavage), while repeatedly gesturing for service at a 3-deep bar, only to have waited (from your perspective) an extraordinarily long while. Upon finally being paid some attention from the barkeep, (a) your drink tasted like murky, NYC Summer Subway Puddle (b) your round was missing a drink (b) you were overcharged (c) he/she slammed down your cold Salade au Chèvre Chaud with cold abandon and (d) the resultant argument with the manager got you escorted to the curb by two terrifying, seemingly uneducated, 375-pound, 6’7″ men. To add insult to injury, the local constables then threaten to cuff you for theft of service lest you sign the [already gratuitized voucher]. What a farse! My friend, you’ve been shat upon by the all to common Douchebag Bartender. There’s only one problem: Bitter Bartenders are made, not born.

The crux of the problem, what turns an otherwise “nice guy” into the familiar “biggest asshole you’ve ever met,” is the job itself: Retail. Spend any significant amount of time servicing the Retail Public (restrained by Corporate By-Laws) with the looming threat of (a) being shit-canned for supposedly improper service, and (b) repeatedly being stiffed or severely shorted on a much needed tip, and your skin will eventually grow gruff. Your ire will slowly build. Your patience for apparent stupidity and ignorance will slowly grow shorter and shorter. If you work behind the stick, any negative notions you may have previously harbored about race, social order, sexism, money, career paths, government assistance programs, and the like will be massively exacerbated. Combined with the physical demands and booze consumption, the retail cocktail business will reek havoc on the meek and feeble-minded. Those folks don’t enjoy longevity in this business. They spend busy evening’s crying in the manager’s office – popping some kind of prescription anti-anxiety meds to soak up all the whiskey they drank behind the bar. They get sent home early for being unstable, unreliable, emotional drunks.

Don’t get the wrong idea… I absolutely love my job. I adore people – human beings – even strangers simply for the beauty of their living. Fat, skinny, rich, poor, gay, straight, maimed, British teeth, bleached pearly model grills, Hollywood tans, ghostly pale, small boobs, ginormous boobs, medium boobs, whatever – I heart everyone and have both unimaginable tolerance as well as uber-compassion for folks (which is often my downfall). I sincerely believe people are generally good-hearted and do my damned best to treat them as such 99% of the time, particularly on the job. I subscribe to the “kill ‘em with kindness” M.O.

Do I goof up at times, occasionally mishandling a situation or incident? Do I sometimes lose my temper? Busted… absolutely yes and yes! I’m human too ya know? However, those instances are very rare. I’m a professional “people manager” – half of what being a bartender is all about. When I do lose my cool, or handle a disagreement less than optimally, I can do little else but focus on and beat myself up about it for days or even weeks on end. Nothing like a shit-ton of self-loathing to cheer one self up, aye?

That said, I know that humans are also often complacent, ignorant, arrogant, cheap, conniving, aggressive, and occasionally, violent. In this business, a good percentage of them – by all appearances – are on an outright mission to make it known to you that they’re imperfect, often at the most inopportune times, and under the worst conditions. They’re conditioned to keep doing so by hospitality management in most cases.

For one, a good number of patrons have preconceived (often dead wrong) notions of what to expect at a bar. At the extreme, these folks have Entitlement Syndrome. They believe all bars/restaurants/hotels/lounges/clubs should kiss their asses for the mere fact that they crossed the business’s threshold and are contemplating dropping coin at the establishment. Well, they’re not all that far off in theory. Both the business and the bartender not only survive, but thrive on guests. As Taffer – and even the lowliest Hospitality Management intern – will tell you, that’s especially true of repeat business. It’s crucial to make a fantastic impression on guests the first go-around. Repeat business, or lack thereof, will make or break a bar. Anyway, there are a number of patrons who twist this logic and will holler, make a scene, get in employees’ faces, yell, kick, scream, or otherwise cause a disturbance for even the smallest of disagreements and expect the house to rule in their favor, pretty much under any circumstance. The trouble is that (unless a guest becomes blatantly threatening or violent), the house generally will resolve disagreements in favor of guests - even when guests are clearly in the wrong. At issue, as implied above, is that the establishment is terrified of losing repeat business. The cost of “comping” a couple of drinks, a single dish, or even an entire meal, is viewed as far less than the “cost” of potentially lost revenue in the future. I’ve seen some crazy disputes in my Hospitality career. Among them:

  • Demands for refunds after meals/drinks were consumed because the “lighting was bad” or the “place was too cold”
  • Calls for firing the bartender because he/she either (a) mentioned something about the guest not tipping repeatedly or (b) ignored hostile or repeat non-tippers
  • Requests for hundreds of dollars in replacement cost or dry cleaning compensation for guests themselves spilling sauce or red wine on their Prada bags, Guccie shoes, or Hermes scarves.
  • Folks eating 90% of a dish then complaining “it didn’t taste right” – they want it comped
  • Folks “finding” a hair or bug in their food an hour into their meal after 90% has been consumed (read: I’ve personally witnessed people manufacture incidents)
  • The bartender suggesting cocktails (after a pleasant Q&A to get an idea of what they might like), making 3 or 4 cocktails, having the cocktails all consumed, and the guest refusing to pay for any of them

The list is endless… However, what outsiders (outside the Hospitality industry) don’t understand is that (1) most places will bend over backwards to keep them happy – within limits and (2) once they cross “that” line, they can and will be legally tossed out the door [often literally] and sometimes refused service going forward. Private businesses are just that – private. They are under zero obligation to provide you food and beverage. It’s a common misconception that bars are public. They are not. They are private business which cater to the public. The truth is, a bartender, waiter, employee, agent, manager, owner – whatever – can refuse to serve a guest for any reason at anytime so long as they don’t overtly discriminate. What that means is that if I perceive you to be hostile, threatening, drunk, argumentative, non-cooperative, or touchy-feely, I’m not going to serve you and can lawfully do so. I’m then well within my rights to radio my burly, easily agitated, doormen to escort your dumbass to the nearest curb.

Working Front of the House in Hospitality is a bittersweet pill. For many, it’s transient. For others, it’s a career or even an addiction. Either way, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a trap – both a wonderfully fulfilling and party-filled blessing, as well as a terribly damning curse.

On one side, you can sometimes make quadruple the yearly salary your graduating counterparts are “enjoying” in the desk-jockey, cubicle-grunt careers. You get to not have set an alarm clock - ever. Sex and relationships are handed to you on a silver platter – so much so, that it can become quite the chore to manage or gracefully turn suitors down. This is true even for the most unattractive, out-of-shape baller with little to no communication skills or swagger. It’s the equivalent of the attraction to a “man in uniform” only much more so. It’s not only the booze lowering people’s inhibitions bit (which it certainly does). But, the whole nightlife atmosphere lends itself to a lowering of the gloves of sorts. People are not on their best behavior. Before the first shot of Jameson is downed, they’ve already entered a particular mindset where the typical  rules of engagement (like Corporate Harassment Policies) are left at the door. This is why routinely engaging extended Happy Hour sessions with your corporate overlords (or underlings) is a terrible idea. Bartending means infrequently, or never, having to hit the ATM. You’re pockets are flush with and reinvigorated with hundreds of fresh Benjamins nightly – cash money. Bartending is the antithesis of corporate life. You’ll rarely have to endure the fattening of your ass (at least in NYC), sitting in a chair 9-5, staring at a computer screen, basking in madness-inducing fluorescent lighting.

On the flip side, you will never, ever get rich bartending or waiting tables. Yes, you can make a somewhat comfortable living depending on your expectations. But that’s just it: bartending, you can never “expect” to own a brownstone in the West Village and a cottage in Southampton, shuttling yourself between the two, working your M5′s clutch with your fresh Manolos. It’s simply never going to happen. If your life’s goal is to room with 3 other industry folks in some industrial rental in the heart of Greenpoint, doing endless “bumps,” toking endless buds, imbibing on an epic stomach-pumping or drunk-tank scale, and attempting to bang 22 year olds well into your 50′s or 60′s, then more power to you. I know plenty of folks just like that. To each his own, and no looking down on folks who are otherwise happy with that type of existence, but I – personally – have higher aspirations. The problem, as mentioned, is that easy gratification described above is instantly rewarding and a very difficult cycle to break once you’re entrenched in the life – not unlike opiates. That’s why Daddy started crying inexplicably when you told him:

“I’m taking a semester off to figure out exactly what I want to do. And oh – I’m going to bartend until I figure it out.”

Bartending has you on your feet and moving - a lot. it’s tiring but it’s hard to get fat under such conditions. It’s incredibly laborious. It’s hard on your knees, back, biceps, hands, and seemingly, every other part of your body. You’ll ache, you’ll bleed, you’ll break and twist parts of your body not intended to be broken and twisted.

Bartending will expose you the the peoples’ worst qualities. Bartending highlights every stereotype in the book on a cartoonish scale. It’s as if otherwise restrained and law-abiding citizens have temporarily shipped off to Hedonism. Imbibing doesn’t help the situation. If you weren’t a racist (or a culturalist – is that a word?) before, you’ll without a doubt become intimately familiar with stereotypes as a bartender. Again, it makes one feel incredibly undignified, horrifically inhuman, and contributes to often unavoidable prejudices when certain guests stroll into your bar, walking and talking a certain way. But unfortunately, it’s reality.

Routinely playing referee to spats between the guests and the business opens the window into the ugly part of peoples’ souls. Routinely having to squash guests’ never-ending attempts of getting something for nothing (because they again, wrongly suspect the house will do anything to please them) has a way of callousing your love of fellow man. Repeatedly bending over backwards and providing that extra level of fantastic service for patrons, only to be left (often enough) zero tip and having guests scurry out the door while your back is turned, to avoid confrontation, is completely demoralizing and rage-inducing. At peak, being constantly interrupted by less than cordial orders (putting it nicely) while in the middle of speaking to another guest tends to make you hate on people. On a nightly basis, being grabbed, poked, prodded, ogled obsessively, being verbally sexually abused for hours on end, and having girls/guys waiting outside the front doors for you at 4:30 am (sometimes with baseball bats, sometimes with lube and condoms) has a way of fucking with your emotions and slowly turning you into a cold-hearted prick.

To make things worse, bartenders also have contend with management strife. I’m referring to Bar Managers, Floor Managers, Regional Managers and owners. There are lots of good experienced people in this business. The overwhelming majority worked their way up from entry level positions and know (or knew) most of the ropes very well. Unfortunately, for every decent manager, there is a diametrically opposed Satan of a douchebag who, not only believes he/she knows it all, but will take just about every opportunity to make your shift a living hell. There are those that will linger behind the bar (for reasons unknown) during the busiest of times, constantly getting in your way. Worse, they may have decided that peak happy hour is a great time for you to embark on necessary side work like wiping down all the bottles, making gallons of infusions, stuffing some olives, or scrubbing all the sinks. They often dream up whimsical additions to the cocktail menu that take 12 steps and 4 minutes to prepare. They may routinely introduce obscure and utterly crappy wines and beers that have absolutely no chance of being sold due to under-the-table distributor relationships or because their college experiences made them grow accustomed to nothing better than Manischewitz and LaBatts. Their brothers from another mother sometime show up – just for funsies. When they do, Mr. Manager will interrupt you mid-customer-order to have you prepare 6 fully layered B-52s and 6 fresh Cadillac Margaritas all with salt rims. Oh the joy. Relax, there’s a reason they’re in charge: they know what they’re doing. Just drink the Kool-Aid and shut the fuck up bartender. If you don’t like it, there can be 50 people lined up by tomorrow afternoon all clamoring for your position.

Somehow, in nearly two decades, I’m managed to maintain my… uhh.. niceties. I can’t imagine how that’s so – at times – based on my experiences here in The Big Apple. As a matter of fact, I’m routinely cited by my fellow barkeeps for being the most tolerant bartender under fire. Maybe it’s my having made it this far in the wide variety of venues I’ve worked in… Or maybe it’s simply my membership in AARP, nightly ritual Geritol popping ritual, and routine knee rubs with Ben-Gay. Who knows?

Successful, long-lasting bartenders at high-volume venues in New York City, require extremely thick skins, unimaginable levels of tolerance, and an uncanny ability to make difficult decisions under duress. The best bartenders are compulsively observant of the entire room, energy, music and other environmental factors. They have a constant wandering eye even when deeply engaged in boobery conversation. I know, we’re not fighter pilots, brain surgeons, NASA trajectory scientists, or anything near the sort. I’m not comparing the importance of our profession to critical life-saving/life-taking roles or multi-billion dollar hedge fund managers or anything in between. I’m simply trying to give you a picture of what the job is actually like, why you might encounter a bitter lifer, and how to play your cards right so that you have an enjoyable experience.

If 25 years in Front of House roles has taught me anything, it’s how to read people, how to please people, and how to reconcile differences. Learning, crafting, memorizing and serving beer, wine and spirits is the easy part. Yes, bartending as well as simply living in NYC, has hardened me somewhat. Luckily I’m far from having become one of “those” douchebag bartenders (yet). You need not look far to find one though…


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4 thoughts on “You Mad Bro? The Truth About Bitter Bartenders

  1. NadLove your blog. If I am ever jaded, I just trade some booze for some boobies. They can be terrible, it doesn’t matter. Never fails to brighten up a shift, even if I’ve been beat down by Canadians or birthday shots girls all night.

  2. If you work behind the stick, any negative notions you may have previously harbored about race, social order, sexism, money, career paths, government assistance programs, and the like will be massively exacerbated.

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