What It's Like To Be ... A Bartender
The modern bartender as a "cultural priest"
Every workplace has a star. And according to Jeff Bell, the head bartender at Please Don't Tell, a speakeasy located in Manhattan's East Village, the worker who shines the brightest in any drinking or eating establishment is the man, or woman, behind the bar. Indeed, it was the position's star power that initially drew the 28-year old Bell to bartending back when he was starting his career in the Seattle area a decade ago, he recently told AOL Jobs during an interview at PDT.
Apprenticing on the way up: Bell entered the restaurant industry at age 18 because, he said, "what else are you qualified to do" at that age? And upon working in the field he said that he realized that "being behind the bar is what I want do." He broke in the way most people do. "You get a job at a restaurant and then you work your way up from within. You figure out where the hole is from vacancies, and you prove yourself," he said.
For Bell, the entry-level position was as an 18-year-old busboy, and working early bar positions at establishments including McCormick's Fish House in the state of Washington. (The minimum age for being a bartender varies between 18 and 21, depending on the state, according to bartending.org.)
In his seven years of working as a bartender, Bell said that he has completed bartending classes, but formal training is not a requirement to land a position. "It's a trade first and you put in your time to grow from within a restaurant," he said. It's much more common to land the entry-level "gateway job" at the ground floor of a restaurant, and work your way up, as he did.
Has he ever. After moving to New York four years ago -- where there was "more to see" -- he wound up at PDT, a forerunner in the roughly decade-old movement to restore craft to bartending in a way that hasn't been seen perhaps since the Prohibition era.
And for today's craft bartenders, the denim-clad, Sam Malone "neighbor" approach is out, while bowties and a studied expertise in cocktail-making is in. (Bell was interviewed wearing a t-shirt.) In such an environment, drinking is treated as performance art; PDT patrons enter the bar through a telephone booth. This style of bartending -- also seen at New York watering holes such as Milk & Honey and the Flatiron Lounge, among other venues throughout the country -- was celebrated in June with the release of the documentary, "Hey Bartender."
Why has bartending seen a cultural transformation in the past decade? "A lot of people today are not fulfilled in their work; they spend their lives at a computer and can never actually touch their work. Here you have a finished a product -- [the cocktail]," Bell said. "People today are fascinated by hands-on work, so I think it's a reaction to our economy today."
Bell conceded that his is no normal bartending gig. He said that when he's not working he's "constantly thinking about drinks and the bar." Countless other bartenders, however, still seek out the job as a means to get by while pursuing other endeavors. But when he's not working the 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. shifts, Bell spends his free-time inventing cocktails. He said that he's particularly proud of the Cereal Milk Punch, which New York magazine described as a "childhood-invoking brunch treat that's definitely adults-only." The drink is made of a combination of a corn and wheat whiskey, in addition to a honey liqueur and cereal milk.
Unlike most neighborhood bartenders who do not, Bell works full-time with full benefits. He makes upwards of $50,000 a year, he said. The median pay for the country's 503,200 bartenders, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is $18,680. But perhaps more so than other fields, income can fluctuate according to the worker's attendance record, i.e., how many shifts the worker takes on. Either way, Bell said, roughly 80 percent of any bartender's income derives from tips.
As AOL Jobs has reported, America's tipping custom is currently under fire, with critics pointing out that restaurant workers often lose out as a result of their customers' racial or other prejudices. As an alternative, these critics suggest, base prices should be raised to ensure these workers are getting their due. Indeed, voices like that of the chief restaurant critic of The New York Times often advocate the tipping of bartenders on every round of drinks. Bell, for his part, defends tipping, arguing that "everyone is motivated by money. The United States has the best hospitality in the world and I think there's a correlation with the chance to work for good tips."
The new standing given to bartending does have a downside, Bell added. The work is now "attracting gloryhounds" who are entering the field for all the wrong reasons. "The most important part is being engaging with customers. You have to be a people-person," he said. And everyday he has conversations on a range of topics with his customers, including his favorite, philosophy, which was his major at the University of Washington.
Being a "cultural priest," as he put it, also means being forced to listen to customers' worst confessions. It is also the bartender's job to track who's had too much to drink, or who shouldn't even be allowed to enter at all. "The most memorable thing is being spit on," he said. "But you try to keep your cool. When something like that happens, you just have to step back."
What's the best part of the job? "You get to see every side of humanity."
What's the worst part of the job? "It's a very physically demanding job," he said, saying that he's developed knee problems.
How much can you expect to be making during the first year on the job? "A neighborhood bartender can expect to make $300 to $500 a night, with tips, from Day One."
Five years in? "If you are a bartender at any bar you should be able to raise a family with a second income."
Please Don't Tell, or PDT, is located at 113 St. Marks Place, New York, N.Y.
Dan Fastenberg was most recently a reporter with TIME Magazine. Previously, he was a writer for the Thomson Reuters news service's Latin America desk. He was also a reporter and associate editor for the Buenos Aires Herald while living in South America.
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