We do it for the people. And the tips, but mainly the people.
Seven years. That’s how long I have been bartending, and it always seems to surprise people. Sometimes my tenure is met with the good kind of surprise, like, Wow! That’s so cool! But mostly, the number of years that I have been behind the bar elicits furrowed brows and funny looks, silent questions asking two things: Why? and What’s wrong with you?
I get it: I’m almost 30, which means that in the eyes of those in nearly every other industry, I’m too old to not have an office job with benefits and paid vacation, to fret over what ‘business casual’ means, or to regularly sleep past noon.
I don’t bother answering those who believe there is something wrong with me, and who think that I have cognitive deficiencies that keep me out of a more traditional line of work. Because, my friend, times are changing: I’m not married with children either, and good luck calling me a lost cause because of that.
But when people ask why I have stayed in the service industry, what drew me to late nights, odd hours, and such a diverse array of duties—as well as when I ask others who have made careers out of what some consider merely a means for making extra money in college, the answer is always the same: We started young and we loved it—so we stayed.
Working in an advanced skill restaurant position as a cook or a bartender is violently antithetical to traditional work. Similar to dancing and acting, you get to mix master-level knowledge, technique, and teamwork with an active work environment that honors the desire to do and to make.
There’s also this: Some people are simply averse to early mornings, and to the solitary nature of so much office culture. Maybe we’re a little stuck on ourselves, or we have problems with authority, but restaurants are places that demand to be filled with big personalities that thrive on multitasking and being called to think on your feet. Many of us would feel crushed and suffocated by a job entering data or answer phones all day.
And while the technical skills that go into preparing and plating fine meals and working in high-volume establishments are a point of pride for many, every career bartender I’ve ever asked about their favorite part of the job has said they stay for the interaction factor: for the chance to augment someone’s experience.
I do my fair share of bitching about dealing with unruly and demanding people, but having a true and open conversation with a guest, being the reason someone leaves your bar with a smile on their face—that’s the counterbalance to the bitching, and it always tips the scales.
We want you to have a good time, to try something new and love it, to learn, in depth, about a drink or spirit you have always enjoyed. The same kind of high people have after hosting a successful dinner party or event —that’s the feeling we chase every night. That’s what keeps us coming back for 12-hour shifts and more aching knees, often serving people who deserve to be punched in the face.
Some people feel they were born to teach because of the connections they build with students. Others feel a calling for the stage because they thirst for the limelight. Most bartenders will tell you they want both.
And, you know—the money doesn’t hurt, either.
Copyright 2016 Haley Hamilton.
Terms of Service is licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
Haley is an AAN Award-winning columnist for DigBoston and Mel magazine and has contributed to publications including the Boston Globe and helped found Homicide Watch Boston. She has spearheaded and led several Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism investigations including a landmark multipart series about the racialized history of liquor licensing in Massachusetts, and for three years wrote the column Terms of Service about restaurant industry issues from the perspective of workers.