Bartending should be fun — and it is fun, especially when there’s music in the background, a lively crowd, and those dollar bills keep piling up in in the tip jar.
It can also be hard work, a daunting challenge . . . and that’s just part of the fun.
It’s like playing in the big game. You want things to be busy, you want to be out on the field . . . you relish the battle. You get to play hard, and win.
But sometimes, as the old saying goes . . .“Sometimes the bear gets you.”
Today’s post is about one of those times . . . a shift where I got my ass kicked.
Pride . . .
“Can you work for me this Sunday Brunch?” Sarah asked.
I hated the idea of getting up early Sunday morning after closing Christopher’s Saturday night, but Sarah was a sweetheart. And she never asked for a day off.
“My mom is coming in from New York,” she said.
How could I say no?
“Sure,” I said without hesitating, “No problem.”
And honestly, I really believed it would be no problem.
Sarah was a good bartender, but she didn’t have the experience yet to work anything like a busy weekend night. Once, when she did have to fill in . . . she struggled even in the slowest station. So she worked two of the quieter nights during the week, and then was alone on the downstairs bar for Saturday and Sunday brunch.
“If Sarah works the brunch,” I thought, “How difficult can it be?”
You have to understand I was younger then, and perhaps a little cocky. I’d been at Christopher’s for less than three months, but before that I tended bar in really busy places.
Once, at Cafferty’s in Brockton MA, the customers at the bar had risen to their feet — not once, but three times to give me a standing ovation during an especially busy shift.
Cafferty’s had three bars, live bands, a capacity of 1000 customers — and I worked alone on the third, smaller bar called “The Pit.” The work station in The Pit was a perfect three-foot-spin . . . everything you needed was only a half step away, and you could just stand in the middle, spin and turn with both arms and hands flailing away non-stop as you slung out the drinks.
I remember when those people at the bar stood up to applaud, and cheer, and laugh . . . I thought, “Damn, I AM good, aren’t I?”
What do they say about “PRIDE going before . . .
“The Fall . . . ”
“Sure,” I told Sarah back at Christopher’s, “Sure, I’ll cover the shift . . . no problem.”
I was right about one thing; it wasn’t easy getting up that Sunday morning. I was tired, hung-over, and my ass was dragging but I made it back to Christopher’s on time.
As I worked on the set-up, my feet were back underneath me, and now I was feeling in complete control. Christopher’s might be packed on weekend nights, standing room only — but I knew the brunch was at a much slower pace.
The doors were about to open when the first inkling of trouble appeared. Someone from the kitchen set a large box full of oranges on the bar top.
“There you go,” he said. And he walked away.
The box was about the size of a beer case. It was overflowing with oranges.
“The juicer is in the back closet,” one of the waitresses said as she walked by.
A box of oranges? The juicer?
Now it came back to me . . . when Sarah asked me to work the shift, she’d said something like: “The fresh-squeezed orange juice can be a pain-in-the-ass . . . but other than that, it’s kind of slow at the bar.”
The only thing I’d heard was, “It’s kind of slow at the bar.” The pain-in-the-ass part had gone in one ear, and out the other. I’d been too cocky to really listen. I’d been too confident to ask any questions. And now I was about to pay, big time.
A box full of oranges? A juicer? Are you kidding me?
(I’m sure with their brunch as busy as it is now, Christopher’s uses jugs of fresh-squeezed juice from Odwalla, or some other fine “fresh-squeezed” company. But this was when Christopher’s brunch was just starting out . . . and yes, the bartender was expected to hand-prepare each glass of juice.
Sarah must have made up a quart, maybe two quarts, maybe a gallon of juice ahead of time . . . just to get a jump on things. But I hadn’t asked, she hadn’t said anything, and now the doors were opening!)
“Two fresh-squeezed OJ!” one of the waitresses shouted immediately . . . and the nightmare began.
(Do you know how long it takes to hold half an orange down on a spinning juicer — one after the other — until you have just one glass of fresh-squeezed OJ?)
“Two more fresh-squeezed juice!” another waitresses yelled as she approached the bar.
The box of oranges was sitting on the beer cooler, the cutting board and knife were beside it. I stood with a sliced half-orange in one hand, holding it down . . . and with the other hand I was cutting the next orange. I felt like Lucy in the chocolate factory (see the video at the end of this post.) I couldn’t keep up. I was falling behind!
“Four fresh-squeezed!” a waitress shouted. I was getting buried!! No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to dig myself out.
My hands were smeared with fresh juice and pulp. I felt my shirt sticking to my back.
“Two more fresh OJ!” another waitress called out.
I was bent over the juicer, unable to get to my customers at the bar. I was all alone on the deck a sinking ship, and the water continued to rise. I was going down!!!
“Five fresh-squeeze juice!” another waitresses shouted, and this time I didn’t even bother to look up. I just kept my head down, trying to make more of that freaking fresh OJ.
So much for being a hot-shit bartender.
Needless to say there were no standing ovations for the bartender that brunch. Some customers watched with a look of pity as they saw their barman completely in the weeds.
It’s a lesson that’s not easy to forget. Being fast behind the bar isn’t just about raw speed. It isn’t only about multi-tasking, knowing the next step, or economy of motion.
It’s also being aware what to expect . . . and setting up properly.
When the brunch was over, one of the waitresses came up to the bar to give me her tip-out.
As she handed me the folded bills, she casually said: “Sarah will be back next week, right?”
I’m sure it wasn’t done on purpose, but her words were like salt thrown on a fresh wound.
“She’d better be,” I said. My hands were still sticky, but I gave my best attempt at a good-natured smile. “ . . . For everyone’s sake, I sure hope so.”
(Click the image below to see Lucille Ball “In the weeds.”)
I love that old clip of lucy. Reminds me of situations I saw back in the day.
That’s probably the worst thing about our business, that shifts like that happen sometimes. And I don’t care how much money might happen, I hate working any position on Sunday mornings
PS I’ve gotten my share of hugs, handshakes and compliments but I’m pretty sure no standing ovations!
You might not be as “cocky”, but you have the right attitude, which is something I always admired about your blog. You can step back and laugh at yourself, that takes a different type of confidence. This is one of your better ones.
I do not like the juice pulp in my OJ. So I would have been disappointed with fresh squeezed no matter now fast it was prepared. Thank goodness it’s available in a container now with out pulp. We all have regretted a time we offered help which seemed an easy task that turned into a nightmare. Fortunately you are now a Pro and we always learn from our mistakes. JT
Starbucks8294: Someone should make a video of the same thing happening to a bartender, in a busy bar. Always good to see you here, my friend.
Joe Sixtop: Joe, thanks for stopping by and commenting! Between your busy restaurant schedule, and your stellar blogging, I appreciate that you find the time to visit. That’s what keeps us going, doesn’t it? (As for the standing ovation … one of the customers was a young lady who sat at “The Pit” bar regularly. When she and her friend decided to stand up, I think the guys on either side just wanted to score points. After that, having had fun doing it once, they didn’t pass up a chance to do it again.)
Llylak: Nothing else to do when you get buried like that, Lly. If you can’t see the humor in it, you’re in trouble … which I’m sure you know from your college experiences in this business. Anyway, as always thanks for stopping by.
JT: We missed you at the Jam last week, JT. And as I remember, last Memorial Day Weekend you were absent too, so we may not see you again this week. (I asked you last year where you were on the Memorial Day jam, and you said you had a “family affair.” I replied, “This is a family affair,” sweeping both arms out at the jam.) If you don’t make it Sunday, be sure and say hello to your daughter, Elyce, and her fiance … and don’t even think of missing the next jam. I want “Cold in the City,” with you on drums and vocals.
Baby OH Baby, do I know the juice thing! It takes 2 solid hours to squeeze 3 gallons of orange juice. I know this, first hand. How about limes, huh? Takes about 250 of them to make one quart of fresh juice. The labor time spent on this is a waste. If you happen to be a bartender, you are fucked. If you are lucky enough to have a bar back to do this, you’re still fucked… as you will never see this guy for two hours. I have been is this biz for 30 years, and still love it. However, bottled “FRESH SQUEEZED” makes everyone happier, in the long run. These products are meant to save labor costs and back sweat, and are as close to fresh squeezed as humanly possible. When you get an order for 4 Mojitos at a bar while you are churning up fresh OJ, splattered from the arms up, on a busy brunch, it sucks the joy out of life. We servers and bartenders pride ourselves on being able to juggle five or six bowling balls at a time, but those oranges are the biggest buz-killers, ever. Bottled “fresh” juice costs less than the hourly pay+fruit to produce… that is why such businesses exist. Is “fresh squeezed” in-front-of-your face worth the wait for the customer? Who wins here?
Pmac: Clearly you’ve been there, Pmac … and you summed it up well. Thanks for commenting. (Not sure what you intended for a website link … the one you put in doesn’t work. Let me know if you’d like to change it … I think I can do that.) Thanks again for the good hands-on insight. “Juggle five or six bowling balls at a time” … a very accurate, perfect image.
Great story! I make a lot of my own fresh mixes and sours for my specialty cocktails using a juicer and a couple of different strainers. I often have to go in an hour and a half before my shift starts just to prep so I can definitely understand the nightmare you had to navigate through on that shift. Live and learn.
Caveman: Thanks for stopping by, my friend! I remember that you’ve mentioned on your blog (one of my favorites, by the way) that you made a lot of your own fresh juices and mixers. (I still have to try your great idea about mesquite-smoking a glass.) As Pmac mentions, though, I really can’t see fresh-squeezing OJ by hand. Johnny D’s serves over 600 people on a Sunday Brunch … that’s way too many hand-made OJ’s, when there’s the option of some really good fresh-squeezed available from a number of companies.
But a “made-from-scratch” sour? No comparison with that and one made from the factory “sour” mix. That was Johnny La La’s big thing … a whiskey sour made with whiskey, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, and powdered egg white (for those who don’t want to use raw egg white.) The foam head on the drink was unbelievable. Years later, a woman who also worked at The Lark Tavern and I used fresh-squeezed lime juice and egg white to whip up the BEST frozen margaritas at home. Damn they were good. In a blender the egg white creates a REALLY thick foam. But no hand-squeezed OJ during a busy brunch, please!!!
EGG WHITE is the only way to go for a froth for a shaken coctail! Whip it into your lemon or lime juice….won’t last for more than a day or two, but it creates a memorable FOAM on top. Eye popping, and no yolk here. Whip 2 egg whites into each quart of juice. Instant merengue! I used to make whiskey sours at Maison Robert a dash of pink and a huge head on them, 10 years ago. The drink was out of fashion many years, but I ended up making about 1000 of them a week. Eye appeal. Sidecar, same thing—- Just a brandy margarita, huh? Whip it up and sell 20 or more during your shift! Chicks love this stuff.
Pmac: So you were behind the bar at Maison Robert? Should have known … you clearly know your stuff. What a sight that must have been … all those whiskey sours, properly made with that frothy top, lined up in front of customers down the bar. Would have loved to have stopped in and enjoyed the whole scene, as well as the drink. Thanks so much for your contributions here … in two comments you’ve shared a lot of details, some really good info. Ever think of sharing some of this knowledge, either on a blog, or maybe with YouTube videos?
Nice of you to comment, MikeQ. Loved Maison Robert. I spent many hours churning up my own stuff for coctails in the kitchen, late at night. It DOES make a difference… creative simple syrups, Bloody Mary mix with pickles and roasted peppers in the blender while you are haulin’ ice before the doors open.
The efforts DO pay off if you pay attention. They really do. Fresh squeezed is so cheap to get now. No excuse to lay this on anybody’s back…. that is factory work, like tomato juice….ever have a fresh glass of THAT?
Speaking of the Bloody, Pmac … I checked out a bunch of videos on YouTube. Almost every one I saw ended by SHAKING the drink, which I always thought diluted the tomato juice. Nothing worse than watered-down tomato juice. (One did “box” the drink — pour it into another glass, then back — Johnny La La’s preferred method.) But another video used a good list of ingredients only to do NOTHING at the end … no shake, no box, not even a stir … so the pre-made Mary mix remained on top of the vodka at the bottom.
Any chance you’d share your recipe with the pickles and roasted peppers?
MikeQ. I agree with the no-shake Bloody idea.
Blood on top… Mary on the bottom. It’s a visual thing.
The old standby… the Kahlua Sombrero was always misunderstood also. Kahlua over ice with a cream float on top, the “sombrero”… simple concept, yet every bartender in America shook the hell out of these.
The martini is a debatable concoction. Classicly made with gin. Vodka martinis came in in the late 70s.
To shake or not to shake is the argument these days. I say shake ’em. Kamakazi’s were always shaken when they came on the scene in the early 80’s, usually served a a shot, but with the addition of a few drops of cranberry juice 10 years later, they became a Cosmopolitan, and suddendy everything was a martini when served in a martini glass. The coctail world was always meant to be a progressive thing, like language.
Any “classic” anything in the mixology or culinary world was meant to be improved upon, eventually, otherwise we’d still be eating and drinking the exact same things as our ancestors. It’s all in the interpretation, and the experimentation. Some things don’t work, but you gotta try.
I see what you mean about the visual, Pmac … but I’ve always like to “box” ’em. Speaking of Kamakazi’s, I first saw the drink called a “Liam”, after the bartender by that first name who worked at The Eliot Lounge on Mass Ave in downtown Boston. He created a drink that he served in a beer mug … we all thought he was just trying to get the young ladies hammered. This was around 1976. Several years later, we saw the same ingredients served as a shot in a drink called the “Kamakazi”. It was in a national magazine advertisement for Smirnoff Vodka. The Eliot was a popular hang-out for runners of The Boston Marathon, as well as the press and fans … so we thought someone must have tasted Liam’s concoction and stolen his recipe. Check your email … I’ve got a proposal that hopes to take advantage of your extensive knowledge. (I sent it from “email@example.com)
MikeQ: Ah yes… the Eliot Lounge, I remember it well. Boston was a small town in those days, wasn’t it?
Last word on the Bloody Mary thing: I strongly believe that any popular adult drink that comes with it’s own edible stir stick (celery) should be utilized as such by the customer. This, I feel is part of the fun in ordering a Bloody Mary…. a hands on visual. It’s not just a drink, it’s a meal, and a damned good one if you work it right.
Touche … 🙂 Hey, don’t forget to think over what I sent you in email. Let me know if you’re up for it … I think a lot of people might find it useful.