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.
“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.”)