February 13th, 2008

No respect for the bartender?

Moe the bartenderI have never met Walt Mates, but I plan to someday. Walt tends bar at Bistro La Belle in Midway, Kentucky. He is a fan of drinkboston, and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t influence my admiration of him. That and the fact that he stumbled upon this blog while researching the Saratoga cocktail. And the fact that his late father is from Somerville.

But what I really like about Walt is that he started his bartending career in midlife, after the bookstore he owned closed down a couple of years ago. Instead of being bitter about the transition, he found that he loves his new line of work. “I am very fortunate and thankful to have a boss who backs me 100 percent in offering carefully crafted classic cocktails using all fresh ingredients,” he says. And he likes his customers and co-workers, too! But recently, Walt emailed me to confide that he’s been feeling a bit peeved lately. He has been grappling with an issue that I think all bartenders deal with. He refers to it as “status anxiety.” Here’s what he wrote:

“I have already told you that what I have enjoyed the most about drinkboston are the interviews with and profiles of Boston’s best bartenders. What has struck me about so many of these individuals is that they seem to be Jacks and Jills of many trades and possess really varied and truly interesting backgrounds.

“I have been tending bar for a year and a half now, specializing in classic cocktails. Guests of the restaurant and my boss have been pleased and impressed with the drinks I prepare. And I can honestly say that I love my job. I treat and consider it as a craft and a profession. But I am beginning to experience a little status anxiety.

“Some people here in town who respected and eagerly interacted with me as a bookstore owner now treat me as a service worker. And while I realize that only shows how puny THEY are, at times I feel like shouting, ‘I am more than just a bartender!’ For heaven’s sake, your friend Misty is a Harvard Divinity School grad! As much as I love the job, I have been wondering whether it is ‘enough’ for me personally and professionally.

“To boil it down, I was wondering whether some of the bartenders you know, who have done and accomplished many different things over the course of their lives, have expressed this same restlessness.”

“Let’s put your question on the blog,” I said to Walt, and he agreed. So, bartenders, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do some customers look down on you because you are a “mere” service worker? Do you ever feel the need to mention that you have other pursuits beyond mixing and serving drinks? Or do you simply dismiss as misguided anyone who believes that it’s impossible to find professional fulfillment behind a bar? Weigh in by leaving a comment below, or, if you’d rather not, email your words of wisdom to me and I’ll add them to the mix. Thanks!

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17 Responses to “No respect for the bartender?”

  1. MC Slim JB

    Skilled bartenders don’t get nearly the respect they deserve. My own FOH experience suggests that the folks likeliest to have real respect for industry professionals — to understand the care, craft, empathy, behavioral psychology, and back-breaking labor that go into the job — are current or former industry workers themselves.

    I can’t tell you how many times, having been given single-digit tips by a group of professionals (MDs were the worst) I’d slaved to give perfect service to, I wondered how their perspective might change if they spent a few week in the industry. I’m tempted to promote legislation that would require Americans to work for a couple of weeks as a server or bar back before being allowed to patronize fine-dining restaurants and serious bars.

    It’s also worth noting that there’s a lot of weird pathologies that get worked out in these settings: people who are powerless and downtrodden in their work or personal lives taking a rare chance to look down on and boss around another human for a change. I think it’s a tough business to stay in, even in the best of environments, if a lot of your professional pride doesn’t come from within.

  2. Robert Heugel

    I think that it depends on who you are dealing with, which I mean to say that I personally don’t think that I can stereotype any group of people as being particularly disrespectful to me. I think that there are good people in this world and bad. The service industry doesn’t let us pick which of these groups we care for so, this inherently positions us to be victimized or mistreated by those who fail to be considerate of others. If this bothers you, this industry is going to be tough.

    That being said, there are a few things that specifically bother me:

    1. INCOME – People assume that I am poor because I work behind the bar. I’m not one of them, but I know several bartenders who are making more than most people with a degree will ever make. The other day I actually had a lady point at me and say to her friend, “See don’t you just wish you were a bartender sometimes? You make enough to get by and go to a party every night. That’s the life.” I have found this to be a common stereotype of my profession and it bothers me.

    2. EDUCATION – People also assume, maybe because I am supposed to be poor, that I am uneducated. Sometimes, I want to just tell people that for the record I just finished my Masters, but I don’t think that having a degree means that I am educated. What REALLY bothers me is when people are having an intelligent conversation, particularly one where there is a disagreement, and they look for a moderator in the bartender. When I give my opinion, they are shocked that I might have been able to comment on the potential for an Iranian revolution, which occurred the other day. They were so impressed that a bartender knew about Iranian politics. Why should they be? They don’t have anything to contribute to Iran beyond what I do, but apparently, because I work in the evenings, or my position requires me to serve people, or whatever, I would be incapable of discussing this issue. In the event that my education comes up (frequently people want to know why I moved back to Houston, which I reply because I finished my degree), they want to know what I am going to do next. Like bartender could not possibly be my decision for a profession. I chose to work in this field because I couldn’t stomach the boredom of an office job or the PhD/teaching career I had planned.

    3. MY GIRLFRIEND – My girlfriend is a medical student and when people ask her what her boyfriend does, or asks me when she introduces me, they are shocked by the fact that I am a bartender, as if a doctor and bartender could never be together. When this occurs, I am usually not behind the bar and committed to any standards of service, so I feel free to correct them…

    Again, not everyone is like this, and I will say that most aren’t. These incidents are isolated and occur infrequently, but they do occur once every couple of weeks. They can be frustrating when they take place, but as soon as they leave the bar, they are replace by a familiar face, a friend or regular who makes me feel like I am executing a craft that they appreciate. I love my job, and I am never going to get to the point where these issues make me feel like I should do something else. One final note – I can’t say how many times I’ve heard someone in the service industry stereotype a certain race, culture, or profession in one manner or another, generally referencing their ability to tip. If you’re doing this, I don’t see how you can complain about someone else stereotyping you. If you ask me, the service industry stereotypes their guests FAR more frequently, than our guests stereotype us. I don’t work with these types of people anymore, as I have moved to more professional environments, but I think it is definitely work noting.

  3. Darcy O'Neil

    I’ve had conversations with guests about this and I’ve even had family members tell me that I’ll need to get a “real” job eventually. But the reality is that I do whatever makes me happy, not what makes others happy.

    I’ve managed to make bartending a profession and I’m finally starting to get some respect in the local arena. I just make sure that when I talk about bartending I’m as professional as a chef or sommelier. But it is a hard business, since you are a “server” at the end of the day.

    It helps that I still work in a chemistry lab and write. It tends to shut people up and make them think twice about judging people. But it is still “petty” on their part to assume anything without actually knowing.

    Do what makes you happy and ignore the people who will try to tell you what will make you happy.

  4. Sean

    It’s just the way it is. I often feel like bartending and waitressing (along with cleaning people and nanny’s) are the last holdouts from the days when people had servants, Gosford Park style. I’m constantly amazed at what people actually say to me, and the fact that they will say something to me that would get them tossed out of another buisiness, like a bank or jewerly store.

    That said, the thing that I hear all the time that gets my goat is “so, what do you REALLY do?”

  5. ljclark

    Todd Maul, who has been introducing customers at Rialto in the Charles Hotel to classic-style cocktails, had this to add:

    “Having tended bar in hotel atmospheres for most of my ‘bartending life,’ the question ‘what do you do besides this’ comes up with some frequency. My response is typically….’Low grade speed took away my Big Rig license.’

    “I think Walt has stumbled on the greater question…are you defined by your job or does your job define you?

    “I am several things (in no particular order): a father to be, a furniture maker, bartender, husband, bad guitar player, wanna be prof. soccer player… I am all these things, but once behind the bar I am mostly bartender… like a psychologist, it is better to wear that cap, and show only those cards.”

  6. Adam

    Great and thought provoking post. It strikes me that there are at least two classes of bartenders. Those that are in it for the long haul, and who care about their job enough to learn the actual craft of bartending, and those that are doing it just as a diversion en route to other (perceived) destinations. The latter, unfortunately, outnumber the former by several orders of magnitude… Perhaps it’s time to create a new title for those bartenders who are actually doing something for the profession rather than just mindlessly working a shift? This could be similar in status to the idea of a chef vs. a line cook… Although many of the aforementioned latter class of bartenders would probably better be compared to a dish washer. A great line cook can properly follow a recipe, whereas some of these people can’t even put together a very simple drink (or properly pour a beer, for that matter). It’s sad that the profession as a whole seems to be defined in many peoples’ eyes by the lowest common denominator.

    By the way, regarding the quote about the “greater question”, shouldn’t that read, “do you define your job or does your job define you?” If you’re defined by your job than it follows logically that your job defines you 🙂

  7. zakem

    Walt, I think being an artistic is an approach to life and not an occupation. The true measure of our success with our calling — whatever that calling may be — is how it inspires others to be creative in their own callings. When you mentioned “fresh ingredients”, I thought of the fresh mint leaves you put in your Mohitos and became enthusiastic about picking up a style of cooking I had not done for a while. When I do pick it up again, it will be pleasing to other people and I suspect there is a possibility the artistic light bulb will come on in someone else’s head in some way. It is a wonderful cascade of positive artistic influence. The people who shift their views on us depending on our occupation are doing us a favor by revealing their true nature — they are not artists and are not worthy of much of our time. Let’s save our personal resources for those who count.

  8. ljclark

    From an anonymous bartender: My first thought is that the gentleman from Kentucky should get out of the business. Is it “enough”. Enough of what? Is he looking for accolades? The way I took his question was that he “got into” bar tending recently and expected to be the next Dale DeGroff or Food Network’s next “crazy BAR CHEF”. This offends me. I didn’t get into bar tending to be a superstar I got into it because I liked bar tending. That was it. (AND the money is way better too 😉 I knew that Misty went to Harvard Divinity. I remember that she didn’t mention it much but we were too busy talking and making cocktails.

    Random conversation:
    Ann: “Yes, and I have been working as a consultant for the past 2 years. What do you do?”
    Me: “I’m a bartender at such and such.”
    Ann: Oh, I love that restaurant. So, what else do you do?” HA!

  9. Walt

    Anonymous bartender, you should reread the original post. I got into bartending because I had just closed my business and a friend was kind enough to offer me the job. I don’t recall having ever met you, anonymous bartender. How is it that you arrived at these motives which offend you and yet are not even mine? You must know my mind better than I do. Amazing!

  10. Todd

    By the way, regarding the quote about the “greater question”, shouldn’t that read, “do you define your job or does your job define you?” If you’re defined by your job than it follows logically that your job defines you…..

    “I guy walks into a bar and says to the bartender….” Its a joke… your always the bartender…. get it…..

  11. albert

    -born and bred in Lexington, KY (just SE of Midway) and having spent the last 30+ years in ALL of the finest bars/taverns/pubs/restaurants greater Boston has/had to offer, my take on the situation is that Walt’s ‘predicament’ is indigenous to KY itself…they tend to be a tad more class conscious down there, what with all the horse/bourbon rich bluebloods and all (i.e. the Kentucky Conspiracy)…I am visiting my Old Kentucky home in just a few weeks to visit my dear mother and look forward to sharing a Saratoga with Walt at my earliest convenience…cheers!

  12. Walt

    Will look forward to it, Albert. We’re open evenings Wednesday through Saturday.

  13. Mark

    It’s no longer considered a part time job, or a temporary job. Bartending used to be thought of as something to do to earn money while you were either going to school or looking for something better.Nice Posting ,so informative. Thanks

  14. ljclark

    Indeed, I bartended my way through college. Thanks for commenting, Mark.

  15. Patrick Maguire

    Hello everyone- I just stumbled upon this old post. This topic is so important to me that I’m writing a book on it. The book is titled, “I’m Your Server not Your Servant,” and the sub-titles are, “The customer is not always right,” and “A voice for service industries everywhere.” As a former bartender, this project has been brewing in me for more than 27 years. For more than two years I’ve been compiling notes, interviews and responses to a questionnaire that I created for people who currently or formerly worked in a service industry. Several of the sentiments shared by posters here are discussed in the book. Walt’s “status anxiety,” Lauren’s “look down on you” reference, MC’s ‘legislation’ (I call it a mandatory, 6-month stint), Robert’s compensation comparison and stereotyping advice, and Sean’s “So, what do you REALLY do?” frustrations are all discussed. The war stories and responses that I’ve received from the questionnaire have given me some wonderful insight and perspectives beyond my own experiences. It was very important to me that the book is not just one former bartender’s rant. I really want people to see that customers have as much to do with the success of the interaction as servers do. There are definitely a lot of customers who really don’t know how to ‘act right’ when it comes to engaging servers in any industry. There are a lot of people who are very condescending and abusive to service industry workers. My book offers specific suggestions to enlighten asshole customers, and includes a quiz to tell them if they’re one of them. I hope my book helps to facilitate a dialogue that leads to awareness, change and respect for service industry workers everywhere.

    Walt- I just left a voicemail for you at Bistro La Belle, and would love to have you complete my questionnaire.

    My e-mail address is pjmaguire7@aol.com.

    If anyone else is interested in receiving a copy, feel free to e-mail me.

    Thank you very much- Patrick

    PS- Here’s a link to a recent interview in Stuff magazine that explains a little more about the project;


  16. Patrick Maguire

    Sorry, the sub-title should read, “A voice for service industry workers everywhere.”

  17. ljclark

    Thanks for chiming in here, Patrick. Interesting project — I think the book’ll be a hit.

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