Are Bartenders Getting the Shaft?

A good bartender is everyone's friend. Now they're also everyone's host, security guard, receptionist, online ordering IT person....

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What do bartenders do when their customers can't belly up to the bar? / Larimer Lounge

We know what you’re thinking: This year is shafting everyone. You’re right, of course. No one has been spared from the ravages of COVID, whether personally, professionally, or physcially. Teachers, restaurant owners, nurses, chefs, farm workers, wedding planners, caterers, musicians, even corporate cube dwellers—no one’s job looks the same as it did at the beginning of 2020.

But there’s an argument to be made that bartenders are among the most impacted in the hospitality industry, at least when it comes to the day-to-day grind. After all, cooks cook, servers serve, owners own. Bartenders, on the other hand, bartend…and answer the phones and enforce mask mandates and take reservations and…

Dusty O’Connell started bartending in 2005 in a “smallish” town in North Dakota. Like many, he was drawn to the work because it fit neatly into the rest of his life—in this case, he was able to work around his schedule as a student—and, of course, because of the money. In the 15 years between his college career and COVID, he acknowledges he tried to leave the industry several times, but he was constantly drawn back. “Everytime I tried to leave,” O’Connell says, “I missed how stimulating and engaging the industry was. I got to meet all kinds of people I’d never get to meet. I missed the pace of service.” Sometimes it was the only job he could get quickly. Once, on a sushi kick, he nabbed a gig at a sushi restaurant so he could feed his craving four times a week.

In January 2020, [bar manager] O’Connell thought he’d found the perfect long-term home. Two weeks later, the bar that served food had become a takeout pizza joint.

In January 2020, O’Connell thought he’d found the perfect long-term home. He signed on as the bar manager in advance of Joy Hill opening in Denver’s Overland neighborhood. When the spot opened its doors on February 28, every glass, every towel, every garnish was precisely placed according to his specifications. Of course the bar was perfect for O’Connell; he’d designed it.

Two weeks later, the bar that served food had become a takeout pizza joint and bottle shop. Because Joy Hill had opened so recently, staff wasn’t eligible to receive unemployment and the spot didn’t need a bartender. O’Connell had other income (his recently launched venture, Mile High Disinfectant Services), so instead of staying to work the phones, handle expo, and manage takeout orders, he left Joy Hill so other employees would be able to pick up a few hours.

But when bars and restaurants were allowed to reopen for in-house dining, Joy Hill’s owners were anxious to have O’Connell back—and he wanted to be go back. “I missed other people. I wanted to be a social person again. And I like [owners] Andy and Julia so much, I wanted to help them.” So he returned, but there was still a laundry list of changes to make.

The bar that O’Connell had meticulously designed was now a service well for the restaurant. And as customers started coming back, eager to sit on the patio (and only on the patio), O’Connell found their presence a mixed blessing. Business was uneven and with limited staffing, he says, “the timing was a real struggle.” He describes being behind the bar trying to take reservations (“since the pandemic everyone has to eat dinner at 7 p.m.”), read menus to customers, and diagnose errors in the online ordering system over the phone with customers standing at the door, servers all working on the patio, and drink tickets coming out. “The fucking phone,” he laments. “I hate it.” Ticket times rose from two to 10 minutes.

“I never want to sound ungrateful,” he says, “but it’s not what I signed up for. If someone had offered me a job with these parameters before shutdown, I would have said, “No way.'”

Then there’s the money, which O’Connell charitably describes as “not great.” He’s doing half the amount of sales he normally would. Colin Overett, a managing partner at Union Lodge No. 1 (which remains closed) has been putting in hours running the to-go cocktail programs and working the door at sister bars Tatarian and the Arvada Tavern. He agrees: “I kind of suggest having a second job. The money that used to happen, it’s going to be a long time before that comes back.”

I haven’t made a cocktail since COVID.

Colin Overett, Union Lodge No. 1, Tatarian, and The Arvada Tavern

Jenna Larkin, who’s worked as a bartender for nearly a decade in Colorado and Wisconsin, has a second (and third and fourth) job; she pours at music venue Larimer Lounge, the Squire Lounge on East Colfax Avenue and Five Points’ 715 Club, as well as doing freelance graphic design and photography. While her hours at Larimer Lounge haven’t been cut (and her hourly rate actually increased by $3) she says things are tough financially. Prior to the pandemic, tips were split between two bartenders, one person at the door, and perhaps a barback. Now that she can’t serve from the bar (Larimer Lounge briefly tried bar service with Plexiglass barriers, but it proved too difficult to get customers to follow the new flow), that pool has increased to about 10 employees: two bartenders, seven or more cocktail servers, and one or two doormen. “It’s a lot of people to split with,” she says, “but I’m just happy to have a job.”

Larkin hasn’t experienced some of the frustrations O’Connell’s encountered (she mostly serves beers and shots, so ticket times aren’t comparable to those of carefully garnished cocktails, and she’s doesn’t spend much time on the phone) but she describes constant cleaning, sanitizing, and babysitting customers. “The 10 and 11 p.m. cutoff has just been a whole other experience,” she says, describing the crush of last call and to-go orders. “When it’s busy and someone wants eight lemon drops to go, it’s like, ‘Fuck.'” And the earlier shutdown time seems to have brought out the wheeler-dealer in her customers, who think they’ll be able to score one last drink from Larkin because “it’s only 11:01.”

Then there’s mask enforcement, which is tiresome and unending. Larkin says about her customers are roughly half and half when it comes to masking up: 50 percent are genuinely compliant and apologetic if they forget to put on a mask on a trip to the bathroom; 50 percent will grudgingly don one but leave it tucked under their noses. She describes an incident working the door when a man wanted to come in with his t-shirt pulled up over his nose as a makeshift mask. When Larkin informed him this wasn’t an acceptable face covering, he huffed, “What kind of establishment are you people running?” and stormed across the street while flipping her off. While it’s laughable, that’s only because the encounter didn’t turn violent, as have similar disputes in Michigan and New York.

Union Lodge’s Overett says he hasn’t experienced any pushback on mask requirements; he generally works the door along with another managing partner (“I haven’t made a cocktail since COVID”) and makes sure guests are aware of regulations before seating them. And while O’Connell admits some people roll their eyes when asked to cover up, he says they’re still very compliant. “I can count on one hand the times people refused to wear a mask,” he says. “I never wanted to be a soldier in the culture wars. It’s so dumb that wanting to dine out has turned into a scene from Hamilton.” 

I always thought bartending was recession-proof, but I guess it’s not pandemic-proof.

Jenna Larkin, Larimer Lounge, The Squire Lounge, and The 715 Club

O’Connell is trying (again) to leave bartending behind. The things he loves about bars—the connection with customers, the long discussions about wine and cocktails—are impossible right now. “I would love to go back if it was fun….[but] even if we were to lift all the regulations tomorrow, you still can’t change people’s comfort levels. How long is it going to be before anyone wants to sit shoulder to shoulder with 10 people?”

Overett still plans on reopening Union Lodge and bringing back most of the staff; he’s taking advantage of the closure to do some renovation on the space. He says of his job: “Now you kind of have to look at it from a managerial aspect instead of just a bartending thing….It’s definitely a different pace for us. It’s weird. There are so many more steps in terms of normal service. During service, you’re still moving around but it almost seems calmer because we’re at reduced capacity. I think a lot of us miss the rush.”

Larkin, though, isn’t sure what she’ll do come winter. She’s seen “a decent amount” of her co-workers leave the industry completely or cut back their hours to pursue different career paths. “I don’t think [the money and the hours] will ever be exactly what it was,” she says. “I always thought bartending was recession-proof, but I guess it’s not pandemic-proof.”

How has the nitty-gritty of your job changed this year? Are you considering leaving the industry because of it? Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to askus@diningout.com

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