Safe Haven

By Sean Kenyon, bartender and proprietor of Blue Collar Cocktails, Denver

Smiling white man with tattoos, beard and glasses wearing an apron and standing behind a wooden bar.
Sean Kenyon's bars include Williams & Graham and the Occidental, both in Denver. / Courtesy Sean Kenyon

My love for bars started long before it was legal for me to drink. I grew up in them, and I am a third-generation bartender and bar owner. My mother, father, and grandfather were bartenders. I have worked in food and beverage since I was 12. I was an overweight kid who struggled socially and didn’t have many friends. My father’s bar was the one social setting where I found unconditional love and acceptance. Being there helped me gain confidence. It taught me how to converse, to interact, and to develop a sense of humor and a much-needed thicker skin. My father’s bar patrons became part of my family (my mother referred to them as my drunken uncles). My father, Bob Kenyon (known by seemingly everyone as BK), was a master of creating community. He treated his staff and guests like family and they, in turn, did the same. I have spent the entirety of my career either seeking similar work situations or trying to create them.

Bars and restaurants….like an old friend, they are there for you when you need them. Right now, those friends need your love. 

Now that I have my own bars, my goal is that everyone leaves in a better place than when they walked in. I feel an important responsibility towards our guests. The way I see it, my staff and I have the power to make or break someone’s day in a matter of seconds. If someone walks into our bar and we acknowledge them right away and bring them into our little community, then we’ve made them feel part of something greater. That is our goal. But if we ignore that same person when they walk in, we could ruin their day. It’s a big responsibility, but I love the challenge and it fulfills me when we get it right.

Bars and restaurants have long been the heart of our communities. They have been places to celebrate, commiserate, and hatch plans. You can walk in alone and instantly join a community, if only for the night. However significant these places are for guests, they are monumental for the people who work in them. They are sanctuaries for those who don’t fit in, a work version of the Island of Misfit Toys. They are places where someone—like me—who constantly feels like an outsider can experience inclusion and companionship. 

Our industry has struggled, but we will endure. We are fighters and people who have overcome adversity. We will draw on that strength and fortitude. We will survive. Bars and restaurants are much more than food and drink; they feed and nurture the soul of society. And, like an old friend, they are there for you when you need them. Right now, those friends need your love. 

Read the full collection of op-eds about bar culture in “Pouring It Out.

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