Essays & Confessions

An Honest Conversation On Work & Money With An NYC Bartender

By | Tuesday, April 18, 2017

One of the best things about living in a big city, for me, has been having friends with different careers and work lives than my own. I’ve personally never worked in the food service industry, so I’ve completely depended on my friends who’ve worked as bartenders, baristas, and servers to learn about how it all works — including the importance of tipping correctly (seriously, budget it in) and what to look for when picking a place to eat or drink. Recently, I spoke with one of my dearest friends (who I’m keeping anonymous) about his years of working behind the bar, rude customers, and what you should never assume about your bartender. Here’s what he had to say. 

How long have you been bartending, and in what kind(s) of bars/restaurants?

I have been bartending for six and a half years. I started in an English pub, which was a really young crowd, and it was really crazy and high-volume. And when I moved back to America, I worked at a cocktail bar for a short period of time, then a margarita bar/Mexican restaurant for about two years [both in New England]. Then I served tables at an upscale restaurant in Manhattan, because I hadn’t done high-end bartending. Then I bartended at a rooftop cocktail bar, and for the past two years, I’ve been bartending at a wine bar in the West Village [in Manhattan].

Did you have a background in food service already, or was bartending your intro to it? 

My high school job was working at an ice cream counter, and honestly there were a lot of parallels — it’s just ice cream instead of booze. So it was food service, just obviously a much lower service standard. I was lucky, because in England [where I was studying], there’s no tipping, and it’s a less service-oriented job, so they don’t require as much experience when they’re looking to hire. So, they hired me straight-up as a bartender with no experience. And when I moved back to America, I had a year of bartending experience in a really high-volume bar. Which made it easier for me to get a job back here, and I skipped the normal climbing of the ranks of like, starting as a bar back.

A lot of people have the assumption that, in New York, bartenders can make a ton of money. Do you think there’s truth to that?

You can make a ton of money, but there are caveats to anything. So there are definitely some bars where people are making a lot of money, but in some of those places, it’s all cash and they get no benefits. At the end of the year, they owe a ton of money in taxes, and they’re paying for their health insurance and everything out of pocket. So there are those downfalls. In New York it’s definitely possible to have, like, a comfortable living from bartending. But I would definitely say never assume that any bartender or server that you encounter is making a ton of money. Because the vast majority are making a normal amount.

So, what is a normal amount? What do you typically bring home in a week? 

I work 30 hours a week, so barely full-time. It’s hard to say what an average week is, because my restaurant is very seasonal — we’re much busier in the warmer months than the cold months. I mean, I’ll tell you that last year I made $46,000, but that includes some weeks where I made very little, and some where I made 1.75 times what I would on a slow week.

What’s something annoying that a lot of customers say to or expect from bartenders that they should…not?

I’ll say a couple things. One, I think it’s very strange when people ask me, “Oh, do you make good tips?” Which comes up a lot. I think people who have never worked in a service industry job don’t fully understand what it means to live off tips, so I think they have a hard time conceptualizing that I don’t get, like, a salaried paycheck. Yes, I technically get paid hourly, but because of taxes, it kind of washes out. I think some people still think on some level that my tips are a bonus. So, when they ask about tips, it’s just asking how much money I make. It’d be the same if someone told me they did coding, and presumptuously said, “Oh wow, you make a lot of money.” It’s a very strange dynamic, and shows a lack of understanding of how the job works. It makes it sound like they think I have a lot of extra money coming in, when I don’t.

I also think, when you’re at a restaurant or bar, two things you need to understand: part of the social contract you’re agreeing to by coming to a bar or restaurant is that you have to interact with a person to get the things you want. I am not a nuisance; I’m part of the package. So make eye contact with me, and treat me like a person — if I have a question, please answer it. I’m not your servant, I’m your server.

Also, read the menu. If you come in and say “what’s good here?” without looking at the menu at all, it’s like you’re asking me to—

Like, do your homework for you?

A little bit, yeah. Which can be frustrating, especially if we’re busy.

So, going off your best guess, what percentage of people do you think are actually good tippers?

I will never fault you if you tip me 20 percent. It irks me a little if you tip less, but some people were taught 18, and I get that, if that’s what you think and/or were raised to think is appropriate. It does bum me out a little, but I’m not going to get too upset about it.

I would say 70 to 80 percent of people tip appropriately. In New York, you do have to deal with tourism, which is an issue when it comes to tipping — it brings the percentage down a lot. I would say a whole lot of tourists from other countries tip poorly, or not at all.

Does it seem, in your personal experience, that the people who don’t tip well don’t because they don’t have the money, or because they’ve been taught differently, or what?

I think most of the time, in the places I’ve worked, those two things you said are one and the same. I think if you were taught how to tip correctly and you couldn’t afford to, you wouldn’t go to a restaurant. Do you know what I mean? I think if you think it’s okay to go to a restaurant or a bar and order whatever, and get the service that comes with it, and then not tip for it, you were taught poorly. Which I think is a bad reason. I think that, while tipping is technically optional, it’s not morally or socially optional. I think you need to budget it in when you’re trying to figure out where to go that night.

What’s one of the rudest customer experiences you’ve ever had?

I had a couple sit at my bar, who were two women, and they were the only two at the bar and it was towards the end of the night. And I thought they were on a date, so after I served them, I moved towards the end of the bar to give them privacy, because I didn’t want to just stand in front of them while they were on a date. And I checked in when their food arrived, and there was a small issue with one of their dishes coming out at the wrong time, which we resolved. And other than that, I just let them be, and I refilled their waters when they were empty. I only spoke to them when one of their glasses of wine was empty, to offer them another. I didn’t want to interrupt them.

After I gave them the check and ran their card, one of them read my name off the receipt, and called me over by my name. Then she said, “I want you to know that we’re not tipping you.” And I said, “Okay, is something wrong?” And she said, “You completely ignored us all service and you didn’t speak to us, and you would only talk to us when you wanted to sell us a glass of wine.” So, I said, “Oh, I’m so sorry for this misunderstanding, is there anything I can do?” And she said, “Whatever, it’s your tip you’re losing.” And then she walked away. And both women went to the bathroom, and I went over to my manager immediately and said, “Hey, I just want you to know, I thought these women were on a date, so I gave them a lot of space. I refilled their waters and stuff, but I tried to give them space and they were apparently offended by the fact that I wasn’t super attentive and they’re not tipping me.” She said okay.

And when they came out of the bathroom, they also found the manager, pulled her aside, and spoke to her about it. Which is like, 1) they weren’t tipping me, which tells me they think I don’t deserve to pay rent or eat, 2) they called me over to rub my nose in it, and didn’t really let it be a conversation, and 3) they tried to get me further punished for it. It all just felt really degrading. It sucked. I think she would have been happy if I had gotten fired in front of her.

Did your manager say anything to you after that? 

She said that thinking someone is on a date and giving them space makes total sense, so she thought this was them, not me.

Do your tips go directly to you, or are they pooled?

It depends on the shift. The bar and dining room pools are sometimes separate. At lunch, the bartender is alone, so all the tips go to me. At dinner, there might be more than one bartender, and there are bar backs, so tips are split. And at brunch, the entire restaurant is pooled.

How often do you have a negative customer experience?

I would say at least every shift, unless it’s super slow, you’re going to have at least a couple people who are difficult or upset, who challenge you. Sometimes…you can play the game, and make them leave happy. But if you work a full-time schedule, you’ll have at least one a week who is in a bad mood, and doesn’t want to be any other way.

Would you say most of your friends who are also in food service are in it for the long haul, or do you think they’re trying to do something else career-wise? 

I think it’s a pretty even split. My first job in New York was at a very high-end restaurant, and typically those are places you work, especially if they’re part of prominent restaurant groups, as a networking stepping stone towards a bigger career in the industry. And also, those bigger groups, those are the jobs where it is easier to get, like, health insurance and benefits, so it’s more of a career move on a couple levels.

Do you think there are any specific stereotypes about people who work in the food industry that are either true or untrue?

I think there are definitely stereotypes about substance abuse that exist, like that bartending and working in kitchens involves doing a lot of drugs. And that’s never been my experience. I know that those places exist, but I don’t think it’s the norm. Especially in New York, I think a lot of people take these jobs seriously.

I do think a stereotype that is prevalent is the one of kitchens being very patriarchal and chefs being very difficult, especially men. (And I definitely think there are more male chefs than female chefs out there, and it sucks.) Like, at that high-end restaurant, the chef spoke to people in ways that…shocked me. We were in a professional environment, and people were working very hard and were super knowledgeable, and were very much career-minded adults. Yet they could be spoken to or yelled at like a child by this person, because he’s the chef, and he makes the food. Whereas no one else there would get away with speaking to you like that. But chef gets to do that — and we say “yes chef, no chef” — and there’s definitely a power dynamic that I think is not true of all kitchens, but I’ve certainly experienced it, and I’ve heard of other people experiencing it. And I think that’s because of the way that system was designed.

Do you think that your female friends who are bartenders have had different experiences bartending than you? 

Oh my god. Definitely. First off, they just get hit on. A challenge of being a bartender is being behind the bar — a server can walk away from a table, but if someone sits at the bar and wants to talk to me, there’s not really that many places I can go. So if a man is hitting on a woman, and she’s behind the bar, there is that feeling of entrapment. I’ve also seen men talk down to women. I’ve seen some shitty men who don’t want a woman teaching them about the scotch they’re drinking, or trying to help them figure out what kind of beer they want. Yeah, women definitely get more shit behind the bar.

Anything else you want to add? 

Maybe not every bartender would agree with me, but I would say don’t be afraid to be really clear with your bartender. About why you’re there and what you want. If someone said to me, “Hey look, I’m having a shitty day, I just want a glass of wine and to sit here by myself for a bit,” I would never be like, “Oh, fuck you, no.” Like, yeah, that’s a perfectly good reason to go to a bar, I’m going to give you this glass of wine and leave you alone. Another thing: you don’t have to manipulate me into thinking you’re fancy, and then order the cheapest glass of wine. You can tell me you just want the cheapest glass of red wine, and I won’t care. Those things are not going to bother me. Just be respectful of me.

And leave. When. We close. Oh my god, leave when we close. And don’t think that because there are other people there, you can stay. That’s the dynamic that makes people stay late.

How often do people stay late?

I would say I have never seen someone look at the clock and think “oh, this is the minute the bar closes, we should leave.” They think they can stay as long as they want, and don’t want to go home and be alone. But I want to go home, so please, for the love of god, leave when we close.

Image via Unsplash

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