Behind the Bar

Bartenders On Serving Their Fellow Bartenders

A woman making drinks for people standing in front of her.
At Tales of the Cocktail, thousands of bartenders inundate New Orleans — and someone's got to serve them drinks. Ms. Franky Marshall stepped behind the bar at Arnaud's French 75 to serve her fellow industry members. Photo by Jennifer Mitchell Photography.

After hours or on days off, service industry staff, like everyone else, like to check out bars and restaurants (and other places) around town — and around the world. But sometimes, they want to keep it simple and find a spot where they can relax and be themselves. So what’s it like for bartenders when fellow bartenders walk through the door?

“When I see one of my fellow barkeeps walk into Ticonderoga, I like to try and read what kind of experience they're looking for in the first minute of them sitting down,” says Evan Milliman, bar manager at Atlanta’s Ticonderoga Club. “Have they just finished a long shift? Or maybe they've got friends who've never been in before. Sometimes they're a good friend and want to socialize and hang out. Maybe it's a bartender from another market who's doing research for their own bar. Whatever the situation, I pride myself on being able to pick up on the small nuances so that I can give whoever walks through the door the exact experience that they're looking for.”

It’s the same as if a friend walked into your office or storefront or, frankly, home. After all, bartenders can often serve as a sort of unofficial host for a great many small, festive gatherings, each going on at the same time. First is the welcome. Bartenders, like “regular,” non-bartending folk, go back again and again to bars where they feel at ease, at home, welcome. Sometimes all anyone’s look for is a simple, don’t have to think too much about it drink. A beer, a shot, the un-fussiest of cocktails.

“I think our atmosphere sort of lends itself to much more of a, hey, you can kind of take off the uniform, you can take off the mask of fine dining service that a lot of people come from, and you can relax a little bit, you can let your hair down a little bit with us, and there will be no judgment, everybody is warm and everyone is accepting,” says Rhiannon Enlil, bar manager at Erin Rose in New Orleans.

Beyond feeling welcome, a sense of belonging and a space to hang out with friends, whether old or ones you’ve made at the bar, and a balanced, well-crafted drink are, unsurprisingly, big draws. Sportsman’s Club, in Chicago, is known both as an industry darling as well as a popular neighborhood spot for exactly those reasons.

“There’s nothing better than serving people who serve people for a living. The fact they chose our bar to drink in their meager off-time is honestly pretty flattering. While, as you might expect, the beer-and-shot order is the most common for off duty bar folks, making an old fashioned for Paul McGee or a dealer’s choice for Micah Melton is pretty intimidating. It’s really nice that we have that level of trust established for professionals who have every right to be cynical,” says Graham Heubach, general manager at Sportsman’s Club. “Sportsman’s Club has all the trappings of a prototypical neighborhood bar — something that’s familiar or nostalgic to many of us. Industry folks want to escape to a simpler time, and we provide that. It’s a casual and relaxed place to drink, really, whatever. Have a beer or shot. Have a well-thought-out, unique cocktail. What it’s really about is being with friends and chilling out.”

Obviously, welcoming and serving peers is an experience many bartenders have on a fairly regular basis. But every summer, when Tales of the Cocktail takes over New Orleans for a bit, it’s like that everyday experience multiplied by, well, a lot.

“At first it was really overwhelming and it was just kind of trying to survive, like, being five deep with like every awesome bartender in the country, sometimes the world. Especially at the beginning of Tales, like the Wednesday before it starts, no one has any agenda yet, they’re just getting in, catching up and they all go out,” says Erin Rose bartender Murf Reeves.

Erin Rose’s frozen Irish coffee is something of a Tales tradition, but Reeves says it’s morphing into something else too: industry people coming in and playing bartender themselves — or, just … being the bartenders they are.

“[T]his year I heard, ‘let’s put Branca Menta in it’ or, like, this year, they’ll put this in it and it’s like, they’re creating something new on top of the frozen cocktail and that’s, that’s pretty awesome. They’re coming in and making their own drinks and then asking me to do it for them and they’re paying me to do it.” says Reeves.

Julia Momose, head bartender at GreenRiver in Chicago, also likes making drinks for bartenders because they really ‘get’ all the ingredients that are going into her drinks, which makes it fun for her. Plus, taking care of people who spend so much time taking care of people for a living makes her happy.

Ultimately, unsurprisingly, it all circles back to hospitality. We all want to hang out and spend time with people and at places where we’re well-treated.

“Treat me like you would any other guest,” says Momose. “I think that’s all we really want because hopefully you treat everyone really, really well. That’s the kind of bar I want to go to, a place where everyone’s treated well.”

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