Culture

Mardi Gras Through The Eyes of a Bartender

Street scene during Mardi Gras in New Orleans
One veteran French Quarter bar owner sums it up best: "You're not done with Mardi Gras until Mardi Gras is done with you!" (Photo: Brad Coy via Flickr)

At some point in his or her career, every bartender has to deal with That Shift — the champagne-soaked New Year’s Eve, the droves of drunken costumed Halloween revelers, the random Thursday night that goes off the rails for no apparent reason. But very little can compare to spending time behind the stick in New Orleans in the midst of Mardi Gras.

There’s the actual volume itself: more than one million people descend upon the city for the occasions. But beyond the throngs of revelers flocking to French Quarter bars, and all the exhaustion that entails for bartenders, there’s also the high chance of witnessing some pretty incredible moments (like the time a cop horse ate bartender Rhiannon Enlil’s crinoline through a window, as she told us on Facebook). As one bartender puts it, “You’re not done with Mardi Gras until Mardi Gras is done with you!”

So, we decided to venture to the other side of the bar and ask some of New Orleans’ finest for their perspective: how they survive the madness, what they love about it in spite of said madness, and some of the wildest moments they’ve had along the way.

Cary Thompson: Beerfest on Bourbon St., Jazz Cafe on Decatur St., Bamboula's on Frenchmen St.

Tell us a bit about your experiences with Mardi Gras in the service industry - how many of them have you worked?

This is my 12th consecutive Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street, my 17th altogether. I manage a few different venues now, but I spent my first five years here as a musician. I have done every industry job on this street at one time or another except cook or dance.

What's Mardi Gras like at your bar? (Atmosphere, clientele, etc?)

There are as many different Mardi Gras experiences on Bourbon Street as there are individuals on the street. The common theme is booze, of course, but outside of that, anything goes! We've got everything from craft beer to an all-male dance club in my organization.

Mardi Gras reveler dressed as a rabbit A street scene amidst Mardi Gras festivities. (Photo: Derek Bridges)

How would you describe the experience of working behind the bar during Mardi Gras to a bartender who's never experienced it?

In Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," there is the Battle of Helm's Deep, where Saruman's army of 10,000 orcs lay siege to 300 souls at the Fortress of Rohan. Watching this describes the final weekend of Mardi Gras, from an industry perspective, better than I could ever describe with words.

Any favorite/craziest/funniest moments you've witnessed from behind the bar during Carnival season?

Super Bowl XLIV. The Quarter was PACKED. People flew in from all over the world to watch the game in this neighborhood. While it was happening, there wasn't a soul on the street, and everybody's attention was fixed on the screen. At the time, I was managing several venues concurrently, so i didn't get to see any of the game, but when Tracy Porter intercepted Peyton, the outburst of emotions actually caused a tremor you could feel. i didn't know what exactly had happened, but I knew we had won. The rest of that night was absolute pandemonium, and I mean that in the best way possible.

A brass band parading through the French Quarter for Mardi Gras A brass band parades through the French Quarter for Mardi Gras. (Photo: Entouriste via Flickr)

I'm guessing that working through Mardi Gras is insane. Anything you do to mentally prepare? Or get through it when you're in the middle of it?

As a manager, working Mardi Gras often feels like a contest of wills between me and the event itself. Murphy's Law and the Second Law of Thermodynamics apply, as a whole, so a sound plan for Mardi Gras embraces a certain amount of flexibility as the various events unfold around you. The best plans give you options when the inevitable crises arise, as opposed to painting you into a corner. The most important, and difficult aspect of the job is to identify, qualify, and train a staff that is capable of handling the pressure. Mike Tyson famously said "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth," and this event is going to hit you in the mouth at some point. As a rule, in times of crisis, people don't rise to the occasion, they fall to their level of training, thus the success of Mardi Gras is not achieved in February, but in the weeks and months leading up to it. It's hard work, but done correctly, it affords a manager a certain amount of space to think and make good decisions within the maelstrom, because you don't have to tell people what to do every minute. This sounds very simple in theory, but simple and easy are not the same.

What advice would you share with a NOLA bartender preparing to work Mardi Gras for the very first time?

For a bartender new to this event, I would suggest adopting the beginner's mind, and leaving your ego at home as sound first steps to success. Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street will swallow whole those who are so preoccupied with themselves that they can't observe and react to what is actually happening around them. This event also rewards those that don't give up, or allow setbacks to diminish them. You're not done with Mardi Gras until Mardi Gras is done with you!

New Orleans street scene during Mardi Gras A typical street scene during Mardi Gras, when over one million people descend upon the French Quarter. (Photo: Entouriste via Flickr)

Gabby Waxman (Wine Director, Galatoire's)

Tell us a bit about your experiences with Mardi Gras in the service industry - how many of them have you worked?

This will be my 7th Mardi Gras working in the service industry. It is always a crazy time of year because I have to juggle providing a fun and festive experience for guests while doing the things that I enjoy doing over Mardi Gras.

What's Mardi Gras season like at Galatoire's?

There is nothing like Mardi Gras season at Galatoire’s. Our guests are just so excited and it translates into everything: their attitudes, their costumes, and even what they are drinking. Everyone who comes here knows each other (and if you don’t know someone, you probably will by the end of your meal and you’ll probably make plans with them to come back next year) and everyone is here to have a good time. Locals know that the Friday Lunch before Mardi Gras at Galatoire’s is one of the biggest parties on Bourbon Street and that party continues after lunch into Bar “33” and sometimes through the night.

How would you describe the experience of working behind the bar during Mardi Gras to a bartender who's never experienced it?

It is a one of kind experience that is fast paced, non-stop, and covered in glitter.

Women dancing at Mardi Gras

"It is a one of kind experience that is fast paced, non-stop, and covered in glitter." (Photo: Kevin Havers via Flickr)

Any favorite moments you've witnessed from behind the bar during Mardi Gras?

I’ve witnessed so many amazing/hilarious/ridiculous things, it’s really hard to say. Most of them aren’t acceptable for print.

Is there anything you do to mentally prepare for what's bound to be a crazy time of year?

Going to a restorative yoga class always helps me get my head straight before the busiest times. I also never underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep.

What advice would you share with a NOLA bartender preparing to work Mardi Gras for the very first time?

Make sure you are taking at least a day or two to have your own Mardi Gras. If you are excited about the season, your guests will see that and they’ll become more excited. The universal enthusiasm is contagious and, as a service industry person, it can become easy to be bitter when you’re working while everyone else is having fun. But I can promise you that your shifts will be more fun with a ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join em attitude’. Also, wear a wig… people get way less mad about waiting for a drink if you’re wearing a fun wig.

Murf Reeves (Erin Rose)

How many Mardi Gras seasons have you worked?

I have worked about 15 Mardi Gras, not always on Fat Tuesday, but a lot of them. My schedule this year is Friday-Tuesday.

How would you describe the atmosphere?

Mardi Gras is crazy busy, super upbeat, the point is to be in the now and have as much fun as possible, all the while getting super close to that line, but not crossing it. The clientele is extremely mixed. We get fallout from St. Ann parades, regulars, people whose Mardi Gras means spending the day at the bar, and the small groups doing their annual thing, and tourists.

Costumed Mardi Gras-goer wearing a fruit headpiece Spend enough time behind a bar during Mardi Gras, and you'll see just about every kind of costume under the sun. (Photo: Brad Coy via Flickr)

What's it like to work at a bar during Mardi Gras?

Working Mardi Gras is a great experience to learn about yourself and limits. Your limits in terms of, taking care of guests, the extra travel and commute planning, eating and sleeping, how much fun can you have between shifts and still be able to rock it. Especially on Fat Tuesday when most of your guests are in disguise, whether it be a costume or in their mind and you have to know what to look for and guide without losing your cool or not being sober enough to recognize or respond. Because more importantly every guest is also testing or pushing their limits and you are in charge of the asylum, but the best asylum ever. The fun to be had is indescribable. People's creativity flourishes and storms the day with so much fun, the breeze can be intoxicating.

Favorite Mardi Gras memory so far?

I was working at Sylvain on Fat Tuesday and the first guests came riding down the alleyway on their motorcycles, all in full costume. Parked in the courtyard, and came in and drank bloody mary's. The bikes were parked all day, with one being left at the restaurant for about a week.

Costumed Mardi Gras-goer "There are as many different Mardi Gras experiences on Bourbon Street as there are individuals on the street. The common theme is booze, of course, but outside of that, anything goes!" (Photo: Brad Coy via Flickr)

Any advice to share with a first-time Mardi Gras bartender?

Mardi Gras is one of many parties New Orleans throws every year, along with Jazz Fest, French Quarter Fest, Voodoo, plus a gaggle of festivals and one off days (Red Dress Run, etc.). These are the times when I have to share the city with the rest of the world, so I tell myself and mentally prepare by saying and since I know the city pretty well, I choose to work so I can enable folks to have safer fun. To keep going during Mardi Gras, eat as healthy as you can, more vegetables the better,(This morning was sautéed BBQed rubbed rutabaga with Kale and a fried egg.) Drink all the water all the time. You are going to be working extra hours and extra shifts, with late nights and early mornings. Keep the body fuel as healthy as possible.

For the first time working it, keep an open mind and be super prepared. You never know when twenty unicorns are gonna walk in and want Buttery Nipples!

Brian Maxwell (Formerly of Cafe Lafitte in Exile)

Tell us about your experience working in New Orleans during Mardi Gras.

Though I worked several different places during my years in New Orleans, the best Mardi Gras stories come from my brief time at Cafe Lafitte in Exile. This is the oldest gay bar in North America with a very storied past. Anytime there was a big event in town, this bar became a madhouse.

What's it like to work a shift during all of this?

The best way to describe a shift during the week leading up to Mardi Gras is no matter how much beer you ordered, it's not enough. We constantly had a huge crowd around the outside of the bar with people trying to push their way to the bar for another drink. The smart ones got a spot early. The family atmosphere we usually maintained went out the window during Mardi Gras, as most regulars were further uptown for the parades.

Parade during Mardi Gras (Photo: Mike Connor via Flickr)

Any favorite Mardi Gras memories from your time behind the bar?

The most memorable moment I can recall is when a gentleman, not exactly sure what he had takes, walked into the bar wearing nothing but purple and green body paint and nothing else. He asked for a water, and I was more than happy to oblige and get him out of there. I'm not sure what happened to that guy, but I could tell he didn't have much left in him for the day.

What about advice for first-time Mardi Gras bartenders?

As far as mentally preparing? Though it can be a huge pain, I still love Mardi Gras. Even though I live in Ohio now, I still wake up every Fat Tuesday and immediately put on some Professor Longhair.

Drink water!! After that, drink more water! Sometimes, in this industry, we get so weeded behind the bar we forget to hydrate. Mardi Gras is nonstop, and you won't get out from behind that bar anytime soon.

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