Paul Gustings on Social Media, Self-Promotion and Staying Humble
When you’ve been a bartender in New Orleans for 35 years, you get a lot of real-life followers. For Paul Gustings, those followers just happen to include the likes of Esquire and the New York Times (who described him as "the crustiest bartender on earth" and "an éminence grise," respectively). After getting behind the stick in 1980 and rising to fame over the course of his tenure at some of New Orleans' most beloved bars and restaurants (including Broussard's, where he's tended bar for three years), Gustings has become synonymous with New Orleans' drinking culture. But anyone who knows Gustings knows that, for him, making a drink and "doing things the right way" are far more important than any fame, social media cred or press attention he's accrued over the years. Call him "crusty," but in an era of celebrity bartenders, self-promotion and social media fame, his quiet, humble grit is pretty refreshing.
We met up with Gustings to chat about his take on fame, social media and being named New Orleans’ Bartender of the Year… and why none of it really matters:
I see a lot of bartenders these days living on social media, always self promoting, trying to become a celebrity in their own right. What do you think about this trend?
I think it’s celebrity in their own mind. You know, I’m on social media, too, but I don’t take myself too seriously.
I’ll give you an example. Somebody posted on Facebook: “What do you think of when you think of the American Dream” and all of the people were responding with various responses about working hard and making your own way. I posted: “I dream of Genie.” That’s an American Dream.
Well, there’s hardly anything more American than that.
You know, the thing is that people take themselves way too seriously. Self promotion is not that bad. It’s okay. It just depends on how you do it. You can’t go out there and say how wonderful and fantastic you are and you’ve been tending bar for all of six months.
You’re right, content — and sometimes experience — is king.
If you perceive yourself to be the best, you probably have a problem. I think it’s weird that in the last 10 years that bartenders have been put on pedestals because they are fantastic mixologists, or whatever word you want to use.
I had a woman in here swoon and literally almost pass out before she even had a drink because I was behind the bar. She was so excited just because I was here, but I think that’s a bit strange.
The other day I was talking to this guy who knows who I am and the more I get to know him, I realize should have known who this guy was. Come to find out he’s the assistant to President Obama’s Special Envoy to South Sudan in Ethiopia. And he knows who I am. I should know who he is. He’s so much more important that I’ll ever be.
Unless I become a special envoy. But I don’t want to get shot at.
How is it that before the social media craze people knew who you were?
Because I’m special and a wonderful person and I’m just fantastic. But I have to laugh when I say that. The very first time I was on TV was 1984.
Was that around the World's Fair?
I forget why it was. It was actually the last time I saw myself on TV. I don’t really go hunting for the articles or the coverage. People come in and say, “You looked great on Esquire Magazine,” and I say, “Oh great. I haven’t seen it.”
Well, typically that would be someone’s new Facebook profile or cover photo.
You know, I have different interests in cover photos. And you know what, I really do appreciate all the coverage that people give to this industry and sometimes me specifically, but you know — that could all change tomorrow.
I was talking to my friend recently who has been up for the James Beard Award for years, but it seems that he’ll never get it because there’s always someone hot and new that comes up.
“Look at this new person this year: Bartender of the World, Bartender of the Year…” which actually I made yesterday in New Orleans Magazine.
Thank you. It’s great. It is. You know, I really appreciate it. It’s going to look great on my resume, but it doesn’t do anything for who I am. It’s more other people’s perception of who I am.
So did you go into social media a little bit begrudgingly?
I went kicking and screaming. Creole Cuisine, which is the company I currently work for — they own Broussard’s — they said, “We would like you to go on Facebook.” And I said, “No way.”
So we compromised on if I would start it up, their marketing department would run it for me. I said, “Okay, no problem.” I never checked it, I never looked at it. I think I still had a flip phone at the time, which was fine with me.
Then I ran into a friend and she says to me, “You don’t run your own Facebook page, do you?” And I said, “No I don’t, how do you know?” She said, “‘Please come see me at work!!!!!!’” with six exclamation marks is not you.”
And I’m like, no it’s not. So I went and looked at this Facebook page and said, “Whoa.”
It wasn’t your voice.
No. And look, they have way more to do than take care of my Facebook. So I said, 'I’m taking this over myself,' and I did. And within a few weeks I had thousands more followers because people knew that it was really me. They really appreciated the difference in the content.
I don’t think I’ve ever put on Facebook, “I’m working, please come and see me.” Now I have put on Facebook our specials that we are having today only, which people understand means I’m working.
You were at Tujague’s for 15 years, and before that, Napoleon House. How did people come to know you and follow you?
I have no idea. We got a write up at Napoleon House being the best 50 bars in the country. I really think it had nothing to do with me, but it attracted a lot of people. Now that I’m not at Tujague’s anymore they still have people that come in and ask who I am.
A couple came in the other day that said they Googled, “Paul Bartender New Orleans” and they found me.
You know, for me — I had an Irish Coffee at Tujague’s once and you handmade the whipped cream. I know it’s a simple thing, but I never forgot that and it kept me coming back to see you. What do you think it is that gets people to come back and see you?
You know, it’s so different for so many different people. I always say, I’ll talk to you about anything but sports. I’ve been told I have a lot of passing knowledge about a lot of esoteric subjects. That always helps. It makes things interesting. It keeps people interested. And that makes them stay.
Of course, the cocktails are important, too. For a lot of people it’s a specific drink. A guy came in talking about a drink that I made for him eight years ago that he’ll always remember. Sometimes it’s a one-liner I say. But usually it’s one thing or moment that sticks out in people’s mind.
Some people say, “Make me what you like to make.” Well, that’s not the point. It’s about what you like to drink. And not what I like to make or drink. I like to drink Bud Light. When people hear that they say, “What?”
But as you say, it’s not about you.
No, I don’t care what you drink. As long as you are having a good time, that’s what matters. Even if you are drinking water, if you’re having a good time, then we’ve succeeded in doing our jobs. We’re here to make sure you’re having fun, as long as it’s not to the detriment of anyone else’s good time … and to remind you to not take anything too seriously.