How to Mentally Prepare for a Shift

A bartender smiling and stirring a drink behind the bar.
For bartender Jim Kearns, getting the right pre-service perspective is all about focusing on his work-life balance. To symbolize separation of work and life, he has a ritual of changing shoes — from life shoes to work shoes — before service begins.

“It’s one thing to serve drinks, and it’s another thing completely to serve people,” Dushan Zaric, co-owner of New York’s Employees Only and Macao Trading Co, tells us. Though now based in Los Angeles, where he is a partner in The 86 Co liquor company, Zaric still takes on guest shifts, mentors bar teams and trains bartenders, to whom he emphasizes techniques on “how to work a shift and not get upset.”

“When you serve people, you find very quickly if you don’t have the right psychological tools to deal with the ups and downs of different personalities and different dynamics throughout the night,” Zaric says. Learning how to serve people is a crucial part of his trainings, because, without mastering the skill, “our time behind the bar would have a very short shelf life.”

A proponent of meditation, Zaric began practicing when he discovered “that I have a really difficult time dealing with assholes behind the bar. I realized that the asshole doesn’t exist without my perception of it. It’s my responsibility — and, actually, my fortune — that I can switch my perception like that.”

Zaric suggests a few “best practices” to help get into the right state of mind before service. “If you come to your shift upset,” he says, “chances are you’re going to start your shift on the back foot and from there on, it is very likely you will just go downhill. So you will end the night physically tired and emotionally drained.” Zaric suggests a five-minute meditation after prep work is done and before the shift begins. “You sit down before your shift, find a quiet spot and just close your eyes and project your night,” he recommends. “You see them coming in and ordering and having a good time and yourself being of service to them, feeling good.”

“Another one is to quiet your mind, sit down and try to sense all of your body, starting with your feet up and let your lifeforce float to you. Because you are focusing on sensing your body, your mind quiets down.”

Head bartender at New York’s The Happiest Hour, and Pegu Club veteran, Jim Kearns’ pre-service practices similarly focus on setting the mind right pre-service. Kearns also emphasizes the separation of work and life, symbolized by his ritual of changing shoes — from life shoes to work shoes — pre-shift: “It's an important, symbolic gesture, if not a functional one” he says.

Starting his day with an activity unrelated to work “makes my day feel well-rounded and more multi-faceted than simply waking up and getting ready to go back to work,” he says. He prepares for a shift with a big meal, exercise, “a decent amount of caffeine” and loud music, but it is also important to “try to set some sort of intention for every shift, whether it's to provide a certain level or type of service, deal with feelings a different way, or to turn someone on to something new. Try to think of some positive way in which you hope to affect the world during that shift.”

Perhaps Kearns’ most important piece of advice for hard-working bartenders relates to maintaining a well-rounded life away from the bar: “I always try to remind other bartenders how important it is to do things that challenge our minds and bodies more than bartending,” he says, “so our work is never the hardest thing we do in a day.”

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