Editor’s Note: Today I’m excited to feature Jen, a bartender from Cincinnati. We talk expert mixology, daily work in a fast-paced restaurant, and more!
What do you do for a living?
I am a bartender at Mita’s Restaurant on Fifth and Race St. downtown, which means that not only do I make cocktails, I serve food—really good food with a lot of elements that I am also expected to be an expert in. I would describe the cuisine as a blend of spanish and south american.
What does a typical day on the job look like for you?
A typical day has me showing up between 2 and 3 pm to set up the bar and do prep. We juice everything fresh, so there’s usually lime, lemon and grapefruit juice to squeeze, garnish to cut, and two bar stations to set up. In addition to that we need to make sure we have enough sangria, shrubs, fresh fruit puree and liquor to make all of our cocktails. We try to focus on seasonally available items, so our list (and the prep work) changes pretty frequently. There’s also some grunt work—buckets of ice, cutting up limes and dicing apples for the sangria, as well as making sure our things in the back of the house (what the guest can’t see, like the beer cooler and wine closet) are neat and tidy. Some days there are deliveries to put away—kegs are especially fun (I’m not big enough to lift one so I do a sort of roll-and-scootch maneuver). At 4:30 we all sit down and have a pre-meal meeting, where the GM, head chef (or our chef de cuisine), and the bar manager all talk to us about any additions or changes to the menu.
We open at five. I usually work “service well” which is the bar station that makes all the drinks for guests sitting in the dining room. From around six to eight-thirty, I make drinks nonstop—and it can be until ten on Fridays and Saturdays. It can be pretty exhausting work—shaking drinks is hard on your elbows and shoulders. I usually work with one or two other bartenders, and we’re in constant communication. I always wonder what we sound like to guests, since a typical interaction sounds something like this: “Call? Can you pour me a Five Rabbit flying?” “Sure, I’ve got two courses down on seats five and six, if you’ve got time can you mise (say meese, short for mise en place) them for pozole after I clear the first course?” “Yeah no prob, let me just clear the board first.” (Translation: I need a beer for the server standing at the well immediately, the other bartender is telling me that a couple at the bar have more food on the way and need appropriate silverware, and I’m down to do it as soon as I finish all my current drink tickets.)
When service wraps up, we clean, and clean, and clean. I forget what it’s like not to have lizard hands from the soap we use. From the wells to the walls we scrub everything, put all the leftover juice and fruit in the beer walk-in, do our cash drawer check-out, restock for the lunch staff the next day, deck-scrub or mop the floor, and wash and replace the floor mats. That takes about 1.5-2 hours. I usually leave between midnight and one, but if people hang out late I can be there till 2.
What is the best part of your work? The worst?
The best part of my job is absolutely giving a customer a drink that changes how they feel. Somebody can be having the worst day and they just don’t know what they want, and we have a conversation about it that ends with them taking a sip and just really smiling for the first time since they’ve walked in. I’m a bartender, but I’m a person too, and I’ve totally been on the other side of it, when you just taste something really delish and it makes you happy on a visceral level. The worst part is having people who just are set on being dissatisfied with whatever you make them. I don’t really get those people, but I’ve always been a happy-natured person. It really bums you out to have somebody who just will not be pleased. Rude people suck too, but they’re just one of the lumps of the business. Our chef-owner Jose Salazar once told me that you should make everyone who comes in to the restaurant feel as welcome and comfortable as if they were dining with you at your home. Being a gracious host is one of the most important things I’ve learned.
How have your work experiences led you to this job? Or if they have been more random, what’s something else that you can imagine yourself doing for work?
Honestly, I ended up bartending because I had a boss at a restaurant who couldn’t remember if I had bartending experience or not. Our bartender called in sick, and he threw me behind the bar, and I never corrected him. Luckily, at my next few jobs, I had some awesome teachers who set me on a path to become skilled and passionate about what I do. I had waited tables in college for the quick cash (as so many do) but in making drinks I found something that really fascinated me. There are so many different liquors out there, and so many people on the forefront of combining new ingredients and techniques.
Are you aware of the gendered wage gap in the American workforce? Is this something you see manifesting in your line of work?
We don’t really see much of a wage gap here because we’re all paid less than minimum wage. Every single person in the front of the house (bussers, servers, server assistants, bar staff) makes, at most, $5 an hour. We employ a whole-house tip pooling system, which means that all the servers and bartenders pay their tips into one big kitty. Individuals are tipped out of the pool based on how many hours they are there, and bussers/server’s assistants are tipped out a percentage of the pool. Most of the time this system works. However, nothing is perfect.
Have you had to deal with sexism at work, and in what sense?
Any sexism I deal with at work comes from the guests 90% of the time. I’ve been at the same restaurant for ten months, and I am the only full-time female bartender, but when we were originally staffed we had more ladies. Generally the sexism is limited to hokey 1950’s stereotypes “What’s a nice girl like you doing working a job like this?” though I did have a charming gentleman tell me that my uniform was very unflattering and asked me “How do you expect to sell anything if you cover up the merchandise?” I stepped to one side and gestured at the liquor bottles and informed him that if he was having trouble seeing anything, I’d be happy to bring it closer. You have to have a sense of humor, you can’t take yourself too seriously, and it helps to be a little sassy. It helps to remember that though these people are your guests, you’re in charge of the interaction.
How much do you make?
I’m ballparking here, because it varies, but I probably make 500-700 a week post taxes/health insurance.
Do you have any advice for women trying to get a job in your industry?
It’s hard work, and it’s fun work. Sometimes you’ll feel like a rockstar, and other times you’ll feel like Cinderella pre-fairy godmother. Like so many jobs out there, it helps to be young and attractive, but personality goes loads farther. Be a good talker and a good listener, and keep a positive attitude. Of course, food, wine, and spirit knowledge is a must.
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