The Steamy Reality of Bartenders Dating Their Barbacks
Over the years, I've heard enough barback hookup stories to challenge any bodice-ripping romance novel aficionado. And it makes sense: These dudes lift kegs to pay their bills (hello, biceps!), they listen when you talk, and, oh, they have the same schedule as female bartenders.
As a bartender in New York, it's incredibly difficult to make the time to meet people and even harder to find time to date anyone. (Sorry, boo. Friday night isn't in my vocabulary—how's Sunday? Oh, you work Monday morning? What's that like?) You spend so much time with your coworkers, they complete your sentences and know your routines. You depend on them when everyone and their mother descends upon your bar. And there’s no more reliable coworker than a barback.
More and more, my girlfriends have been showing up with steamy stories of "accidentally" sleeping with their barbacks. And now I’m sharing those tawdry tales with you. All the names and locations have been changed, but the dirty bits have been left alone.
While working brunch one day, I was chatting with a regular who has an industry past. Back in the day, she worked for names even my mother would recognize from the Food Network. The subject of at-work hookups came up. She sipped her Bloody Mary, a devilish gleam in her eye, and leaned over the bar. "I had been hooking up with my drop dead gorgeous barback before he quit and moved. His replacement was training to be a fireman,” she said. “I'm not joking. Our bar was really narrow, we'd have to brush by each other all night long. He slid me his number on a receipt one night … I guess you could say I've got a boner for barbacks." As I probed deeper, I found out that she was far from alone.
"We're in the business of hanging out," my friend Maya said. We'd agreed to have a phone date between her appointments as an event planner and my bar shift that night. Her husky New England accent reverberated through my phone. "Sometimes, the lines just blur. When you work with someone who anticipates and prepares for your every need, and then you make it through a monster shift together, it's easy to get carried away," she laughed. "The alcohol doesn't hurt, either. The weird thing is that part of the allure is the old fashioned dichotomy of the executive with the secretary—we just flipped the gender roles. The power dynamic flows from work, to the walk-in, to bed. Sure, I got off on the authority, but I've always respected my barbacks. They are my heroes. Danny Meyer calls them the 'backbone of success.’ Without them, the bar would not function. They see everything, oftentimes they know more about the place than the rest of the staff. And every single element of our work dynamic can lead to a truly delicious affair."
In a fifteen year bar career, Maya had gone from dive bar, to fine dining, to management, and she had "truly delicious affairs" with five of her barbacks. To this day, she keeps in touch with four of the five, even acting as a reference for one who was seeking a job. With a track record like hers, I had to wonder if she'd ever been caught. Turns out, she had—but not always to her detriment. Management at one bar found out and, rather than admonish them, paired the two up to do late night inventory. Of course, the inventory wasn't the only thing that got done that night (sorry, couldn’t resist). That said, a different establishment fired her with no explanation. She later realized her after-hours escapades with a coworker had been caught on camera.
A few days after our talk, she sent me a text: "OH MY GOD I completely forgot about the time my barback came over after work because trains were shut down in a snow storm! It seemed like a harmless offer. It escalated quickly and lasted all weekend." Oh, Maya, of course it did.
Another lifetime ago, bar culture revelled in scantily clad women spitting tequila into their customers' mouths and dancing on the bar top. Perhaps you've been in that kind of establishment or seen the sanitized version in a certain movie. It was at such a place that my friend Eve unexpectedly found love—or, at least, something a lot like it.
"The lines of morality get blurred when everyone's hot, naked, and out til all hours at an after-party before going back to work," Eve began. "For Christ's sake, I used to sit on the bar and have our bouncer take off my cowboy boots. It was the wild freaking west down there, and our barbacks would basically do everything for us and lift us on to the bar for dance numbers—there was a lot of contact." She sighed and twirled her long red hair.
"I was living with a boyfriend, who I loved, but there was this undeniable chemistry with my barback—everyone saw it. One night, we did a charity show and wound up at a 24 hour diner. Afterwards, our bouncer drove us home but, instead of leaving me at my door, he took us both to Harlem, where my barback lived. We hooked up and then I freaked out. I felt like I was in love with two people; it was combustible. He wound up quitting but we never lost touch, both of us were building careers in the same field. I think we must have held space for each other without meaning to, I saw him before he moved to L.A. You know, I bet Jax tells the story better than I do—"
And just like that, I wound up on the phone with Eve's former barback, Jax, now a personal trainer in L.A.
"I was planning on establishing my life in New York, so I got a job working at the bar,” he said in his velvety voice. He laughed, "Eve and I hit it off right away. We'd sneak a cigarette, or find an excuse to be around each other—she always played coy until a drink or two or 10. I had never hooked up with a coworker before, but we had this Dawson's Creek back and forth."
Five minutes on the phone and I was starting to understand the man's allure, especially with all the martial arts training photos on his Instagram, which Eve was busy flashing in front of my face.
"One night after closing, the girls put ‘Shoop’ on the jukebox and I proceeded to give them all a full-on shirt-off dance number,” he said.
I didn't even have to imagine what the man looked like shirtless. The picture on the screen in front of me left oh so little to the imagination.
“It was maddening, working behind the bar with Eve and not being able to touch her. You never really know until you touch each other, do you? Anyway, one night I walked her home. I put her up against a wall and kissed her," he sighed. "It was incredible. Everyone knew about our chemistry.” He went on to tell his own version of the story Eve had told. “One night, our bouncer drove us home and skipped Eve's house. Finally being able to let off that pressure gauge and have amazing sex—it was incredible. After I quit, we kept in touch. Seven years after working together, we met up to discuss a client we both shared, and everything was exactly the same. We spent an entire week together and I don't think we slept. She's such a beautiful person. It is so nice to spend time with someone so amazing."
I'll admit it, I ended that phone call with a little crush on Eve's old coworker. She took the phone back into her bedroom and they carried on the conversation while I regained my composure. Not only had homeboy painted a ridiculously steamy picture of their affair, but the man had only nice things to say about my friend.
I've personally had the pleasure of working with one of the nicest guys for the past few years, Constantine. Not only is he built like a miniature Greek god, but his smile can instantly end anyone's bad day. Also, the man never wears sleeves and his arms might as well be chiseled out of marble. Since Constantine happened to get his start as a barback, I figured he'd have a little insight into the phenomena of bartender-barback chemistry. I knew he'd dated more than a few bartenders in his day. I asked him how many and his face froze in concentration. "Wow, all of the women I consider to be girlfriends in the past five years have been my bartenders,” he said. “I never realized that before."
This piqued my interest. No relationships outside of the bar? None?
"I don't like going out, work is my social life, and those bartenders are the women I'm around,” he said. “When I'm done working, I'm too socially exhausted to talk to someone on my off time—and scheduling! You can't date a teacher—I tried. You work nights, frustration ensues, no one is wrong, but it never turns into a relationship," he sighed.
Talking to Constantine, I couldn't help but wonder, could your bar booty call ever turn into something more?
After years of touring with a band whose label ultimately folded, Mick came back to New York. He got a job as a door guy at a raucous bar and venue downtown, handing out flyers attempting to entice customers into the bar. At 33, he was the oldest of the street hawkers, but all of the waitresses inside were convinced he was just another "21-year-old tool" in his rocker garb with his hair dyed jet black, hanging down past his chin. A few months in, he was transferred inside the bar to work as a barback. Once there, he began to notice Lori, who had recently made the jump from server to bartender. The two would close the bar together most nights, often finding themselves alone together after-hours, “drinking and chatting until morning." Lori was involved with the venue's sound guy, but Mick was developing feelings for her more each day.
"It started as a 'nice guys finish last’ scenario. He treated her like sh*t. I treated her like a queen. And yet she had difficulty saying 'no' to him and ‘yes’ to me,” he said. “Fortunately, our boss really liked me and really didn't like him. He got canned and I started doing sound and barbacking."
Months later, Mick helped a girl he knew through his band get a job at their bar. She wound up becoming roommates with Lori. The night of his band's last show ever, Mick went home with Lori's roommate who, unbeknownst to him, had been slyly telling everyone that they were in love. After that night, Lori and her roommate had a huge falling out.
And then, finally, Lori and Mick hooked up, but it took another "rough" six months before the two actually started dating. And now, almost a decade later, Mick and Lori are married and raising a family. Full disclosure: Their wedding photos made me a little teary.
But Mick and Lori weren’t the only ones to end up happily ever after. Kay started working at a cocktail bar to supplement her income from her choreography and dance career, moving from bartender, to head bartender and, eventually, to manager.
"It was a sad time in the cocktail world. Everything was served up and called a 'Martini,’” she said. “One day after I first got hired, the owner came in and had our barback, Ivan, line up all the vodkas for us to try. I noticed him helping and thought he was cute. He told me later he'd heard me talking to our boss about having been involved in the rave scene and thought to himself 'that one's mine!’”
The two danced a very slow tango. Kay would approach Ivan and, to her annoyance, he would invite her to hang out in a group setting. Being a born and raised New Yorker, Kay was confused by Ivan's European reservations—was he not interested? She wasn't looking to date the man. She'd just ended a marriage. Why wouldn't he just "get drunk and hook up?” Ivan, on the other hand, preferred to take her out properly. After a few dates, they started sneaking into the DJ booth when the bar was slow to make out but, when the shift was over, Ivan would never go home with her. His old world gentlemanly values were vastly different from what Kay was accustomed to; she hadn't anticipated this turning into a relationship.
Later, the cocktail bar decided not to renew the lease due to the ever rising rent. After they locked the door on the last night, their boss turned to Kay and Ivan, pulled out the money from the register drawer and presented it to them, saying, "It's not one of you out of a job. It's two." The pair were married at City Hall shortly after.
At Ivan's visa approval meeting, their lawyer asked if they had any photos of the two of them not in a bar. They renewed their vows eight years later. Kay wore a wedding dress, and their families met for the first time. "You know, they always say 'nothing good happens after midnight,’ but I guess when it's your job, after midnight can have positivity,” Kay said. “We've been married 13 years."
When I first started on this piece, I couldn't wait to hear every naughty detail from the dark corners of 4 a.m., but I hadn't planned on getting goosebumps listening to love stories. It seems that not only do barbacks keep the bar running smoothly, but they run their affairs with as much respect and attention to detail as they do their mise en place. Maybe it's because it's their job to listen and anticipate the bartender’s needs. Maybe it's the pheromones or the adrenaline rush, the alcohol, the power dynamic. Maybe it's just so "truly delicious" to sneak around. Whatever the case, these steamy stories are just the tip of the Kold Draft ice cube. In fact, with all these salacious stories pouring in from friends, I've forgotten to even mention that barbacks aren't exclusively male, either. That's right, female barbacks exist—but that's a story for another happy hour.