18-Hour Shifts, Sex & Fights: The Insane Life of an NYC Bartender
I’m no stranger to the service industry. Every high school and college summer job had me in an apron and name tag, asking, “What can I get for you?” and feigning enthusiasm like I was born to balance hot plates on my forearms. I’ve gone from a barista at a chain coffee shop to a bartender at a luxury hotel restaurant, mixing martinis for millionaires who had been drinking them “their way” for more years than I’d been alive.
I always thought I had the necessary skill sets to serve regardless of where I was employing them, as to me they seemed highly transferrable. Trying my hand in New York City didn’t intimidate me in the least. So last winter, with only one class to take in my final semester at NYU, I figured it would be a great idea to start working nights at a cocktail bar and rake in some cash before the “real world.” What I failed to realize is that bar life in New York City is much more of the “real world” than I had anticipated.
I would sit at my kitchen table smelling of stale beer, eating leftover artisanal bar nuts I ordered hours earlier.
I got an interview at a well-established cocktail bar/restaurant around the East Village and passed the first level of consideration fairly easily. I then trained on the floor for three nights during the week leading up to Christmas, collecting minimum wage without tips for a chance to prove myself capable of handling the crowds and the craziness. I got such a rush from serving rounds, closing tabs, flipping tables, and reveling in the buzz of a New York night. So I didn’t mind having to get on a train at 8am the day after Christmas to be back in the city for my first real shift. I was going behind the scenes of New York nightlife, and it thrilled me.
Things went well at first. I learned how to pop a tiny tray of four beers and a brimming coupe glass over my head and flashdance my way through a crowd of over-served 20-somethings to tiny tables all the way across the bar. I studied the constantly rotating selection of cocktails and was able to describe them to girls who, “normally drink tequila soda but want something kind of sweet... and super strong.” I even learned the nuances of our popular beers, having no real prior interest in the difference between a stout and an IPA. I was excited, I was fast, and I was focused. At least, I thought I was.
Only halfway through January, the exhaustion set in. I worked just several nights a week, but those nights brought me home at 4 or 5am, when I would sit at my little kitchen table smelling of stale beer, eating leftover artisanal bar nuts I ordered hours earlier but didn’t get around to eating, and sending a night recap email to my bosses. I knew of coworkers who were getting up at 7am to work other jobs before their next bar shift started. I’d be lucky to get up before noon.
"There were a lot of nights on those shifts where I could almost feel my body shutting down.”
So how the hell do NYC's bartenders -- the people who have made both a living and a name for themselves slinging drinks and serving crowds -- do it every single day, when I couldn't even keep up after a month? “Stamina,” says Ivy Mix, owner of Leyenda and founder of Speed Rack, an all-female bartending competition and breast cancer charity. “This job is super hard on one’s body. Nights when I've gotten home feeling broken and exhausted and then known I had to wake up at 8 the next day to get it all done again.”
Marc Butcavage of ESH can relate. “I used to do brunch-dinner doubles. I'd be the first one in with the porter at 6:30am, and leave with the night shift at 1 or 2am and then wake up and do it again the next day. There were a lot of nights on those shifts where I could almost feel my body shutting down. I lost a lot of weight.”
I remember hitting those walls seven or eight hours into a shift, when my brain would suddenly check in with my feet and wonder, What the heck have you been doing? And stomach, have we given you anything recently? It’s a lot to not only be on your toes but to also be in constant performance mode. You have to smile and interact with an endless rotation of people who all want something from you. And sometimes the real exhaustion comes from the fact that all of your efforts are going unappreciated.
"I’m not doing this for extra cash. I’m a bartender."
“There's a whole lot of reductive classism that goes into how people view, often negatively, the people who are serving them,” Butcavage comments. “I think [the] public perception of bartenders (and service industry professionals as a whole) is that we've failed in some way, or are just in transition to a ‘real job.’ This is my real job, and it is for a lot of other people too.” Ivy Mix also points out that it’s no accident she’s in this profession and she doesn’t want you to feel “bad” that she’s a bartender. The woman is a business owner, and a proud one at that. She chose her profession. Nick Settle of Nitecap did as well. “It’s a real job, I don’t do this on the side, I’m not an actor just trying to get by, I’m not doing this for extra cash. I’m a bartender.”
So where does this love of the profession come from? What kind of reinforcement do servers and bartenders need if they’re going to dedicate their lives to such a physically and mentally demanding career? There must be rewarding aspects to speak of. “[You’re within] one big community of knowledgeable, fun, and hard-working people,” Kayla Mata of Distilled NY explains. “The sense of accomplishment is found nightly when you are done with your shift and you high-five your barback and smile.”
"You see people at their absolute best and absolute worst, and that can be exhausting.”
“[The best part is] establishing a relationship [with a customer],” Settle says. “That’s the ultimate gratification, that people just want to BE there! That makes me all warm and fuzzy.” Butcavage finds the reward not only in building relationships but in sharing his profession with the people already in his life. “Getting to make [my friends] a cocktail for the first time as they visited me at work over the course of my first year was really rewarding. They were the ones to really encourage me to pursue cocktails as a career and not just a placeholder until another media job.”
But the career isn't all artisanal ice and house-infused syrups either. To be part of a bar's team in New York you have to be willing to get your hands dirty and to do things outside the job description.
"If you talk to anyone with bar experience, they will probably agree they didn't know how to do half the stuff they know now after working in a bar," says Rick Sanders*, a bartender who has been in the industry for 16 years. "Our exhaust fan burned out the other week. Of course it was happy hour on Friday and slamming busy, but do you panic? No. I had a barback I trained jump behind bar to bartend. I went to the kitchen to grab the electric cooking equipment we invested in for catering, then went to the office and printed up 50 limited item menus on the fly. The show went on."
If one cog in the machine fails, the other components need to pull extra weight to keep things working. That may mean doubling as a server and a busser or covering the hostess stand because the L train is down and someone's late to work. "The more you know and the more willingness you have to go above and beyond the rest will amout to job security," says Sanders. "It's survival of the fittest."
There’s no denying that there’s an element of dedication to the game. It’s not easy to be on the other side of one of the world’s biggest nightlife scenes, and if I learned one thing, it’s that the money will never be enough on its own. To this day, that month serving cocktails produced the biggest paychecks in terms of dollars per hour that I’ve ever had my name on. But that wasn’t enough to keep me sane at 2am, when I was balancing a tray of martinis over my head as a male customer pulled on my shirt to ask what beers were on tap. It also wasn’t enough to be worth getting deliberately tripped by a female customer, sending a tray of drinks plummeting into my forehead.
"You see it all," admits Sanders. "I've personally broken up about 100 fights, but as a professional drinker I've never been in one. How mad do you have to be to hit someone in the head with a pint glass?"
“I think the highs and lows of working in the service industry are established from the fact that alcohol heightens people's mood and actions,” Ivy Mix reasons. “You see people at their absolute best and absolute worst, and that can be exhausting.”
"One night we cut this guy off at an event at our bar," Sanders recalls. "He got belligerent, we had to escort him to the door while he's screaming and cursing... he walks into the street, turns and punches the plate glass window. He shattered it, got arrested, had to pay restitution and almost lost his passport." These stories are not uncommon in the New York bar circuit. When alcohol is at work the spectrum of behavior stretches to extremes, from the aggressive to the sexual.
"I can't tell you how many places I've caught people having sex," Sanders says. "If there's a photo booth, a dark lounge, or a broom closet, it's going on. And it's not always funny. You're watching other people's lives unfold and you'll bear witness to more cheating than you'd think. You have to remind yourself that this isn't the normal world, this is drinking. If you don't know that and you don't develop a thick skin you'd never trust anyone."
So, not only does it take incredible physical stamina to have this job, but it's also about keeping a steady head when surrounded by adults reduced to animals. There will be fights, sex, drug use, customer entitlement, and general mayhem. It can feel impossible to handle, but then sleeves are rolled up and the job gets done.
And when all is said and done, when the lights in the bar come up and the patrons are kindly beckoned to peace the fuck out, there’s an element of satisfaction among the staff; a content feeling of a job well done. “Working in an NYC bar is a crazy dance, but if you can do it and have a good time, it’s a great one,” Settle says. “People here love to drink and if you make great drinks they will know. There is an energy to this city; we work hard and play hard! It’s a great rush if you can enjoy it.”
After only a month stumbling through this so-called dance, there was no denying that the craziness had caught up with me. I’ll never forget getting called into the bar before a shift towards the end of January, sitting down with my boss, and being told that I just wasn’t cut out for this job. I collapsed into tears, hating that I couldn’t keep up and wondering how I could’ve been better. The hard truth is, there were about a million ways I could've been better. This industry is nothing if not a challenge and it demands that you give it your energy, your enthusiasm and your all every single time you clock in. And that was more than I was willing to give.
"Working in an NYC bar is a crazy dance, but if you can do it and have a good time, it’s a great one.”
New York does nightlife like no other city. Whether you’re a shot-taking, credit card-forgetting, bathroom-puking madwoman or a server who can’t feel her feet and stopped counting tips two hours ago, you should take some time during your next night out to stop and look around and appreciate all of the elements at work. There's way more happening here than you realize.
* Name has been changed.
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Sarah Anderson is the senior editorial production assistant for Thrillist and you won’t be finding her behind the bar. Grab a seat with her on the other side or drink vicariously through @smileforsarah and @sarah_jfa.