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A Sobering Look at the Day-to-Day Reality of Bartending Right Now

Slow days, lousy tips, and belligerent, mask-averse customers are a few of the things bar staff deal with, all while doing a job that puts their health at risk

The foreboding arrived before the coronavirus. In the midst of a busy mid-March shift at downtown Minneapolis’s cocktail hot spot Parlour, the bartenders were talking about the likelihood of a restaurant lockdown. A patron, emboldened possibly by drink, chimed in, “It’s a cold — your business is going to be ruined if you close down.” The staff said it wasn’t their call, masks would be worn, and changes would be made. Before leaving, the patron licked his palm, reached over the bar, and grasped all the drink straws.

A world away, Aynsley Jones, beverage director and bartender for In Bloom, a jazzy spot inside a new food hall, was finishing out a whirlwind trip with other industry professionals. The group from all over the world had congregated at a bar in London to raise a glass together before returning to their respective home cities. Jones knew his flight back to the States was one of the last ones that would be allowed in to the country after the president had vowed to close borders on Friday, March 13. As conversation turned to the specter of illness, he addressed a bartender from NYC, “Our industry is fucked.”

Jones caught a few hours of sleep in the hotel lobby, worried about the prospect of missing his flight and not being let back into the country. Fortunately, he made it home. But that Monday, Jones was on his way to work when In Bloom’s co-owner Nick Rancone called. “Hey, don’t put in any new orders for booze this week,” he said. For dinner that night, staff outnumbered diners. Rancone’s parents came in for dinner and his mother teared up. It felt like goodbye.

On March 17, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz ordered all restaurants and bars to close as gathering places. In a matter of days, everything about the business of serving drinks and caring for customers had been upended. Where once there were lines outside new places, with customers crowded three-deep behind a bar, everything was closed and quiet. Restaurants across the state were furloughing, laying off, and letting go of staff. According to the state, unemployment claims went from 12,072 new requests on March 12 to 32,070 on March 18. One of the world’s oldest professions, a trade that both the overeducated and uneducated could make a cashflow-friendly living in, was gone.

Kara Smith bartends at P.S. Steak, an elegant steakhouse that won Eater’s Design of the Year award in 2019. The restaurant, located at the base of a historic condo building, is dripping in crystal chandeliers, its entryway lined with marble flooring. Smith is a well-known fixture behind Minneapolis bars. After the pandemic shut-down, suddenly without drive, purpose, or a place to get up and go to, she found herself lying in bed for days on end, exhausting her Netflix account and marinating in malaise. For someone used to working 65 to 100 hours a week behind two bars, P.S. Steak and Parlour, the idea of “doing nothing” was completely foreign. “The coronavirus went from zero to 100. People were really confused; people were just getting this kind of weird illness,” she said. “Back then, it wasn’t lethal, it wasn’t going to be a worldwide pandemic. People thought, ‘It’ll just be a couple of days or a couple of weeks and then we’ll be fine.’” The initial closure was only set to last through the end of March.

Bartending isn’t known as an industry filled with financial planners. Trish Gavin, the beverage director at Lat 14, a Southeast Asian restaurant in the Minneapolis suburb of Golden Valley, said bartenders are used to counting on cash, and there’s always another shift to pick up somewhere. Suddenly, there was no more cash. Most in the industry didn’t have enough money to cover more than a couple of missed shifts, let alone weeks with no income.

Minnesota’s restaurants and bars would remain closed until early June. As business owners scrambled to figure out how best to open, a harrowing video of four Minneapolis police officers suffocating George Floyd during the process of his arrest surfaced. Officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes, as Floyd said, again and again, “I can’t breathe.” On May 26, protestors took to the streets, demanding justice for Floyd and adrenalizing the Black Lives Matter movement. For three nights, the city faced unrest, with fires destroying several businesses across downtown Minneapolis.

Tony Zaccardi owns Palmer’s Bar, a dive located a couple miles from the apex of Minneapolis’s unrest. He boarded up his bar windows and spray-painted “Black Owned” on the plywood in the hopes of his business being spared. The longtime bartender and musician purchased the iconic dive bar in April 2018. Palmer’s, whose tagline is, “Sorry, we’re open,” was actually closed through the unrest because of the pandemic. Zaccardi’s story was tantalizing to the national media, and he was soon spotlighted on CNN, CNBC, and in Newsweek. President Barack Obama sent him a direct message. Palmer’s remained untouched during the unrest, but a pawn shop just a couple of blocks away was destroyed by fire.

While standing in the surreal position of representing his city in a critical cultural moment, Zaccardi was also a business owner trying to figure out how he and his employees would carry on. He took the time to work on some much-needed remodeling: cleaning up the bar, uncovering an old tin ceiling, and scrubbing what had been neglected for many years. The bathrooms received some much-needed attention: “We found that smell. So, that’s gone,” he said.

On July 31, Palmer’s reopened. With a large patio, carefully spaced tables, and creative scheduling, he was able to rehire every employee who wanted to come back to work. But work now looks very different. “Every day is Wednesday,” he said.

It used to be that every evening around 4 o’clock, 5 o’clock, or 6 o’clock, workers would roll in after finishing a shift. “People are still not leaving their houses. No one has been going to a bar. My reality is I’m here, I’m open, we’re doing all the [safety] things,” said Zaccardi. Now it’s up to him to worry over why people haven’t come back. “Do people fear it because it’s Palmer’s? Do they fear it’s going to be a shitshow?” With strident safety protocols and a zero-tolerance policy on proper mask wearing, the space is as safe as it could be under current regulations. But that convivial roar of people letting off steam is gone, as are the days of people standing shoulder to shoulder, of regulars calling out to each other and talking shit while a live band kicking up tunes. All the guests, however, are following the strict mask protocols. “There hasn’t been any Karen-type shit. Right by the door, we have Big Pete — 400-pound guy masked up,” Zaccardi said.

Meanwhile, Smith had exhausted all aspects of being at home, from the sourdough starter to pretending it was a staycation to the unemployment payments. A message addressed to employees of P.S. Steak, Parlour, and parent company Jester Concepts’ other properties was honest: There are jobs if you want them, but we respect anyone who isn’t ready to come back to work. For someone like Smith, bartending is a way of living. She’s been making drinks for friends even when she’s not making cocktails, dropping jars of elixirs on doorsteps throughout the pandemic.

“Keith [Mrotek, P.S. Steak’s beverage director] said, ‘It’s fine if you hold off, but we’re working six days a week with the mask, the gloves, the constant hand-washing — it’s a lot,’” she said. Other people would need to be hired just to cover a few spare shifts. P.S. Steak is a fine dining experience, and its interior reflects that: In the front is a bar-lounge area, particularly appealing during the cold months when a fire roars. In the back is a second bar surrounded by large, dark booths built for deep pockets. It’s easy to drop a couple hundred dollars on a dinner for two. Cram in a few more bodies and an expense account, and it’s a high-roller destination at the edge of downtown Minneapolis.

“P.S. is a very strange beast during regular times, but when you’re dealing with clientele who were, in a lot of ways, unaffected financially, it’s really tough to sit there and smile,” Smith said. “We’re serving $250 bottles of wine and $100 steaks while struggling to pay rent, and these people don’t understand what you’re going through. Gratuity was kind of godawful.” The work Smith always loved now often leaves her demoralized after a shift. “It’s infuriating,” said Smith. “Every single night there has been a no call, no show. Every night. Two different six tops in the last week.” Reservations at restaurants are currently capped; dining rooms are restricted by the number of people that can be served, and the percentage of capacity that can be served is 50 percent of capacity or less.

At P.S. Steak, all seating is done by reservation, which is as much for planning purposes as it is for COVID-19 contact tracing, should there ever be an outbreak. But the customers who are resurfacing aren’t much to count on for making up the lost cash. “There are people coming in, ordering all these things, and tipping $10 on a $200 tab. It just beats you down. It really sucks when you know you can only get so many people in that night and there’s no chance for a second rush. That’s it. That’s all you get,” said Smith.

That’s if there is a bar to go back to. Jones’s last shift at In Bloom was the final night for that business. After the restaurant went dark, Jones took time off to spend with his family. He picked up some shifts at a new hot spot in Minneapolis that was popular with high rollers. “There would be $700 to $800 tabs with a $10 tip. It was a total gut punch.”

Another sore spot for Jones is the nonbelievers: people who refuse to wear a mask, find ways to subvert the safety protocol, or go full-on confrontational. For bartenders, it’s putting their health on the line every night. “I’ll probably bartend with a mask for the rest of my career,” said Jones.

He didn’t last long at the downtown spot before returning to the company that owned In Bloom. The Twist Davis Group also operates the wildly popular Revival restaurants, which specialize in fried chicken and barbecue. That business has been doing gangbusters numbers with takeout. When the Minneapolis and St. Paul locations reopened their patios, Jones returned to work as the beverage director, but he’s now the only bartender on staff. All drinks are batched and served on draught. Servers simply pour a drink, and there are no garnishes. Service is streamlined and the simplified cocktails fit the casual setting.

For Trish Gavin, the beverage director at Lat 14, the drinks were already often batched, but they used to come with extravagant garnishes. Those are gone, too. Gavin is particularly suited to helping structure safety protocols thanks to her postsecondary education: She holds a degree in microbiology. Her focus has shifted from primary guest care, to the safety and health, both mental and physical, of her staff.

In addition to measures intended to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19, Gavin reached out to an organization called Serving Those Serving to support the well-being of the bar’s staff. Through a nominal fee, Lat 14 was able to add an Employee Assistance Program with 24-hour counseling services, because, she said, “nobody ever has a meltdown at 3 in the afternoon.” Gavin is serious about the PTSD burn that’s encroaching upon everyone in the service industry right now. “I can live and breathe the sanitization, but taking care of the mental health needs to be a priority,” she said.

While a large event tent out front, like one used for weddings, has given Gavin’s restaurant plenty of space and a sense of operational normalcy, there are still challenges. One person, she recalled, came into the restaurant wearing a Confederate flag shirt and demanded a table without a mask. This person didn’t make it past the host stand. “After this is over,” Gavin said, “every host deserves an all-expense-paid vacation somewhere tropical.”

Tropical temperatures are the opposite of what is bearing down on the northern part of the city, where it’s not unusual to see the first snow flurries in October. “I’m trying not to stage an all-out panic in my brain,” said Smith.

Jones said Revival will likely go back to only serving takeout, and he’s toying with adding cocktail kits, even though Minnesota currently does not allow for alcohol sales to go. “In New York, in Texas, the really good cocktail places have great to-go games. Being able to offer that in this time when a lot of our guests still don’t feel comfortable going out would be amazing,” he said. For now, Revival might sell set-ups, which will require drinkers to have their own well-stocked bars. “Minnesota has a weird spirit stigma,” said Jones, referencing the state’s Blue Laws, which often restrict alcohol sales. Minnesota does not allow for alcohol sales on grocery store shelves, and it only passed legislation allowing liquor stores to be open on Sunday in 2017. Not being able to sell individual alcoholic drinks is another obstacle for businesses that are already struggling.

“Survival is all about getting creative,” said Zaccardi. “People know that they have to support the places they love. We sold a lot of gift cards and merch at first. We have a coloring book. And we’re trying to come up with some new shit.”

Palmer's Bar

500 Cedar Avenue, , MN 55454 (612) 333-7625 Visit Website

Revival

500 J Street, , CA 95814 (916) 545-7111 Visit Website

In Bloom at Keg & Case Market

928 7th Street West, , MN 55102 (651) 237-9630 Visit Website

P.S. Steak

510 Groveland Avenue, , MN 55403 (612) 886-1620 Visit Website

Parlour

18 West Lancaster Avenue, , PA 19003 (610) 649-5100 Visit Website

Lat14 Asian Eatery

8815 7th Avenue North, , MN 55427 (763) 400-7910 Visit Website

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