April 2009

What’s Good Here? The Bartender’s Guide to Bartenders

Author: Craig Hysell | Photographer: John Brackett

Bartenders. To some they are the answer to a prayer, to others they are heathens peddling legal sin. They can seem like a close friend—practically family—to some of us; to others they’re merely “the person standing in front of the booze.” They can be quick with a joke or a light of our smoke (as long as it’s outside and a certain distance from any doorways). Or they can be the person who “ruined our night” when they threw us out “for no reason.”
[Note: People who make their living on tips do not throw people out for “no reason.” Grow up, Peter Pan. Count Chocula. The only time people get launched from bars is when they are being a) irrational, b) incoherent or c) imbeciles. Anybody ever asked—or forced—to leave a bar was deemed one of the three. Yes, even you. And yes, honestly, it was your fault. Take off your beer goggles and view the world with your X-ray Accountability Glasses brothers and sisters. Please. We beg you. For all of us.]
Yet, no matter how you look at the man or woman behind the bar, the fact is, both Hilton Head Island and Bluffton are chockfull of them. Hilton Head alone is renowned for its “250 restaurants and bars.” If we figure that, at a very minimum, each of those places houses at least one, and most likely two, bartenders, (and probably more at larger establishments) that’s 500 bartenders, at a very minimum, on just Hilton Head Island. That many people would make up about 30 percent of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce membership… if bartenders ever actually made it to meetings or joined memberships in something other than gyms and Netflix.
But who are these people really? What’s their perception of the world as they stand behind three feet of wood, working during what is most of society’s “off” hours? What have they seen? How has it shaped them? Is it a “real job”? And, since we all have our opinion of them, what’s their opinion of us?
CH2 interviews some of your local heathen/gods to find out who exactly is pouring the drinks around here. And in truth, they are neither heathens nor gods. They’re just people. People with some interesting stories to tell and thought-provoking insights to give. Just as long as you never ask, “What’s good here?”

Name: Kim Karijanian
Number of years in food & beverage: 10
Number of years at San Miguel’s: 10
Favorite drink to make: Margaritas for sure, believe it or not.
Favorite drink to drink: Margaritas!
One thing I’d like to do before I kick the (beer) bucket: Travel the world.
Which is better, manners or tips: Now, I would say manners. Ten years ago, I would have said tips.

Celebrate: What’s the best thing a customer can do for you?
Kim: Just be nice. You know, you’re on vacation, it’s a beautiful atmosphere, you’re on an island…appreciate it. Enjoy it. If it’s not working, just tell me and I can fix it. I’m a problem-solver, I swear.

C: What separates a great bar from a mediocre bar?
K: Bar staff is key. I’m thankful for the staff that I’ve had; they’ve been here for at least five or more years. We all know how to work together; we all know what needs to be done, and we all know how to treat people. We make good drinks. They’re loyal, they know what they’re doing, and that’s key.

C: Do you feel like your job is a “real job?”
K: Yes. I have a lot of responsibilities. You say you’re in food and beverage and people automatically think you’re a little bit lower. This is hard work. I think everybody should be in food and beverage at least once in their life in order to understand it. It’s tough. At the end of the night I’d love to shut the door on it and just kind of walk away, but it’s still in my head all night: what I have to do the next day and all that.

C: What has bartending taught you about yourself?
K: To be patient. [Laughs] Just be patient. And be very understanding.

C: Is there a proper tip?
K: Absolutely. I’m a twenty-percenter and up, please. Please! [Laughs again.]

C: If you could have any job in the world what would it be?
K: It’s totally off-the-wall, but I’d be an art therapist. I’ve always enjoyed working with kids or helping people and I love art. I think the best way for kids to express whatever trauma, or whatever they’re going through, is through art. That’s something I’ve always been interested in. And it’s the one thing I’ve steered away from for the past six years. I have this block. I have a blank canvas in my room, and I just can’t go there yet. I’m not ready. But I know I will be one day. I’m getting there.

C: Is there one question somebody should never ask a bartender?
K: “What is there to do on this island?” I can’t blame them, they’re here on vacation, but…or, “Why aren’t there any street lights?”

Name: Dave Rice
Number of years in food & beverage: 12 years, off and on.
Number of years at Wild Wing in Bluffton: Just had my two-year anniversary.
Favorite drink to make: Pouring a delicious pint of Guinness with a beautiful shamrock on top.
Favorite drink to drink: I don’t discriminate.
One thing I’d like to do before I kick the (beer) bucket: Snowboard in some fresh, Colorado powder.
Which is better, manners or tips: Well, everyone should have manners, but tips go a long way. In a perfect world they’re both equally important, but the reality is, I work for tips.

Celebrate: What’s the best thing a customer can do for you?
Dave: Know what they want. You know, when we’re three deep at the bar and just fighting to keep our heads up, if you could have your order ready—and I’ll be happy to help you with some guidance—and maybe even have your money out, that goes a long way. Be decisive. [Laughs] It’s not a life or death situation.

C: Is there a certain customer etiquette in bar culture?
D: Absolutely. There’s an etiquette in every culture. It boils down to “DOs” and “DON’Ts.” Do be polite. Do tip: and I don’t want to sound too mercenary about that—I certainly don’t believe I’m entitled to one if the service is awful, but we all do this to make a living. Don’t yell, “Hey, you!” Don’t yell out drink orders while the bartender is obviously making another drink order. Just behave the way you would want somebody else to behave if the roles were reversed. [Laughs] I understand bartenders are here to serve you, but we’re not indentured servants.

C: What separates a great bartender from a mediocre bartender?
D: Customer service. You could be the most well-versed, mechanically competent bartender, cranking ’em out ten at a time, but unless the customer is happy, satisfied and feels welcome, you’re worthless. The flipside to that is, you could be the most personable, fun-loving, everybody’s buddy, but if you don’t pull your weight behind the bar, then you’re pretty much worthless as well. There’s got to be a balance. It’s not rocket science, but it’s more complicated than most people think. You need to be self-aware.

C: What has bartending taught you about people?
D: Every person you see is going through some type of struggle. Bartenders, by tradition, have to listen to people’s problems. One thing about my current job, we have a strong local base, and I actually consider some of those people my friends. Sometimes they just need a shoulder to cry on, or someone to share their good fortune with. Just don’t try to talk to me in the middle of my shift on $1 vodka Thursday. I’m a little busy…

C: What’s easy about your job?
D: Working in what is, most of the time, a fun environment. I get to see live bands; most people are relaxing, and I get to hang out with like-minded people…most of the time. It beats a cubicle. Or an assembly line. It’s a good vibe.

Name: Jon Gumkowski
Number of years in food & beverage: Been in since I was 16, so…22 years.
Number of years at Boathouse II: Seven.
Favorite drink to make: Actually, a margarita.
Favorite drink to drink: Definitely a margarita; I’ll stick to the same thing. [Laughs]
One thing I’d like to do before I kick the (beer) bucket: I’d say travel more. I’ve never been to Italy. I’ve been through all the main part of Europe, but never Italy. I think that’d be kind of cool. Maybe Greece. See the islands.
Which is better, manners or tips: Manners, for me, definitely.

Celebrate: What separates a great bar from a mediocre bar?
Jon: Definitely the bartenders. Personality-wise, conversation-wise, advice-wise; a bartender in a bad mood can change the mood of the bar. If he’s grumpy, the people at the bar are going to be quiet, whereas somebody in a lively mood is going to get people to talk more and drink more.

C: What separates a great bartender from a mediocre bartender?
J: Again, conversation. You can train a monkey to make drinks and work a cash register, but the way you interact with people is key. I don’t think that’s something you can train. You have to talk to people on a lot of different subjects; it’s like writing an essay in college: If you know a few key words and re-state the question, you’re golden and you really didn’t say anything! [Laughs] You know, as long as you know a little bit about sports, a little bit about politics, pay attention, read a newspaper and watch the news a little bit, you’re good.

C: What has bartending taught you about people?
J: I never, ever, cease to be amazed by people. But, most people come to bars these days to have a good time. At The Boathouse, you know, people are sitting outside; they’re here to watch the sunset. People are already in a good mood when they get here. It makes my job a heck of a lot easier.

C: What has bartending taught you about yourself?
J: Work ethic, to tell you the truth. Show up every day. Never call in sick. We got to do what we got to do; there’s nobody to call-in to. And stamina. Running behind a bar for 17 years down here, man, I’m getting old! [Laughs] I wake up a little creaky…

Name: Chase Ricker
Number of years in food & beverage: Off and on, over 20.
Number of years at Mellow Mushroom: Six years, almost seven. Since day one.
Favorite drink to make: Rumpleminze.
Favorite drink to drink: Rumpleminze! [Laughs] Or tequila.
One thing I’d like to do before I kick the (beer) bucket: Catch a black marlin over a thousand pounds.
Which is better, manners or tips: Depends on how big the tip is…

C: What’s the best thing a customer can do for you?
Chase: Patience! Don’t flag me down, and don’t whistle.

C: What separates a great bartender from a mediocre bartender?
Ch: Attention to detail. Don’t put your blinders on. Open your eyes. Shut your mouth when you need to.

C: Do you feel like your job is a “real job?”
Ch: Oh, most definitely. For one thing, I get paid to do it. Second thing is, I get paid to make people drinks and make them happy to be here. It’s just like being a concierge… I gotta put a smile on your face and a drink in your hand.

C: Is it acceptable for a bartender to have an “off” night behind the bar?
Ch: Of course, we all have a bad day every now and then. But, if it’s a regular occurrence maybe they need to find another profession. Nobody’s ever 100 percent, and you never know what just happened before they got there, either. See somebody having a bad time and someone might have just busted a glass in their ice bin. But you also have to take a step back, get yourself a drink of water, think about it for a moment and realize there’s much worse things you could be doing in life.

C: What do you do to relax?
Ch: I go fishing. [Smiles]

Name: Allie Andrejko
Number of years in food & beverage: About 13.
Number of years at Mellow Mushroom: I started a month after they opened. Almost seven.
Favorite drink to make: Margarita. With salt.
Favorite drink to drink: I don’t know…if I’m at a football game, beer for sure. If I’m just chilling, vodka, whatever flavor. Whatever’s current. Plus, we always have to test our beers here…you know, “quality control.”
One thing I’d like to do before I kick the (beer) bucket: I want to have kids.
Which is better, manners or tips: Manners and tips.

Celebrate: What do you like best about your job?
Allie: That this is my family. A lot of us have moved down here by ourselves, and I’ve found another family, so I’m never as homesick as I could be. That includes co-workers and customers.

C: What’s the worst thing a customer can do for you?
A: Snap his fingers to get my attention. Whistle. Stare at my chest while I’m talking to him. Pretend I don’t know what I’m doing back here.

C: What’s one thing you wish people could understand about what it takes to be a bartender?
A:? That it’s hard work. It’s a skill, and you’re on your feet, running around all the time. Our job is obviously to please customers; if you see us running around, we’re trying to do that, so please be patient. And I think most people understand that.

C: Are there things you can tell about a person before they even sit down?
A: Sometimes I think I can, and I would say about 70 percent of the time I’m right. But you can never judge a book by its cover. I’m always surprised. There’s never a dull moment. Never. Ever. Ever. And I enjoy that part of it; there’s always a good story to tell.

Name: Kris Akins
Number of years in food & beverage: Close to 10 years now.
Number of years at Casey’s: 10 years…
Favorite drink to make: Bud Light bottle.
Favorite drink to drink: Captain and diet. NFL.
One thing I’d like to do before I kick the (beer) bucket: Ah, the bucket list. [Pauses] I never really thought about it. I guess I’m still young and living the dream. There’s gotta be something out there though.
Which is better, manners or tips: Manners. Definitely.

Celebrate: What do you like best about your job?
Kris: Just dealing with the people, you know? Sometimes making people smile is the best part about it, I think. Sometimes people come in here and they haven’t smiled all day—nobody’s said anything nice to them all day.

C: What’s the worst thing about your job?
K: Drunk people—dealing with the belligerence.

C: What’s the best thing a customer can do for you?
K: Give me a pat on the back every once in a while. Or a “thank you” is good. Sometimes it’s just as easy as that. It’s not always the $20 tip. Sometimes it’s just, you know, a “Hey, thank you.”

C: What separates a great bartender from a mediocre bartender?
K: Attentiveness. Always pay attention to what is going on. And knowing what your locals drink before they even sit down at the bar.

C: Is it acceptable for a bartender to have an “off” night at work, a night when they’re just not in the mood?
K: Oh, yeah, I think that’s just the way it is. But you should disguise it; you should still smile and say, “Hello.” Everybody’s got their off days.

C: What has bartending taught you about people?
K: It’s taught me a lot. A lot of good stuff…and bad stuff. Life is really short for some people. You could say one thing to them one day and then the next day they might not be here. Life is short. So if you’ve got something to say, say it to them right then, because they might not be here.

C: What has bartending taught you about yourself?
K: It’s taught me to open up a lot more, I’ll tell you that. I used to be pretty quiet, introverted and shy. I still am a little bit, but behind the bar I’m not. I joke around and bust chops a little bit. People, sometimes come in for that, you know?

C: Is there one question you should never ask a bartender?
K: [Laughs] I’m supposed to narrow that down? The worst one is, “So, what’s good?”

Name: Nicole Basciano
Number of years in food & beverage: Off and on for 10 years.
Number of years at Street Meet: Four
Favorite drink to make: Street Meet tea
Favorite drink to drink: Ketel One and soda with a lemon
One thing I’d like to do before I kick the (beer) bucket: I want to travel.
Which is better, manners or tips: Manners

Celebrate: What do you like best about your job?
Nicole: I like being around people every day, I really do. I’ve tried the whole cubicle/office thing. It’s clearly not for me. I need steady interaction, and you definitely have that when you’re in the food and beverage business.

C: What’s the worst thing about your job?
N: Sometimes it’s the hours, you know? I knew it would be a lot of work to open a restaurant and bar, but sometimes it can be a little…what’s the word you want to use? Sometimes it can feel a little mundane.

C: What’s the best thing a customer can do for you?
N: Give compliments about the restaurant, about what was done. I feel like we put so much into it, that when you see somebody who really gets the feeling of it and enjoys being around then that’s satisfying for me, because it makes it seem like all the hard work is paying off.

C: Do you feel like your job is a “real job?”
N: I do. I definitely do. It’s every day; it’s morning to night. It never stops for me, and that’s a good thing. I think if you truly love your job then you feel that way about it. I’m excited to come in each day and see who’s going to be here; and when I’m not here, I’m excited to talk about the place and share it with others.

C: What has bartending taught you about people?
N: [Pauses. Laughs.] Wow…I don’t know how to answer that. I suppose it’s taught me a lot. People like to share; people like to give information. They want a friendship along with the service. And it’s shown me there’s a lot more sides to some of the things you might just want to come to a quick conclusion about. Alcohol puts people in a lot of different phases, and it might not be the same if I were working in an office job. I don’t think I’d learn as much about the people around me as I would when I’m doing this.

C: How do you relax on your days off?
N: I’m one that likes to stick myself inside a good book. I’m inside those walls most days so…

C: What book are you reading right now?
N: [Laughs] A book a customer of mine recommended. It’s about human behavior.

Name: John Weesies
Number of years in food & beverage: 12
Years at Reilley’s south: Eight
Favorite drink to make: Old-Fashioned or Shamrock Shooters
Favorite drink to drink: Miller Lite
One thing I’d like to do before I kick the (beer) bucket: Take the European tour. Start with Greece or Italy and then see it all!

Celebrate: What do you like best about your job?
John: It’s different every day. Different people, different things happen every day. Different drama every day. You get to hear all the island gossip, whether you want to or not!

C: What’s the worst thing about your job?
J: Dealing with drunk people. To actually have to kick someone out and say “You aren’t allowed to…”

C: What’s the best thing a customer can do for you?
J: Know what you want when you get to the bar.

C: What’s the worst thing a customer can do for you?
J: Snap their fingers or throw something at me to get my attention.

C: Is there customer etiquette in bar culture? If so, could you explain it?
J: My customer etiquette rules:
1.) No politics.
2.) No religion.
3.) Don’t throw things at me to get my attention or be aggressive.

C: What separates a great bar from a mediocre bar?
J: Service!

C: What separates a great bartender from a mediocre bartender?
J: Service and personality. I don’t care how great a drink special is, if you can’t get a drink or there isn’t a smile serving it, you won’t go there.

C: Is it acceptable for a bartender to have an “off” night behind the wood—a night when they’re just not in the mood but work anyway?
J: It does happen. You just have to throw on your game face. If you have an “off night,” you lose people.

C: What has bartending taught you about people?
J: People continually surprise me every day. After a few drinks, people come out of their shells and you start hearing wild stories from the strait-laced looking guy who is now a lawyer.

C: Is there a “proper” tip?
J: Typical tip is $1 per drink. If you run a tab, 15-20 percent of the total.

C: Do people who don’t tip appropriately wait longer for drinks?
J: Maybe subconsciously. Never intentionally. But at the same time, sometimes you just enjoy waiting on people

C: How do you relax on your days off?
J: Sunday “Funday” is always great, hanging out with friends…and usually at the bar where I work. Grilling out with friends, going to movies.

C: If you could have any job in the world, what would you do? Why?
J: I would love to be a travel writer or the host of a travel show. You know, get paid to travel.

C: What’s easy about tending bar?
J: Once the night is over, you can clean up at your own pace. Just relax a bit.

C: What’s difficult?
J: A lot to keep track of all at once. Your checks, customers, servers, all of it. Especially when you are three deep at the bar.

C: Big bottles or mini-bottles?
J: Big Bottles.

C: Smoking or non-smoking?
J: Non-Smoking. And I’m a smoker.

C: Not to “sweat the small stuff” or “it’s all in the details”?
J: Don’t sweat the small stuff!

C: Manners or tips?
J: Manners.

C: Tending bar or answering questions?
J: Tending bar!

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