IN MY EXPERIENCE: DALE DEGROFF

by Paul Clarke

Photo by Danny Valdez

“In My Experience” is drawn from conversations with veteran bartenders across the country, covering matters of significance to those pursuing a long-term career behind the bar. These industry veterans are sharing their experiences on practical issues such as money and how to save it; health, and how to keep fit both mentally and physically; how to find a good balance between the bartending life and spouses, partners and family; and how to maintain a healthy relationship with alcohol.

If Dale Degroff hadn’t stuck with his career as a bartender, the world of drinks would be much different—and less enjoyable—than it is today. During his time as the head bartender at the Rainbow Room in New York in the 1980s and ‘90s, Degroff worked under the guidance of legendary restaurateur Joe Baum. Together they turned the cocktail clock back to a time before soda guns and sour mix, and reintroduced a generation of bartenders and their guests to well-crafted drinks and impeccable service. Today, Degroff is a founding partner in Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR) and a lead instructor in BarSmarts, and he’s touring the country with his one-man-show, “On the Town: A Tribute to Bars, Speaks, & Legendary Saloons.” Find out more about Dale and get a listing of upcoming tour dates at kingcocktail.com.

First bartending gig: Gracie Mansion, New York—tending bar at a private party held by New York mayor Abe Beame to celebrate Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the New York Post, 1976.

In your experience as a bartender, what have you learned about:

Money—having, saving and spending it

A lot of your attitude about money has to do with your station in life--if you’re married or not. I have a very strong woman who’s been with me a long time, but there’s very little you can say to a single, young guy that’ll make any impact. It’s the kind of thing you need to have sowed at a very early age by a parent or someone who understands money, about saving and investing.

If you’re smart enough in your 20s to buy a house, you’re a smart kid. We all wish we’d done that in our 20s, but nobody does—and it’s the smartest thing you can do. Young people who do it always wind up with money later in life. If you can buy a house or some real estate when you’re young and fancy free—rent it out, if you don’t want to be tied down--something that makes sense (and if you can put the money aside to do so), it’s so smart.

Staying healthy

I started out in show business, and I took jazz dancing for years, so I was fit. And, I knew how to speak and sing, so I knew how to project and have a presence. I did yoga when I was single and active, so I had control over my body.

Physically, there are two things you’ve gotta do before you’re 50: you’ve gotta cut out cocaine, and cut out smoking. Cocaine was everywhere in the 80s, and I know it’s still out there in a large way, but if you’re still doing that stuff after you’re 50, you’re done for. And it’s such a temptation to smoke, but if you can cut that out at a younger age, it’s a good idea. There’s not as much of it now, with no smoking in a lot of bars and restaurants and fewer young people picking up the habit, but there’s still lots of smoking going on after closing time.

To keep going, you need to get yourself into shape—I’m into swimming; it’s made a huge difference in my life. Keep your weight down and keep yourself fit; if you can do it, get into it.

Dealing with the intensity of working behind the bar

I like the job; a lot of people don’t. A lot of people do it for the money, but they don’t like the job, or the people who come to the bar, or their bosses. That’s a personal choice that you make; you only get one life, and if you make those kinds of choices, that’s your bad choice, not anyone else’s. If you stick with it, you’ll be even more unhappy as time goes on, and the people around you will be more unhappy with you. But for me, I love the gig, I love everything about it—for me, it was the stage I never got to have as an actor.

You’ve gotta have the taste and the good sense to know when you’re on and when you’re off.

You’re also handling situations you don’t understand immediately, but hopefully you work with someone who’s good at it, and you learn from the experience. I screwed up a lot as a boss and as a bartender, because I wasn’t ready to make the kinds of calls I made at the time, and after you make a few mistakes, you get it. I remember not backing up a bartender who cut off a customer one time, and I lost him—and he was one of my best bartenders. I realized that was a mistake, that you’ve gotta stand behind your team.

There’s never an excuse for a bartender to lose his cool. If you do, the situation spirals down so quickly. We’ve all had to do things at times, like jump over the bar and restrain someone, but there can’t be anger involved. The bartender has to have it together, because if there’s not a cool head present, then it’s over--the barbarians are at the gates. I’ve been very lucky in my career, but early on I worked in some singles bars on the East Side that were just horrendous; I’ve been so lucky to have had these jobs.

Developing an appropriate relationship with alcohol

I did have a period when I was a heavy drinker, but I don’t know a single bartender who’s out there working as an older man who still drinks heavily.

A doctor said to me about 10 years ago, “You’ve got problems—they’re not serious, but your liver is stressed. You can keep drinking the way you are for another 10 years and then you’ll probably die; or, you can stop drinking for a while, and if you leave your liver alone and let it recuperate, you can probably go back to moderate drinking.” And that’s what I did.

During that time I was working at the Match Bar in London, so if I did drink, I’d drink champagne cocktails, and when working on drinks, I was tasting and spitting—it drove all the other bartenders crazy. But when I went back to my doctor a couple of years later, it looked great—my liver was no longer stressed. I’ve never gone back to the kind of drinking I did in the ‘90s; now, I spit when I taste, I have wine with my meals, and I take it easy.

There comes a point—your body will tell you—that you either do what I did, or you take the tradeoff and die when you’re 65. I had a customer at the Hotel Bel-Air in L.A., who got exactly the same ultimatum I did at the same age. He’d sit at the bar and talk about it, and for a year he tried to stop drinking; eventually he said, “Oh, f*ck it,” and several years later, he died. He made the other choice, and he was happy—drinking was too much a part of his life, and his life wasn’t pleasant without it.

Every bartender who’s a heavy drinker will have to make this decision when it’s time.

Maintaining a balance between work, relationships and family

If you’re married and you’re a young bartender, that’s a different program. If you want to remain married, and you want to have children and all that, you bite the bullet and make it happen. I’m not saying I was that great at it in my 30s -- I was still out carousing all night, and probably shouldn’t have been--but when you close a bar at 2 am, it’s hard to go straight home. You’ve gotta unwind, and that’s the reality of it. Jill was able to maintain, she’s a very strong woman, and we’re still together and have two great kids who turned out okay.

But it was hard—I worked at the Rainbow Room, and Joe [Baum] was a very demanding boss. Alan Lewis used to joke, “If you call in sick, let him know which hospital you’re calling from.” He needed you six and seven days a week for many years. Jill and the boys used to come to the Rainbow Room on holidays and things like that—the only day we closed was New Year’s Day--and that went on for 12 or 13 years, and it was a relentless schedule. If I had stayed at the Rainbow Room, I’m not sure how things would have turned out. My life changed when the Rainbow Room lost its lease; I went out, wrote a book, and started building a business, and I was very lucky to do so.

In 2000, Jill and I opened a business together, and we worked together day in and day out. That had a tremendous benefit to how our lives went from then on. We still work together; she runs the business, I travel, and sometimes she travels with me.

There was a lot of serendipity and circumstance beyond my control, and it threw me into dramatically different situations overnight. The biggest piece of luck was that I worked for a genius; I worked for a guy who, having his name on my resume was enough. The road he led me down was very little traveled, and it turned out to be a great piece of luck for me—it turned into a very popular thoroughfare.

Back when you started your first shift, is there anything you wish you’d known that you know now, that would have made your life and career a little bit easier?

As a father, I wish some of those nights I stayed out until 4 am, I hadn’t. I missed a lot of my sons’ childhood; part of it was because I was working all the time, but part of it was because I made choices: I could have been up at 10 am rather than noon, and had more time in their lives. We all have those kinds of regrets; you can’t beat yourself up about it, but those moments don’t come again.

Any advice for younger bartenders looking to follow a similar path?

We all maybe are in for more than one career in our lifetimes. You’ve gotta be ready to know when it’s not the right thing for you, or not enjoyable anymore, and that it’s time to walk away. The choices you make are permanent; if you decide to stay with something that doesn’t make you happy, there’s nobody to blame but yourself--and there are no second chances.


Read more from In My Experience.

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Comments (2)

posted Over 2 weeks ago David Bradford
The consummate elder statesman
posted Over 2 weeks ago PJ Pesce
Wise words from a great man.
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Shakestir.com is a forum for bartenders and mixologists, and the Features provide an opportunity for them to speak their minds about the issues that matter inside the industry. While the opinions expressed within the articles are exclusively those of the writers and their sources, Shakestir gives the space for them to share. Want to write for Shakestir? Send an email to Writer@ShakeStir.com.