“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.
Longtime San Francisco bartender Erik Adkins helped establish the foundations of the West Coast’s mighty craft-bartending scene. At the Charles Phan restaurants Slanted Door and Heaven’s Dog, Adkins worked to institute bar programs renowned for painstakingly executed drinks, commitment to quality ingredients and techniques, and an emphasis on fine service. The father of a two-year-old son, Adkins is currently bar manager at Slanted Door, which was awarded “Best Restaurant Bar” at Tales of the Cocktail in 2012.
First bartending gig: When I turned 21, my step-father owned a chain of restaurants that were kind of like a glorified Denny’s — pie behind the counter, cashier at the front – and one of them had a bar. This was 1989, we had bag-in-a-box wine, and it was just an old crusty group of alcoholics; that’s where I started bartending. This was in Orange County – The Fiddlers Three – and that’s where I learned to cut garnishes, and that people at the bar could be mean to you, and that drunk people were scary.
In your experience as a bartender, what have you learned about:
Money—having, saving and spending it
I was terrible about money. When I met my wife, I was 29, she was 23 and just out of college, and I still kept my money in a jar over my bed. My roommate was a bartender, and when we’d pay our rent, we’d walk to the office with $1,500 in our pockets in cash; the money smelled like bread, because we worked in a brewpub and the money was soaked in beer.
My wife realized I was terrible at managing money, and she took the lead on it. I got a bank account and stopped keeping cash around the house, which is kind of dumb anyway. She was a cocktail server in a bar I was working at, and she did it for two or three years and then got a 9-to-5 job, and we’ve been together 15 years. Having a relationship with someone not in the industry, it’s a really good balancing influence in my life, with the way I handle money and everything.
Really nice shoes are key – I’ll spare no expense on good shoes.
Throughout my career, I’ve changed physically the way I do things, because I started hurting – you know, the way you shake hurts your wrists, so you learn to take care of your body and make those changes. I don’t have the bar-rot problem other people have, but my back’s not great.
You don’t think about how much you’re moving when you’re bartending. When we opened Heaven’s Dog [in 2009], I wasn’t behind the bar, I was walking the restaurant and seeing guests, and I started gaining weight – you don’t think about how much exercise you’re getting behind the bar. Sure, it’s not cardiovascular, but you’re burning a lot of calories. Plus, you’re working with young people, so psychologically it’s good for helping you feel young and healthy. The flip side is you can’t go out drinking as much.
Dealing with the intensity of working behind the bar
That’s the hardest part. I’ve seen bartenders who are overly empathic, and you have to get involved with people, but it can become too much and it’ll turn on you – you have to have boundaries, and you have to be ready to put those boundaries up and give distant but courteous service to people.
It’s fun to make people happy, but when they’re not happy people, you fall back on the pride you have as a bartender. You share it with everyone you work with, that you put up with the same kind of inconsiderate behavior, and it’s a badge of pride that you could say something to these people, and respond to them, but you don’t — you’re a professional. You’re then in a category of people that’s better than the people who are acting so rude.
There’s a boundary. This is a relationship where if they’re rude to other patrons or abusive of the staff, then the contract is broken, and you ask them politely to leave, but you’re never allowed to get mad at them. It’s hard when you get home, and you don’t want anyone to talk to you for a while — that’s not fair to the family, and that’s maybe the negative side. Or you start prattling on and on about inane interactions, and my wife has to put up with that; that’s how I decompress.
We have a rule at home: one day a week, we’re not allowed to talk about work. It never really works, but we try.
Developing an appropriate relationship with alcohol
It’s a tightrope. I always think there are two types of bartenders: those who have quit drinking, and those who are on their way to quitting drinking. There are a lot of bartenders I know who have quit drinking, because you can’t manage it. If you drink at work and you drink when you’re not at work, then you’re just a drunk.
In my 20s, you’d say, “Only drink after the sun goes down,” but during winter, that’s a problem. Now, I have a glass of wine with dinner, I may split a beer with another bartender, but you’ve got to have those boundaries.
There was a bartender I once worked with, he’d only drink at work — when he was at home and on his days off, he wouldn’t drink. Most of us do the opposite. It’s hard, because then you get home and you want to unwind, and that’s at least two drinks — or three — and if you’re not careful, you’re gonna wake up and be tired. I have a set wake-up time, so if I decide to stay up late, I pay the price, and that reminds me the next time it wasn’t worth it.
When you’re in your 20s, you don’t have to worry about it. In your 30s, it doesn’t hit you physically as much, but in your 40s, between eating restaurant food for staff meals and consuming alcohol, there are some serious lifestyle issues with your health. My doctors laugh and say it’s an occupational hazard, like it’s forgiven because of my job, but it still has that effect on your triglycerides and your blood sugar and all that stuff.
You’ve got to set your lifestyle for what you’re going to be doing in your 50s and 60s.
Maintaining a balance between work and relationships
When I was at Heaven’s Dog, we’d be there until 2:30, 3:00 in the morning, and that wasn’t even an option when I had a kid. I made sure I was back at Slanted Door, where I get home between midnight and 1:00, and I’m up in the morning.
It’s hard, but having a kid is supposed to be hard, so I’m not too bummed about that. I love hearing that other bartenders who are my peers are having kids; that makes me laugh.
I see people who are bartenders and they’re dating and their schedules line up and they party all the time — it looks fun, but it’s a different ballgame when you’re with someone not in the industry. It goes a long way toward balancing your health and your sanity.
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?
I wish I’d immediately focused more on product knowledge and the finer points of service. When I was bartending in my 20s, I did it because it was fun and you got to drink at work and there were women around. Now there are guys so much younger who are taking this seriously.
There are guys I meet now who have no idea how to make those bad club drinks from the ‘90s; it’s so much different than when I came up.
Any advice for younger bartenders looking to follow a similar path?
Don’t waste your time in a place that’s not offering you something in terms of skills, even if the money’s good; go work in a good house.
Also, one thing that’s harder now with all the brand ambassadors and all the money, is there’s always a party or an event going on. That didn’t happen when I was in my 20s, and I see a lot of people bounce from event to event. That’s gotta be hard for some people, and when you see what brand ambassadors go through physically, that’s even harder than what bartenders have to deal with. Only go to things you really care about; there’s always a free drink somewhere.
Read more from In My Experience.