Before I was a bartender, I was a waitress. I wanted to waitress because I wanted to be like the exotic hippies that stayed at my parents’ motel during Woodstock. We had beds for about 30, but made room for 80. The girls taught me how to dance in fields of rain, pick greens from the lawn for salad and wear flowers in my hair. I was 10, they were magic, and I wanted to be like them. The next few years, a handful came back for the summer and waitressed in town at Singer’s Restaurant in Liberty, New York, an old-school delicatessen that also served Chinese food. As soon as I could get working papers, I waitressed at Singer’s too. I was the youngest, so I got the worst tables: multi-generational families who all wanted different types of food, could never place a drink order at the same time, and stiffed me, often.
The senior waitresses got the best tables — parties of two who also ordered booze, which was easy to carry and added heft to the bill. The most senior waitress would also sip the top off of every drink and then finish off what was left on the bottom of the glass — something the head chef desired to do as well, but he was often an afterthought. Things got dire when one day the chef demanded I get him a whisky sour. I refused and so he chased me around the pick-up station with a meat cleaver.
So I found another job at a better restaurant: The dining room at the local Holiday Inn. It had tablecloths and an actual bar lounge.
It was there, I realized my tips were dependent on so many things that had nothing to do with me: how quickly and well the food was prepared, how many times the busboy watered the table and cleared plates, whether people could have the baked potato and the rice.
The only respite was going to the bar to fetch drinks. Joanie the bartender was nice, calm and efficient. She always took my order right away, even if the bar was busy. One day I had the opportunity to watch her serve a customer. And that’s when my life changed. My first lesson in how one can have more control over effort and reward.
Joanie mixed and served a vodka soda. She put it in front of her customer on a small napkin. No fuss. He paid. She returned his change, and the man put one dollar on the bar. One dollar! I had to serve four courses with six trips to the kitchen for one dollar. I had to deal with cranky chefs, moody busboys, manipulative waitresses, pushy patrons and filth for that dollar. Joanie relied only on herself to make and deliver that drink. And she smiled while doing it.
I studied Joanie to learn her magic and when I finally had my first summer behind the bar, I felt something I never had at a job before: a sense of calm, and control. That what I did, and how I did it, could influence my tip. I’ll never forget mixing my first drink, putting the cocktail napkin on the bar, rimming the glass with a perfectly cut lemon peel, swirling the martini in the shaker and pouring it into the glass right below its lip. And when I went to clear the glass after the patron left, two dollars was waiting for me! I finally felt I got it right.
Helen Rothberg is a professor at the school of Management at Marist College. Her book The Perfect Mix: Everything I Know About Leadership I Learned as a Bartender is out now.