4 Life Lessons from Behind the Bar
No, not namby-pamby lessons like the importance of teamwork or communication.
I mean, I did learn those things during my years as a server and bartender, but I’m talking actual life lessons here.
These are hard-earned, sometimes painful truths gleaned from deep within the bowels of this wild industry. The kind you remember after the tears have dried and you’ve moved on to a completely different stage of life.
I haven’t stepped behind the bar in about six years, but there are some lessons you just don’t forget.
1. It’s okay to ask for help
The hardest shift I ever worked was an AM shift at a neighborhood bar in Boston. It was opening day of the World Cup, but the manager had scheduled it like a normal day — just me on the bar and one server.
People started to gather outside the door while I was setting up, waiting for me to open the doors so they could watch the match. Within an hour of opening, the place was absolutely packed.
My guess is that over 100 people packed into that small bar that day. And I had to make the drinks for every single one, plus take the food and drink orders for about half of them. I moved as fast as I possibly could, but there was no way I could keep up with the crush of people.
I could feel about 50 pairs of eyeballs boring into my head as they each tried to get my attention for beers, food, checks, napkins…
Eventually, the phone rang, and I dove to it, out of breath. It was the owner.
Owner: “KATE. WHY ARE PEOPLE LEAVING BAD YELP REVIEWS RIGHT NOW.”
Me, trying not to lose it: “Because I’m completely slammed and I can’t keep up!”
Owner: “WHY DIDN’T YOU CALL ME TO ASK FOR HELP.”
Me, on the inside: Wait, that was an option?
Me, on the outside: “Uh, send help, please?”
It honestly hadn’t occurred to me to call up my boss and ask for help. While I’d worked in teamwork-heavy environments before, I’d never called an owner or manager at home with an SOS. It felt like admitting defeat, like I couldn’t handle it.
But the thing was — I couldn’t handle it. I don’t think a single human being could serve a crowd that size and do it well. Instead of putting my head down and trying to power through it, I should have paused for a moment and asked myself, “How can I fix this, because just pressing on isn’t going to work.”
The owner called up a fellow bartender and reinforcements soon arrived.
It’s okay to get weeded. It happens to everyone. But whether you’re working the bar, organizing a major music festival, or just have a to-do list a mile long, it’s always okay to ask for help.
2. Work friendship isn’t always lifelong friendship
It’s not uncommon to make friends at work in any industry. But restaurants and bars are unique ecosystems. In hospitality, those friendships are often both more intense and shorter than the ones made in other workplaces.
Why is this?
Shifts are long, physically exhausting, and emotionally draining. As the team pulls together to get through it, a natural sense of camaraderie develops. It’s us and them, with “us” being the team and “them” being the guests who are always on the outside, looking in.
Add to that a heavy drinking culture with staff members sharing beers (or shots) after work to unwind, and the “work hard, play hard” environment forms quick bonds.
But these bonds are often of short duration. When a friend moves on to their next job, you lose the connection forged by commiserating in the server station or sharing drinks after work. It can be painful to see someone you saw as a close friend pull away when they’re no longer your coworker.
That’s not to say you can’t make lifelong friends within the industry. In late 2019, I flew to Maine to attend the wedding of one of my dearest friends. We were servers together circa 2005. (Now she’s a doctor, and I scribble words for the hospitality and cannabis industries. Sounds about right.)
But precious few of these relationships will last. Not all friends are forever. Some are just for now.
This can be a tough life lesson to learn, especially if you don’t make friends terribly easily.
Hello, my name is Kate. I don’t make friends terribly easily.
Out of hundreds of former coworker friends, I am only close to four. Most are just social media friends now. We “like” the other person’s photos and make a mental note of significant life events. But if it weren’t for Facebook or Instagram, we would have lost touch entirely long ago.
When these relationships start to fizzle, we have to remind ourselves that there are friends we’re close to for life, and there are friends that we grow closer to or further apart from in certain seasons of our lives. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. It just means that maybe your season of closeness with that person is ending.
3. The pros and cons of efficiency
Servers, bartenders, and chefs are efficiency masters.
They have to be. When your bar crew of four is trying to serve drinks to 200 thirsty and impatient guests on a Friday night, you learn how to put some hustle in your bustle.
And it’s not just speed. Hospitality workers are expert at combining several tasks into one. They’ll pour Guest A’s nitro beer halfway, then leave it to settle. Then they’ll hit up the cooler for Guest B’s Coors Light and the white wine for Guest C. The bottle is popped and the white wine is poured, and then the nitro is topped off on the way back. Three guests, one trip.
Servers, too, are constantly consolidating their tasks. They’ll grab the ketchup for that one table, the check for another, and drink orders for a third, all in one trip. Every step you take, you’re always wondering, “What else can I do while I’m in the kitchen/at the bar/in the walk in?
There’s a downside to this skill, however. Some tasks should not be efficient.
It’s a trap I fell into frequently at my former job, as executive assistant to a restaurant and venue owner. My boss often had creative work to do. And that kind of work was (maddeningly, infuriatingly) inefficient. He needed hours to just think…which to my efficiency-focused brain looked like wasting time.
It led to some moments of tension when I thought he should accomplish more tasks and he knew that he needed this mental space to continue being the visionary of the company.
Now, I have much more respect for the time necessary to gather one’s thoughts and put them together into something coherent. I do it all day every day, and it is (maddeningly, infuriatingly) inefficient.
But that’s just the way it goes.
4. This too shall pass
Unlike many other jobs where you’ll often work on long-term projects, everything on the front lines of the service industry is in the here and now.
You set up the bar for today’s service. You prep today for tomorrow’s catering event. You clean this afternoon for tonight’s staff.
You’re not thinking about the next five months, or even the next five days. Your focus is on the next five minutes. Entrees for table 14 will be ready soon. Need to bring waters to table 21. Table 15 is almost done, better print out their check.
It’s a world of immediacy. That means that even the absolute worst shift — like the first day of the World Cup — will end. And the day after that will be entirely new, and entirely different.
As an incredibly un-chill person, this is a life lesson I’m still trying to internalize. I’m an Anxious Annie, and it’s very hard for me to let things go. But no matter how hard today is, it will eventually end.
So cry it out in the walk-in, and then let it go. I promise, tomorrow will be better.