The sap in the club conversed,
Demanding service in verse.
Not knowing what to drink,
And unable to think,
Clients like him are simply the worse.
My favorite bar in Salt Lake City is Sugarhouse Pub. It is located at 1992 South 1100 East. It’s reasonably priced, close to our house and is one of the handful of true neighborhood bars in Salt Lake City. It’s a small, quiet room with maybe a dozen bar stools lining a beautiful dark wooden bar. The backbar is lined with glass shelves, televisions and liquor bottles. They have a couple of tables in the back, a juke box and very cold beer. The walls are decorated with a handful of beer and liquor signs. The floors are hardwood and the tinted windows face east. Because it was built after the smoking ban, it still smells like lacquer, paint and leather. Until recently, they were just a beer bar but that was fine with me and Erin. We would go there on Sundays after hiking or doing yard work to have a stein of Pabst or Uinta’s Wyld Fire Organic Extra Pale Ale. Sugarhouse Pub is the reward for a long week and a bracing reminder of the work week ahead.
The gentleman who runs the club is named Evan. He is a jovial, barrel-chested man with a booming voice and large, thick arms. He is friendly and is often seen wearing a knit cap on his bald head. I like him. He embodies what a neighborhood bartender should be: attentive, engaging and opinionated. While there is not an official vetting process, I can tell he screens out less desirable customers and is quick to befriend those who will become regular customers. It’s pleasurable to sit at the end of the bar with Erin and watch him work his bar.
It takes the right person to work behind the bar. It’s not enough to know how to pour beers, make martinis and follow Utah’s liquor laws. While different clubs demand different personalities, the skill-set to be a solid bartender is the same. You need to be knowledgeable, patient, able to multitask and willing to endure the litany of complaints, demands and insults every guest might throw at you.
The scene is the same for me on any given shift at Keys on Main. The bar is busy, the room is filled with people coming to enjoy the piano show and everybody is in need of a drink. The guests at the bar are a mixed bag of all types of people. Their background is as diverse as their drink orders. While draft beer and Jager shots are our most common drink order, they drink everything from Cosmopolitans, single malt Scotch, tall-big-strong fruity drinks, blended virgin daiquiris and vodka Red Bulls. On any given night, the drink of choice can shift from Sex on the Beach to muddled Old Fashions to Stingers to Screaming Nazis. I’ve stopped a long time ago trying to figure out how collectively a group of strangers can all order the same drink.
What makes bar service difficult is that they don’t all order at the same time. The lady sipping an Apple Martini might nurse her cocktail for over an hour while her date knocks back five Crown and Cokes in the same amount of time. People invariably come in with a couple of belts in them, so you have to quickly surmise their sobriety level. Factor in the conga line of drink orders from the cocktail waitresses, the customers at the bar and the volume of the piano show, it takes considerable patience and multitasking to get any of the drinks out to the guests. And here’s the kicker: it’s only 8pm! I still have five more hours of pushing out drinks and keeping all of the guests and cocktail waitresses happy. All of which is done while standing up and not partaking in the liquid libations everyone is enjoying.
I measure my shifts in both in time and ounces. There is a finite amount of time we’re legally allowed to sell booze and there is only so many drinks we can put out. Bartending is not working on a factory floor punching out metal tools. All drinks are different and a transaction isn’t over until it’s been properly rung up in the register. Some guests are better than others in that they know what they want, know if we have it and are ready to pay for it. Unfortunately, most guests don’t know the difference between Cape Codders and vodka and cranberry juice. To maintain a fun environment, I have to educate guests while not mocking them and still pour them something to drink that they will like.
For pouring drinks, keeping tabs, entertaining and keeping the bar clean, I expect to be tipped. Gratuities are recognition for being able to perform my duties and hopefully, to have preformed them well. Bartenders who serve bad cocktails with wilted garnish in dirty glasses with a sneer on their face don’t deserved to be tipped anymore than barbers who do a bad job of cutting hair. I expect to be tipped a dollar a drink. For that dollar, you’ll get somebody who is helpful, friendly and eager to please. In addition to pouring your drinks, I’ll answer any question, resolve disputes and settle any bets. I also know a lot of jokes—some of them dirty.
Even though my jocular and jaunty attitude is strong during my shift, I secretly wait patiently for 1am. This cut-off might be too early for a lot of our patrons but after almost seven straight hours of setting up the bar and pouring drinks, it is a much welcomed respite. It takes a lot of stamina to be attentive and engaging and by the end of the night all I want is a beer, a change of clothes and a snack. The hectic, fast-paced nature of the work is grueling and takes a toll on me. Whatever physical and mental toughness I have to conjure during my shift escapes me at the end of the night. Counting out the registers, cleaning the bar and dispersing the tips takes time, all of which is done at the end of the night when everybody is tired.
I think this is why I really like going to Sugarhouse Pub. It’s sleepy, out of the way location with cold beer and friendly bartenders is a welcomed retreat after the week. While they don’t put out the volume of drinks Keys on Main does, they do a very good job of being welcoming, serving good drinks and keeping the place upbeat and friendly. They are currently expanding their operation opening up a second side where the tattoo parlor used to be just of south of them. Evan tells me that they will be putting in pool tables, dartboards, a small stage and another bar. While I don’t want them to change the spirit of the club, I’m sure I will like the new operation.
I think in the end that is what makes a good bartender. Even in a chaotic environment of a busy night club, the good bartender makes you feel as if you are sitting on your favorite chair at your local pub nursing your beer. Being able to transcend the insanity of a fast-paced club and put people at ease and make them feel welcomed is what makes for a good club bartender. If you ever want to see what makes a good neighborhood bartender, go check out Evan on any given night.