Save My Bacon

I sold The Woodshed on the 2nd of November in 2009. It was a bittersweet day. For almost three years I was running my first bar at the expense of family and friends and I was mostly running the bar into the ground. I might have known how to make a Fuzzy Navel and a Perfect Manhattan but I didn’t know the first thing about operating a business. Mixing drinks is easy; paying taxes, doing pay-roll, keeping up on licenses or keeping the lights on is damn hard. Moreover, if you think the Utah liquor laws are bad, try running a bar in Utah. Utah doesn’t have a great drinking culture and the people regulating alcohol for the state have never had anything stronger than a Shirley Temple.

I made mistakes every day and to my chagrin, I made the same mistakes over and over again. I was a horrible businessman and I should have had the foresight to recognize that there is a humongous chasm between making a martini and making a business work. I did whatever I could to keep the doors open and in the process I hurt a lot of people that placed their trust in me by lying and manipulating anybody to make it just one more day. I felt like I was running a rattlesnake farm and chose not to keep any anti-venom on property. Things had gotten so bad at The Woodshed for me that I went and got a day job at ARUP Labs as a specimen processor.

The wheels had fallen off the wagon.

I had reached rock-bottom in October of 2009 and knew that I needed to get out. I placed an ad online and prayed that I would get an offer. I knew the bar had potential—it just needed somebody with more horse sense that I had. Immediately, I received a lot of interest and I had two very serious offers. After weighing the two offers, I went with the current owner because he vowed to keep my staff on for three months. After everything I put my people through, the last thing I wanted to do was hand out pink slips when I handed over the keys. The new owner turned out to be a good man and he has done a good job running The Woodshed since taking over.

I signed the papers on November 2nd and was relieved to be done with an ugly chapter of my life. I was free from running the bar and I still had my job at ARUP. I felt as if a weight had been lifted off my chest and replaced with a considerably lighter one. After signing the papers, I remember driving home trying to figure out where I was going to take Erin out for a celebratory dinner. However, pulling into my driveway I saw a squad car in front of the house and a police officer talking with my girlfriend. What should have been the happiest day in recent years was marred by an ugly violation: somebody broke into our house and wiped us out.

It could have been a lot worse. Our dog, Samson the Beavergoat, wasn’t hurt and they didn’t trash the place too bad. The house was disheveled not destroyed. We lost computers, electronics, money and my Fender Stratocaster but our dog wasn’t harmed and they didn’t smash any of our windows.  We were getting ready to start the next phase of our life and this happened. So, we did what everyone does after an intrusion: we put in a security system, beefed up our locks and installed a moat.

Bummer. Major league bummer.

For the first time in ten years, I wasn’t working the holiday season behind the bar. I became a Johnny Lunchbox for the first time since working as an electrician in Las Vegas. I was working a nine-to-five and finally getting to spend time with my family. I needed it. I was a wreck. Three years of running The Woodshed by myself had taken a toll on my heath and I need this time to repair any of the damage that I created with my poor judgment. I had high blood pressure, I was over-weight, I was drinking too much and I was irrationally angry. In a word, I was depressed. I needed time to reconnect with my home life and do something that I hadn’t been in years: be present.

I started going back to the gym, put down the bottle and started sleeping for the first time since forever. During the heyday of The Woodshed, I was working in the morning at ARUP, driving straight to The Woodshed and managing or bartending till 2 in the morning five nights a week. I was sleeping around four hours a night. I was tired in a way that destroyed any opportunity for to take any pleasure in anything. It was a miserable way to live and in selling the bar, I finally had a chance to get a little rest. In looking back, I think it was very possible that I could have keeled over at any point from a heart attack.

Selling the bar saved my life.

I finally had a decent holiday season with Erin. I was still in the hangover from running The Woodshed but I was getting my feet underneath me. Yet, something was missing. I loved being home and not having the phone ringing at all hours of the night from creditors looking for their money but I didn’t feel good about where my life was. Erin has always been supportive and she knew what the problem was immediately. She knew I hated my job at ARUP and that I missed bartending. She kept pushing me to find a job that I liked and I eventually got out looking for a bartending job.

The problem was there was nothing out there and if there was, nobody wanted anything to do with me. I don’t blame them either. Why would you hire some ex-bar owner after a couple of months of selling his business and put him behind your bar? The last thing any owner wants is somebody second guessing every decision they make and trying to convert their club into an amalgamation of somebody else’s vision. I made phone calls and dropped applications off at every club I wanted to work at with no luck. Because it is a Small Lake City, everybody knows each other in the bar scene and the only chance to get hired is word of mouth. I guess how I acted during The Woodshed years didn’t help my chances of getting any shifts in the near future.

In the end, I got hired at Keys On Main on a whim. I had worked at The Tavernacle for over five years when I left to open The Woodshed. Even when I had my own club, I always thought of myself as a Tavernacle guy. The owners at Tav were instrumental in getting my doors open and I have always been eternally grateful for their support and friendship. However, when I asked for my old job back, they weren’t able to help me out because they already had a full-staff. Sheepishly, I called the owner of Keys On Main and asked if he needed any help. I told him I was only looking for a couple of nights a week and I was willing to barback or watch the front door. I just needed to get back into the bar scene again. He told me to hold tight and he was going to call me back in 15minutes.

During that quarter of an hour, I felt nervous and excited. I was embarrassed that I called The Tavernacle’s competition but I needed the work. I got a phone call back and was told that I can start on the next Friday behind the bar. Wow! I found out later that I had called at the absolutely perfect time: my boss was in the middle of firing a bartender when I interrupted him. They were getting ready to put an ad in the paper to replace him when I called.

This was a year and a half ago. I have been bartending at Keys On Main for four nights a week since that fateful phone call and I have never looked back. With the exception of the hours, I love everything about my job. In truth, I wish I could make the money that I do by working that foreign nine-to-five shift but that is the trade-off to working a great club. Initially I was nervous about getting back behind the bar but I got my bartending legs back pretty quickly. I learned the culture of Keys On Main and I hope that I have been a solid addition to the staff. I like being the lead bartender and working with my co-workers on problem resolution and customer service. There is a litany of problems that come up in the bar business that no other field has and I enjoy being a part of the on-goings of the club.

I could make the argument that I have seen more dueling piano shows than anybody else in the State of Utah. For seven years between The Tavernacle and Keys On Main, I have seen four piano shows a week. I’ve probably have seen more piano shows than even the piano players. I get asked this question a lot: “Don’t you hate hearing the same music every single night?” and I have to answer in all honesty, “No.” Sure, I hear a lot of the same songs but the majority of the time, I am too busy pouring drinks that it is just background music at best. Moreover, just because I have heard Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” for the 300 time doesn’t mean the people in the club have. Moreover, every now and then, something special happens on stage to remind me why I work at the best club in Salt Lake City. Be it a new tune or the piano players developing a new bit, bartending at Keys On Main is about the anticipation of something about to happen. It is very exciting and makes for a great place to work.

Bartending in Salt Lake use to mimic the parable of the ants and the grasshopper. Unlike the ants that work all summer to survive the winter, in Utah I use to have to work all winter to get through the summer. It was seasonal work but that is not the case anymore. For the last two summers at Keys On Main, we have been getting busier and attracting new customers ever night. What this translates to is good money in a super fun environment. Because we are situated by the Gallivan Center, the Salt Palace, the TRAX stop and being in the heart of downtown, we always have new customers coming through the doors. Because of the success of the bar, I was able to leave my job at ARUP. Working at Keys On Main saved my bacon and has allowed me to spend more time with my family, in the boxing gym, writing and developing a sense of pride in what I do.

With that said, Keys On Main is growing and I need people to grow with me. Myopically, we thought that this summer was going to be slow and it turned out not to be the case. We have been operating with a shoestring staff for the last three months and we are going to need experienced cocktail waitresses, barbacks and bartenders to join our team. We have been running ads on KSL and Craig’s List but that hasn’t brought in the right applicants. We’re looking for people who can commit to working Fridays and Saturdays and want to learn to work in a super-high energy club.

I am Salt Lake’s premier bartender not because I can make the best Bacardi Mojitos or Cadillac Margaritas but because I work with the best people. From ownership to managers to bartenders to cocktails to doormen to piano players, I am able to shine because I work with the best. I call it the Harry Stamper Phenomenon. Surround yourself with good people and you have a chance to excel. Right now Keys On Main is transitioning to our busy season and we need applicants. Come down to 242 South Main Street and fill out an application after 7pm if you want to work with the best. No phone calls and don’t ask for an application after ordering a drink. Most people don’t interview well with beer on their breath.

The Woodshed years are slowly closing behind me. I still have a couple of loose ends to mend but everything is better since I started slinging drinks at Keys On Main. I don’t miss the stress of making everything work and I am happy to find a balance between work and home. I like my place in the main well, meeting customers as they come through the door and pouring them drinks. If only the hours were a little bit better.

Follow me on Twitter @BennyRaskin or become a fan of our Facebook Fan Page at Behind The Bar.

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