Gabriella Mlynarczyk is a veteran bartender currently based in Los Angeles.
Half a year ago, I wrote about what it has been like for bar teams working during the COVID-19 pandemic, from dealing with ever-changing mandates to trying to protect our mental health. At the time, I hoped that the worst was behind us, but by winter, another mandated bar and restaurant closure sent many of us hurtling back into the unknown, negating any gains many businesses had made or were hoping to make during the holiday season.
With that mandate to close businesses came more lost jobs. And this, when coupled with the EDD benefits that are about to expire for those long-laid-off, creates a deepening crisis. The employment pool is turning into a puddle.
As states slowly start to reopen in spring 2021, the problematic situation is compounded by fewer jobs returning, since many bars and restaurants have closed permanently. Any vacancies that are being posted are amassing hundreds of applicants. For many venues that managed to survive, a reduction in labor budgets means rehiring a smaller staff. Even well-funded businesses are looking for the human version of Swiss Army knives who can function on multiple fronts.
Sommelier Lelanea Fulton, a recent transplant to Portland, Oregon, asserts that prestigious somm positions have all but vanished. So instead she has been looking for nonsalaried jobs. “I thought anyone would be thrilled to have me on staff,” she says. But on the contrary, she says, “Employers are confused why anyone with so much experience would want to work as an hourly staffer. What they don’t get is that maybe I don’t want to be in an executive position anymore. I’m in a different town and want to have more of a life.”
Venice Beach, California, bartender and sommelier Jonathan Solarzano faces nearly the opposite issue. “Honestly, it has been really humbling,” he says. “There haven’t been that many vacancies out there until recently, so I’ve been working in a coffee shop, which has added another tool to my kit. Managers have been really grateful that I’m there.” He concludes that part of the plus side of being overqualified is that he has been given great shifts. As a side project, Solarzano and his wife invested in retrofitting a school bus, converting it into a mobile Airbnb to rent out once travel becomes commonplace again.
Another challenge for some industry employees is that it will take months, if not years, for life to start moving in a healthier direction again, with a form of PTSD taking hold from all the social distancing and fear for one’s health being compromised. Bartender Katie Stipe feels that getting back to work will be an unusual experience. “It has been so long, though I’m ready to have the social dynamic and shared energy once again,” she says. “I won’t go back to work until I’m fully vaccinated. My experience working during the pandemic just never felt right. I didn’t feel that it was essential, even though making a living is.” She goes on to echo Fulton's belief that the pandemic has highlighted that having a life outside work is now non-negotiable. “Although this past year has certainly held an emotional toll, it has also been a blessing in disguise to slow down and think about the bigger picture,” she adds.
Hospitality in a Different Form
With the job landscape morphing into somewhat of a “Hunger Games” scenario, some bartenders have been working on their online presence, which has helped them stand out from the noise. New York City’s Mimi Burnham feels an online class was a pivotal moment for her. She attended a Campari Academy demo on setting up a home studio, which she previously knew nothing about. “It became an aha! moment, where I realized this was a new way for me to make human connections,” she says. “It wasn’t an expensive thing. I picked up a ring light and camera, and coincidentally a few days later, a job listing popped up online from a San Francisco-based company looking for virtual bartenders.” She admits she was super-nervous her first time in front of the camera. “It was a new world for me,” she says. “But I quickly realized that all I had to do was be entertaining and concise and not get too nerdy to captivate my audience. If I could make people laugh for an hour, I felt like I had fulfilled my commitment as a professional barkeep.” By exuding her bubbly brand of hospitality through a screen, she says she has been kept afloat with multiple bookings.
Leandro Pari DiMonriva, based in Los Angeles and the talent behind YouTube channel “The Educated Barfly,” which he established pre-pandemic, says he was forced to take the show to the next level. It had been supplementing his income prior to the first lockdown, but as tough times for the industry continued to drag on, he started to take it much more seriously, especially with a family to support. “Brands that I’d already built relationships with started to hit the internet hard to make content,” he says. “I also took this time to hone my skills as a content creator and look for better ways to serve and grow my brand.” Those included a collaboration with HBO for the new Perry Mason show, earning him the funds he needed to build out a dedicated set in his garage, where he’s holding cocktail classes via Zoom.
New Zealand transplant Mitch Ono Bushell decided on a different route to stay afloat. He hit the ground running right as the pandemic shut everything down with his plant-based cocktail mixer company, Lima Limon, providing shelf-stable bases such as skinny Margarita or lavender Paloma blends to businesses trying to keep labor costs down while the demand for to-go drinks was ramping up. His inspiration came from his years of working high-volume venues, attempting to churn out classic cocktails for the masses. “The fast-food service style I often found myself in behind the bar meant that while I was drowning in tickets, I simply couldn't get the drinks out quickly enough to turn a profit,” he says. His product has been flying out of his drink lab.
Considering Career Pivots
I checked in with former New York City bar director Meaghan Montagano to see how she was faring in her job hunt. Her answer hit home for me after I’d wrestled with a similar quandary: Was a change in career the solution to reclaiming a semblance of financial well-being? “I had pep talks with my mom and sister, both telling me this was the time to reinvent myself,” she says. “I considered alternative training, but I’ve dedicated so much time in the cocktail scene, pivoting was not an option. I’ve paid my dues, so I’m digging my heels in and hoping for the best.” She adds, emphatically, “I’m putting it all on black with hospitality!”
Fulton feels similarly. “I’ve put 25 years of my life into this industry, and though I’ve considered nursing, I realized it wasn’t for me,” she says. “I’d like to open a wine shop, but what would really help is having some training available on entrepreneurship and how to navigate this process. Without it, it feels so daunting.”
Montagano is in a similar headspace. She listed off businesses she has considered opening: a food truck, a grocery store. “How can I translate all this knowledge into a business model that’s not a bar?” she asks. “If I could open a liquor store, I’d be printing money.” But delving into permitting and lines of credit started to feel too overwhelming to do alone. “It’s still a thought, though,” she adds. “It’s inspiring to see how some businesses have evolved by catering to the needs of their communities to survive. I’d like to figure out a way to do the same.”
Another pivot Montagano has considered is moving to a smaller market, possibly Virginia, but in weighing the pros and cons, she came to another conclusion. “Do I want to continue with hardship living in New York or have a better quality of life somewhere else?” she asked herself. The past year has made her more guarded about where she wants to spend her time. “Do I want to start from zero in another place? It has to really be worth it.”
Montagano is also making it a priority to seek out employers who are going to respect her. She says she has made a point of interviewing prospective employers with more vigor. “It bothers me that bartending is not taken seriously as a career, even by bar owners,” she says. “We’re treated like we’re expendable; we don’t get paid time off or competitive wages. If I’m going back to tending bar, I need to know I have job security and that my new boss will treat me with some humanity, so I’m setting my expectations up front.”
Burnham agrees. “The way we did business in the past is not going to fly,” she says. “I’ll be interviewing employers and being much pickier. Without us, they have nothing; we have the power. Yes, we’re hungry for work, but we should be more careful about how we’re willing to be treated.”
As for changes these bartenders feel the bar industry needs to make in order to entice talent back into it, their thoughts were broad-ranging.
“I’ve always said that a front-of-house team needs to be super-diverse,” says Burnham. “If everyone looks the same, I think it makes guests feel like they’re not welcome.” She believes it’s extremely disingenuous to do otherwise.
Burnham has also been told in the past that she has a shelf life as an older female bartender and feels both bars and brands are guilty of this behavior. “They apologize and then go back to the same old,” she says. “They need to look at their customers and hire people to work for them based on these demographics.”
As for bar spaces, Burnham references Jeff Morgenthaler, of Portland, Oregon’s Clyde Common. “He changed the architecture of his restaurant to meet the moment, and I think a lot of people who have become accustomed to social distancing will look for venues like this with more space.”
Montagano agrees with her. “I’m terrified,” she says. “The fear of the unknowns we’re facing, heading back into crowded spaces, being three deep at the bar and dealing with drunk guests is scary. There need to be stricter capacity limits.” Both she and DiMonriva feel that health insurance needs to be a sweetening factor to bring career barkeeps back behind the stick.
“The people that run bars need to be better taken care of and compensated for their skills,” says DiMonriva. “We’re not a dime a dozen, and we’re not putting ourselves on a pedestal by asking for humane treatment. And it’s a lot more fun to go to work if you feel like you’re a respected, integral part of an establishment.”
Fulton, meanwhile, is focusing on the bigger picture. “Restaurant workers are forced to be in an environment where people are not wearing masks,” she says. “We need union or government representation where this can be overseen so that we can get a vaccine before heading back to work.” She also agrees with Burnham about the age-discrimination issue within the industry. “This should be a career we as women can grow old in, rather than be put out to pasture for not being young and sexy,” she says. “Unions can protect us here too, from being booted out as we get older.”
Bushell feels the only way to get him back behind the bar would be to pay him an amount commensurate with his years of experience. “I’d need to be compensated for my expertise and what I bring to the table, rather than for that day’s service,” he says. “To not have to rely on guest tips to make my rent would be ideal.” He finds it insulting that bar owners count on a third party, meaning guests, to supplement his income.
As for Stipe, her thoughts on necessary changes lean toward guest-facing experiences. “My feeling from a service perspective over the past year is that the customer isn't always right,” she says. “Every staff member who worked had to carry a lot of weight and stress just trying to make a living while putting themselves, their housemates and loved ones at risk. We’ve had to constantly police guest behavior and also take all the safety precautions, including sanitation fluids that would take a layer of skin off your hands, all done while trying to provide the most ‘normal’ comfortable dining experience we possibly could.” She feels there needs to be a shift in mindset and dining culture, giving more authority to staff who take on the responsibility of creating a safe space for diners.
With warm weather on the way enabling outdoor seating and an increase in vaccine availability, there’s some hope, at least when it comes to the problem of sharing air. It remains to be seen, however, how many employers will prioritize the well-being of their staff over profits.
One thing is for sure, though: Finding some normalcy goes far beyond just reopening doors. With debt on the rise and credit scores destroyed for many hospitality workers, our industry and its dedicated workforce need much more than a meager stimulus payout. Though the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel appears to be edging closer, it still feels like a dangling carrot that our fingertips can’t quite reach.