Northwest Arkansas Times: Sunday, March 2, 2008
Hey bartender! Reporter tries his hand behind the bar
His words were immediately met with an incredulous face back in August—mine.
While working on a story on bartending, one of the bartenders at On the Rocks Patio & Grill in Fayetteville, Matt Oleszkiewicz, told me he could train me in a matter of hours.
“It really is easy to make drinks,” he said at the time. “You either get it or you don’t.”
I saw the potential for an interesting first-person look at what happens on the other side of the bar. It’s one thing to write about it. It’s quite another to actually do it. After pulling up stools with a long list of bartenders working on Dickson Street, I had a good idea of what it took to make it in the realm of making drinks: confidence, skill, personality, speed, thick skin, the ability to stay up late — just to name a few. I thought I had enough of those attributes to survive at least two nights.
After talking to Oleszkiewicz, six months passed. Grass grew. Paint dried. The holidays came and went. Finally, the stars aligned and the arrangement was made. I would be an embedded reporter of a different variety. I was to bartend at On The Rocks on the night of Wednesday, Feb. 20, from 8 p.m. to midnight and Thursday, Feb. 21, from 10 p.m. to close. I figured Wednesday would be a slow night and a good time to learn the basics. Thursday would be the next step and give me a good taste of a busy bar. I did not think it would benefit either party for me to try to work on a Friday or Saturday. That would be like trying to enter a Ford Festiva in a NASCAR race.
Upon signing a form from the state Alcoholic Beverage Control stating that, among other things, I would not serve alcohol to minors, Oleszkiewicz started debriefing me with his somewhat noticeable Chicago accent. The first step was showing me where the beer bottles were sitting chilled. I later learned the importance of always having a bottle opener in your back pocket. Next, we moved to the world of the well drinks. I was shown all the functions of the spray gun, ranging from Coke to cranberry juice. Next I had to be introduced to the bottles of generic alcohol sitting in the well, acquaintances I had met before under different circumstances: vodka, gin, rum, tequila and whiskey. Rounding out the lineup were bottles of lime juice, grenadine and Triple Sec.
Then, as if he was outside a Dodge City saloon, my “coach” quickly scooped ice into a cup, slammed it on the mat, and simultaneously poured one of the bottles in the cup for a five-count—five seconds—with a liquid from the gun, thus forming a clear drink instantly.
“We’re a speed bar,” he would later say. “We’ve got to serve drinks extremely fast.”
Be really fast. Got it. After being shown where the pricier elder statesmen were located on the shelf behind me such as Jack, Jim and Jose, 12 minutes had passed – but I had yet to make a drink. That finally changed at 8:22 p.m. when I made a 7 and 7—Seagram’s 7 and 7-Up or in this case, Lemon-Up—for one of the establishment’s off-duty bartenders, Blake Martz, affectionately known as Babaluga. His thoughts on my first mixed drink?
Sweet. I was on my way. After making a few more drinks, I was informed by Oleszkiewicz that I needed to have more tenacity when it came to grabbing the neck of the bottle and pouring, which I later found out is a common mistake from a newbie. “6 to 12, 6 to 12,” he would say, referring to the motion of a clock. Apparently I had the movement of a wind-up timer. Later in the night when the bar was a few customers shy of being completely dead, another bartender who turned into my assistant coach, Kiley Lynch, filled an empty gin bottle with water and had me continue to work on my form.
Following the second rum and Coke to a patron who had come from the Arkansas-LSU men’s basketball game, I earned the bar its first tip for my services. Yes. Around 10 p.m., after serving a customer a Bombay Sapphire gin and tonic, Oleszkiewicz told me the following: “Other than knowing a bunch of drinks, you’ve got it.” To me, that was like telling a lifeguard-in-training “other than knowing how to swim, you’ve got it.”
When my shift was over, a barstool never looked so inviting. My feet were tired after four hours of standing. I couldn’t imagine how they would feel after a full shift.
I was told that Thursday is normally a hit-or-miss proposition at the bar during the colder months when the roof is not open for business. For the first hour, probably largely because of the continued threat of freezing rain, it was a miss.
“Working at a bar is a waiting game: Waiting for you to get here or waiting for last call,” Oleszkiewicz said.
During the downtime, I flipped through a black book where Oleszkiewicz had written the ingredients for everything the bar offered. Unfortunately, any possible osmosis of knowledge through my fingertips was not happening.
Because of the relatively small crowd, it was only Lynch and myself working the bar. Although I could handle simple drinks and shots and beer orders, on numerous occasions Lynch would help me out by showing me how to make a more complex concoction such as a White Russian—Where do we keep the milk?—or a shot that involved four or more ingredients.
One of the more interesting aspects of the evening was carding patrons. I was told to check the expiration date, then the birth date and then the picture. Serving underage drinkers is one way to get into serious legal trouble.
“Take all the time you need,” Lynch said about looking at the IDs, “because it’s your [gluteus maximus].”
By 12:30 a.m., a healthy amount of tabs started to form. An hour later, it was time to start shutting the place down. Around 2 a.m., I sat down with my coaches to take a quick exit interview.
“You did a good job, but you’re fired,” Oleszkiewicz said in his opening statement with a laugh. “A [lot] of people come in here and we have fired them their first night. You did just fine. If you’re not fired on the first night, you work here. It’s one of those things. You’re either an A or a F.”
So I was an A. I’ll drink—uh, water—to that.