Every once-in-a-while I like to reflect back upon certain bartending moments in my life, and one that always comes to mind is my first bartending shift ever. I, like many others, started bartending by doing group events, mine happened to be a Christmas party. The job seemed simple, two bartenders would serve basic drinks to a group of between 300 and 400 guests from 6PM to 2AM. The catering company stated to me that the experienced bartender, who was actually their employee, would bring everything for the night. Supposedly that included the stock, tools, mixers and cash float. By my use of the term “supposedly” you can probably guess what is about to happen.
It was December 4th, 2003 and my first bartending shift started at 6PM, so I was told to be there by 5:30PM to help the other bartender setup. Being my first shift I was excited, of course, but I also wanted to be prepared. I packed up a bunch of my bar tools including the Boston shaker, a couple of pour spouts, a bottle opener, a tip jar and a corkscrew. I also brought $35 in small bills and change for no particular reason, aside from maybe "seeding" the tip jar. I could have just shown up, a reputable catering company would provide everything and the night should be a breeze, right?
I arrived 10 minutes early at 5:20PM just to make a good impression. I wandered around the building (London’s Old City Hall which looks like an old castle) until I found the room where all the action was happening. I introduced myself to some young kid carrying a big pot of soup. The kid seemed really enthusiastic about his job and jumped at the chance to help me. He showed me where the bar was and introduced me to the head server. The head server said the other bartender would be along shortly, with the rest of the stock and stuff, but I could set up the bar.
Now I’ve never set up a bar at this point, but I have enough life experience to use common sense. It really couldn’t be any harder than setting up a chemistry lab. I started getting the bar organized when I realized most of the alcohol hadn’t arrived yet. There were only two cases of Lucky Lager which is a cheap budget brew, along with another case of Coors Light. There was no wine, the liquor was absent and there was no other beer. I found two jugs of cranberry juice, some orange juice concentrate and the cans of soda, so I just focused on getting that stuff into some ice bins to chill it down.
The clock kept ticking and it was now 5:45PM, no other bartender, no tools, no cash drawer and no stock. "Maybe they were running late because there was a line up at the liquor store or something," I thought. So I waited, and waited, and waited. At about 5:55PM guests started to arrive for "cocktail hour" and I didn’t have anything to make cocktails, let alone serve a glass of wine. I went to the head server and asked what was going on? Not surprisingly she didn’t know. I asked her if she could call someone because I only have three cases of beer, no money to make change, and I’m the only bartender. She was too busy, so I located the enthusiastic "soup boy" and asked him what he knew. He knew he was supposed to dole out the soup 1930s famine style and that was about it, but he did know the managers' phone number. "Well, Soup Boy get on the horn and find out what the hell was going on!" Being the enthusiastic type, he found a phone made the call and talked to the manager.
Listening in on the phone call I got the distinct impression that there was trouble on the horizon. When Soup Boy finished the phone conversation I was told that the other bartender was bringing everything, but other than that the manager had no additional knowledge. Bummer. Anyway, it was past 6PM and people were milling about the bar waiting for drinks. I jumped behind the bar and repeated the night’s mantra; "the other bartender is coming with the stuff". But I realized people wanted to drink, so I offered what I had in my most charming way. The guests started drinking the Lucky Lager and the Coors Light. Now I didn’t even know the pricing for the beer so I intercepted the head server again and asked what the prices were, she was busy, but I persisted. She whipped off a couple prices from a previous event, they seemed in the ballpark so I went with them.
Remember that $35 dollars in money I just happened to bring along, well that was what I started to use as change and the tip jar became the register. It started off slow, but people kept arriving and wanting drinks, this was Christmas season and "tying one on" at the yearly party was an annual event for most. The line-up got longer, the only thing I had was beer and the other bartender was nowhere to be found. But I kept going, doing my best sales job for good old Lucky Lager.
At about 6:30PM most of the guest had arrived, my change was turning into larger denomination and the guests and I had a community effort going to try to keep the bills small while my "sticky note" register was getting unmanageable. At this point, I excused myself from the bar and jumped in front of the head server and demanded to know where the bartender and booze were. She didn’t know, so I told her to do something about it. She called Soup Boy over and told him to call the manager and tell him what was going on. I jumped behind the bar and continued my best bartender impression. "Just keep smiling, cracking witty jokes and everything will be okay" is what kept going through my head. And for the most part, it was working.
At about 6:45PM Soup Boy ran over and said the manager brought some inventory and needed help unloading it. I again excused myself with an announcement that the booze had arrived, to a great cheer, and that I’d be right back. I went outside and started to unload a late 1980s Trans Am that was acting as the transport vehicle. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up and at this point, not much was surprising me.
Now the bar was stocked, kind of, and the booze started flowing to the thirsty masses. The problem was there were 320 of them, one of me. I kicked it into high gear and started free pouring, sans pouring spouts, just to make up for the crappy service the catering company was providing. Things were looking better.
Then about 15 minutes later a cash float arrived with a girl who was a server at another of the catering companies events, across the street, who had some bartending experience. Well, one day of bartending experience beat my bartending experience, so the help was greatly appreciated.
We ended up working well together, the guests were a good group, so they took it in stride and had fun with it. We had a few more problems throughout the night including running out of wine just before the main course was served, but managed to get a few bottles from across the street. The girl I was working with dumped a whole bottle of Mott’s Clamato on herself and her white servers shirt, we all laughed. She made a Screwdriver with the orange juice concentrate and vodka, yummy. But things started to smooth out and it turned into a good party.
The highlight of the night was at about 12:30PM when things were starting to slow down and a gentleman came to the bar. He looked to be between 45 and 50 and fairly affluent. He ordered a drink and asked how long I had been bartending? I replied that tonight was my first night, with a big smile. He laughed and said that I did a great job and that I’d make a good bartender. He then stated that he use to work as a bartender at the Playboy Club in Chicago, so I took his compliments as high praise. This fellow bartender didn’t brag or offer any advice, he was very classy, and we just had a good conversation about the nights' events, so I believed what he said to be true and still do. I’m usually a pretty good judge of people and this guy wasn’t yanking my chain. After ten minutes he said he had to go, dropped a twenty in the tip jar, and reiterated that I performed very well, considering the circumstances and that I’d do well behind the stick.
My first night as a bartender could have been the worse bartending experience ever, but it actually turned out to be one of the most memorable. I was lucky that I came prepared with my own tools, some money which allowed me to get the ball rolling while the catering company got their act together and a whole lot of common sense. The guests had a good time because we all laughed at the situation, instead of complaining. A smile and some witty humour go a very long way. And best of all, I received an inspiring compliment from a fellow bartender. Who knows, if it wasn’t for that compliment, I may not have kept on bartending, so thanks to the mysterious bartender for that.
Soup Boy did a great job and everyone loved the soup. However, he ended up hovering around the bar at the end of the night, being my new best friend, but that’s okay, it was a good night so I made him a drink, on the house, for a job well done.
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