Cocktails

For Whom Does the Bar World Spin?

October 07, 2020

Story: John deBary

Art: Sarah Tanat Jones

Cocktails

For Whom Does the Bar World Spin?

October 07, 2020

Story: John deBary

Art: Sarah Tanat Jones

The industry's touted progress benefited a select few. Now is the time to build bars that workers actually want to come back to.

The first time I ever tended bar was my first shift at New York’s then-recently-opened PDT, in early 2008. At the relatively ripe old age of 25, I waltzed into one of the most celebrated bars of the last 20 years and secured a steady shift every Monday. Just two weeks into my fledgling career, guests would regularly ask how long I’d been bartending, and express disbelief when I told them the truth. They’d flatter me by saying it looked like I’d been at it for years. After a few months on the job I got my name and photo in The New York Times; a year later, I landed a bartending spot at Momofuku Ssam Bar; three years after that I became the group’s bar director. Along the way, I’ve reaped the benefits of life as a top-shelf bartender: lavish international press trips, opportunities to write about drinks in well-regarded outlets, and more free liquor bottles than I knew what to do with (I drank them). But how much of this authority was granted to me because of who I was, who I knew and where I came from? And how much of it was talent?

I got to this point through hard work and dedication for sure, but it would be dishonest to say that luck played no role. I was lucky to find myself in the company of colleagues, and mentors, who saw my potential. And I was lucky to be born into a world built, by and large, to ensure my success, through overlapping systems of white supremacy, patriarchy and class privilege. Today, over a decade since my first cocktail went on the menu at PDT, there is ever more to gain from that privilege. Success behind the bar now comes with cushy brand ambassador jobs, influencer deals, cocktail books, barware lines. The cocktail renaissance of the 2010s has turned bartending into a legitimate career. But are we doing the work to truly understand what systems are at play when bartending careers blossom into consulting gigs, writing projects and beyond? Now that the bar world has effectively come to a screeching halt, might this be an appropriate moment to examine whom exactly that world spins for?

The bar industry follows a familiar pattern: Low-wage workers on the front line generate revenue, and that wealth flows upward, accumulating into fewer and fewer hands. Thirteen percent of tipped workers live in poverty, as opposed to 6 percent of non-tipped workers. People of color working in the restaurant industry are paid, on average, 56 percent less than their equally qualified white counterparts; female servers are paid 12 percent less than male servers, regardless of race; and anti-Blackness and discrimination against immigrants are rampant. Granted, the vast majority of owners in the industry are regular people running small businesses without huge profits, but the flow of wealth from the bottom to the top exists just the same.

It feels like many were in an abusive relationship, and it took the house burning down to finally have an opportunity to seek shelter elsewhere.

It’s true that we have seen progress in the drinks world, but it’s uneven. Issues like environmental sustainability and ingredient integrity have been top of mind for years. Yet I would venture to say that the number of people who care about whether their vodka was sustainably sourced, or that their drink does not come with a plastic straw, is much greater than those who are aware that the federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 per hour (unchanged, bafflingly, since 1991), which leaves low-wage workers vulnerable to wage theft and other forms of exploitation.

That most bar businesses operate on razor-thin margins is taken as a given, with tipping seen as a way to keep labor costs low for the operators, and pass responsibility for workers’ pay to the guests. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that bars and restaurants are not just sources of sustenance and amusement—they serve as vital spaces for our emotional and cultural well-being. And yet the conversation many of us seem to be having is how to bring them back as soon as possible, not how to fix them so that they’re places that workers actually want to come back to.

Although now separated from day-in, day-out shift work, I still consider myself connected to the industry enough to know that I am not alone in having significant existential doubts about the sustainability of the industry as it stood before the pandemic. Recently, I’ve been hearing from bartenders burnt out on long hours and skeptical of the alcohol industry; former managers who literally spent more money on childcare than they made; and cocktail servers whose late-night schedule was wreaking havoc on their mental health. Many were just barely hanging on, and it took a pandemic to finally make the arrangement untenable.

In a way, it feels like many were in an abusive relationship, and it took the house burning down to finally have an opportunity to seek shelter elsewhere. At the same time, we’re contemplating the true nature of hospitality, and how to extend the definition of that beyond simply being nice to the paying customer in exchange for tips. This is not to say that those in the industry, myself included, do not love the selfless act of creating space for and taking care of people as a reward in and of itself, but I’m wondering how we can make the case that hospitality is a two-way street, and that it’s time to give back in a meaningful way to the more than 15 million workers employed pre-pandemic. The role of a guest comes with expectations; it’s rude to show up to a dinner party empty-handed.

What if we moved from celebrating yet another menu of 'innovative riffs on classic cocktails' and instead turned toward building a world where we wouldn’t need to underpay service workers to cater to our own desire for escapism?

So, what I keep asking myself is, How do we start over? For decades, if not centuries, service workers have been struggling beneath the weight of oppressive systems. What if they were the ones to help us imagine a world without grind culture, without for-profit health care and with an equitable distribution of wealth that left no one out? What if we moved from celebrating yet another menu of  “innovative riffs on classic cocktails” and instead turned toward building a world where we wouldn’t need to underpay service workers to cater to our own desire for escapism?

What would it take to build this world? In the near term, an industry-specific bailout from the federal government would be a great place to start to stem the bleeding from collapsed revenues and widespread unemployment, along with federal, state and city policies that ensure hazard pay and sick leave. Next, broad national policies like socialized medicine, increased minimum wage, immigration reform and paid family leave would help to keep workers healthy and thriving in the industry. Within the industry we can work to examine the practice of tipping, and how that perpetuates inequality and exploitation of marginalized workers by leaving compensation in the hands of customers who can be unknowingly influenced by race and gender bias. We also need to give workers more leverage, whether that is in the form of profit-sharing, co-op models of ownership or even greater union membership or collective bargaining frameworks, such as Nevada’s Culinary Workers Union.

I also think we need to spend more time examining how we determine who gets to be successful in this industry. It’s hard to deny that we’ve made some progress toward equity and justice, but there is still a long, long, way to go. The first cocktail book to be published by a Black person in over a century, Tiki by Shannon Mustipher, was just published in 2019; nationally, tipped workers who are Black women are paid on average $5 less per hour than white men; and food-and-drink magazine mastheads are still exceedingly white. On the other end of this pandemic, we’ll most certainly see huge vacancies and we’ll need workers to rebuild a broken industry. How can we ensure that, this time around, what we build is actually for everyone?

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