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3 Lessons in Love I’ve Learned From Being a Bartender

Creator:
Published:
December 14, 2023
July 3, 2023
Read about how working at a bar taught this author how to love better.|Read about how working at a bar taught this author how to love better.

About a year ago, I started working as a bartender. In that time, I’ve learned things like how to make a mean dirty martini, create the perfect presentation of a drink, and manage a full bar of guests at once. But I’ve also noticed that the more time I spend behind the bar, the more open, caring, and ultimately, loving I’ve become. Over the last 12 months, bartending has surprisingly taught me just as much about love as it has about making a good drink. Here are three key lessons I’ve learned from working behind the bar.

How to practice radical hospitality

When your shift starts, you have to leave whatever is going on in your life at the door, and fully invest in others. It may sound harsh, but in actuality, practicing this has been truly liberating for me. Just last week, my car died right as I was pulling up to my shift. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I had to jump into the work of serving others. My co-worker generously offered to give me a ride home, and I told myself I’d figure the rest out the next day. Over the next few hours, I talked with people, laughed, and listened. I left my shift with a new perspective — I am so lucky to live the life that I do. With that new mentality, I wasn’t going to let a broken-down car ruin my day!

In the tavern where I work, our owners and managers work incredibly hard to create a culture where relationships come first. As employees, we are taught to shake hands and learn the names of every new customer who walks through our doors. People come to the bar to celebrate and commiserate. As a bartender, you have to meet them where they are and just be with them in whatever state they find themselves in that day.

Other ways that we practice hospitality for our customers is always being aware of the ambiance — we make sure the lights aren’t too bright or dim, that our music fits the crowd’s preferences, that we have fresh popcorn made, that we as employees have smiles on our faces, etc. These may seem like small gestures, but put together they create an experience for our guests that make them want to come back. 

Even with all of this, sometimes customers can be rude or unkind. This is when the radical part of the hospitality comes in. When you’re behind the bar, you have to care for the customers you love just as well as the ones that make you frustrated.

How to create a community of belonging

At our tavern, we work to create a space where people from all walks of life are welcomed. On any given night, it’s not uncommon to have recent college grads, army vets, mechanics, healthcare workers, CEOs, and hair stylists — just to name a few — scattered throughout the bar, and it is a beautiful thing. It doesn’t matter what any of us have achieved or done in our lives. We recognize that each of us has our own experiences and beliefs that make us uniquely us. Often, as other guests overhear us bartenders’ encounters with other customers, they jump into the conversation too. This listening and sharing serves as the foundation to forming a community of belonging. As my manager puts it, “At our bar, we turn our regulars into friends and our friends into a family.”

We have many regulars who have formed community not just with us, but with those they’ve met at our bar. We share holidays together and celebrate one another’s birthdays. Our kids become friends with each other. We rejoice in one another’s wins and console each other through rough patches. All of this starts with the simple things like learning names and remembering drink orders, but it is nurtured by consistency and intentionality. We work hard to foster our relationships with fellow staff members so we can extend that culture of love to guests. It takes collaboration, trust, compromise, and compassion to run a bar. Our staff has to lean on one another and accept each other as we are. The community that we’ve built is one that guests notice and feel compelled to join.

How to listen well

Bartending has taught me so much about what real, genuine listening looks like. I was chatting with a Vietnam war veteran during one of my shifts and asked him about what he likes to do in his free time. He told me that he visits other veterans and simply chats with them. He gives them an opportunity to tell their stories. He told me the most powerful thing you can do is listen. I’ve carried that with me and incorporated it into what I do as a bartender: provide opportunities for people to tell their story, feel truly heard, and know that they are loved.

When you begin bartending, it’s your job to listen to people — whether you like them or not, and whether you agree with them or not. Yet, as I’ve continued to listen to people’s stories, I’ve learned to listen genuinely. I’ve learned that when I listen to individuals long enough, even if I still don’t agree with them, I can at least understand how they’ve come to think the way that they do. I see how what they’ve experienced in their lives has led them to believe what they do. I’ve learned that when I truly listen, I can love people better. This spills over into my life outside of bartending. I’ve learned to look for the good in people, to understand their story, to find common ground.

I’m still learning how to best live out these lessons, and I have a long way to go. I invite all of us, in our own style, to practice being radically hospitable, to work at creating communities where people feel like they belong, and to listen well — not only with those we love and agree with, but also with those whom we differ.

Creators:
Sarah Adams
Published:
December 14, 2023
July 3, 2023
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