Words From Bartenders: Staying Safe and Sane During Lockdown

With bar communities across the globe suffering from shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, bartenders are finding themselves in unchartered territories.

So we turned to some friends and mixologists from around the world to find out how they are coping – and getting creative – during these unprecedented times.

Yael Vengroff, The Spare Room

Los Angeles, CA

“The quarantine has been most devastating in that it has deleted the two areas where I derive all of my self worth from: physicality and my career. On the bright side, I am teaching myself how to find peace without them,” explains Vengroff, Bar Director at LA’s Spare Room.

“The physical constraints of the quarantine have been the most challenging for myself and my team. I am fortunate enough to have two poles in my house and a roommate who is teaching virtual [pole dancing] classes so I get to participate and feel good about any kind of movement I accomplish in a day,” says Vengroff. “Beyond that, I’ve literally been doing every exercise video and app I come across, taking every style of dance class that is out there.”

Vengroff continues, “One of my bartenders, Cait Pfeiffer is a very talented roller skater and has been skating daily in and outside of her house while creating content in video form with her partner which has been very rewarding for her. For others without these niche activities, I recommend a calming yoga flow in the morning when you wake or at night pre or post-dinner and some form of HIIT or cardio training three times a week. There are so many studios doing live classes as well as apps that are quite affordable or free altogether.”

To satisfy her need to learn and grow, Vengroff is honing her culinary skills. “Believe it or not, I actually do not know how to cook,” she explains. “I have leaned on a few friends with high capacity in this area to guide me on this journey and it’s been incredibly rewarding. I’ve learned that I have an innate need to serve and take care of people as I’m constantly trying to feed my roommate or drop off food for my friends. So basically, the apocalypse is turning me into a hot housewife because all I do is cook things and do workout videos.”

To stay active and positive as a bartender, Vengroff recommends enjoying the break. “I believe the best thing I could possibly be doing right now is to STOP. I have not stopped for 11 plus years and I can see the effects so clearly now that I am paused,” she admits. “There’s so much inside of me that wants to work on things that I know will need to be done when we emerge from this crisis, but I am actively saying “no” to that part of the brain that has kept me from becoming a more well-rounded, creative, intelligent human because all it wants to do is work. I’m trying to fill myself with cultural knowledge that I previously did not have time for. At the moment, I’m quite fascinated by the no-wave scene in both music and film, and have been rabbit-holing in that direction when I feel the urge to be productive popping up to say hello.”

Bob Peters, Grinning Mule

Charlotte, NC

“The Covid-19 virus has rocked the Charlotte hospitality industry to its core,” says Bob Peters, social media influencer and Head Mixologist at Charlotte-based restaurant and bar, Grinning Mule. “Most of the restaurants have closed, except for a handful that are still doing take out or curbside delivery. Meanwhile, delivery services like Grub Hub, Door Dash, Postmates and Uber Eats are also helping some places to stay afloat. Unfortunately, I think that we are still relatively at the beginning of this catastrophe. It is hard to say how badly the virus will affect our industry until it is over.”

Peters and some of his fellow bartenders in Charlotte have started doing a virtual happy hour, which is sponsored by a local digital food publication called Unpretentious Palate. “Each happy hour is presented by a different bartender who gets to choose their own topic – my talk was on punch,” Peters explains. “We talk about ourselves, the history of the cocktail and then field questions, so it’s a way to brush up on our skills and maybe learn something new while we are not working. People pay $10 to watch each session online, and the presenter is given a share of the money, so it’s also a way to earn some extra money.”

To keep his creative juices flowing for when things go back to “normal,” Peters has been exploring new cocktail art techniques. “I’ve been working with Ripples to create content for that beautiful day when we can all get back to work,” he says. “The Ripple Maker is an amazing device that allows you to imprint logos, photographs and inspirational quotes onto the top of cocktails. It’s my favorite tool to add something special and unexpected to the garnish of a featured cocktail. I think that when we all are able to celebrate in person with friends again, providing extra touches like this will help during the healing process. This is especially true at Grinning Mule, which is a new venue and was actually due to open for business the day after Charlotte went into lockdown. I predict that when we do eventually get to have our opening night, it’s going to be a very big party!”

Kate Boushel, Barroco Group

Montreal, Canada

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I often wonder where I'd be if I hadn’t found my way back to the bar. Most likely still working for a communications firm and giving time to advocacy groups…perhaps teaching as well. Wouldn’t be that bad, right?! But what I find behind the bar can’t be found anywhere else. From field to glass, we get to meet the people behind the brands and learn first hand about the methods and history behind our favourite products. Our community fosters travel and exchanges that allow for us to discover the world and all of its flavours. We meet new people every day who open up and provide glimpses into the lives that will never be our own. They're from all walks of life. They come from different backgrounds, different cities, countries, cultures. They're your new accountant or may even become your 1st born’s paediatrician. These souls go out of their way to spend their evening with us. They chose us. We'll attend their weddings, meet their children, parents, siblings. Our colleagues become as important as family. We learn to jibe when they ho. We get to dance, listen to music, laugh and play while we work. We get to showcase our creativity daily and share our knowledge with everyone who surrounds us. Hey, we even get to invite our friends to play every once in a while! And as with any career, training & development are the cornerstone for advancement. In our case, it’s via the many cocktail conferences and trade shows that we find opportunities for growth, even meet new mentors. They're our schools for continued education. And to me, @drinkchicagostyle is the one with the most promise that I can’t wait to attend! It’s its focus — what we need to change in order to get to where we need to be; i.e. how to be more inclusive, equitable and sustainable communities and industry. That’s my kind of global cocktail conference! And it's for all of these and countless other reasons that I've chosen bartending as a career. It’s the space, the people, the creativity, the knowledge, the community, and the access to the world. Thank you @hannaleepr for gifting the opportunity of continued education. It’s the one gift that keeps on giving. #hlcscholarship

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“What a time to be alive. Think about it this way: we’re currently being forced to witness and participate in a global revolution. As with any change, it will be met with a lot of fear and a great deal of pain, but we can also choose to focus on the potential positive outcomes while bracing ourselves for its impacts,” explains Boushel, the Beverage & Education Director for Montreal venues including Atwater Cocktail Club, Fugazzi and Milky Way Cocktail Bar. “We are forced to reevaluate the value of community and are being driven to revisit our personal and social constructs.”

Boushel admits that “all in all, Canadian bartenders are among the more privileged right now. Our access to universal healthcare and multiple government assistance programs, that have been put in place to help workers affected by the pandemic, is alleviating much of the stress that is often linked to personal finances, thus allowing many the opportunity to focus on ways to deal with the current issues facing the industry and our communities, and providing that little extra bandwidth to help each of us deal with the various personal issues triggered by these unusual and difficult times.”

In order to make sure everyone receives the help they need, says Boushel, “we’re banding together to help those in need and putting in place mutual aid systems across the board. On a national scale, we’re operating assistance programs of our own, such as the Bartenders Benevolent Fund (www.bartendersbenevolentfund.ca) and the Emergency Relief Fund that is part of the Canadian Professional Bartenders Association (www.canadianbartenders.com), and many local initiatives have also popped up across the country. From Bartender Fantasy League (which is probably one of the most fun and geekiest industry-related initiatives), virtual “happy hours” or simply check-ins to discuss more delicate personal and emotional struggles; we continue to find ways to connect with our peers and cultivate morale.”

Despite all of the efforts, Boushel acknowledges that rebuilding will take time. “It’s safe to say the road ahead is long. I recognize that a large number of establishments will not survive these hardships, but we can and will find creative ways to turnaround and rebuild together,” she says. “For those who are ready and willing, let us set egos aside and hone our communicable and transferable skills, just in case we should need to find jobs outside our field in the meantime.  As is key in all change management: know more, do better, let us think about what changes we could bring to our current structures to help our industry better emerge from this pandemic; and let us be kind and allow ourselves the celebration of all our small successes because each small one contributes to our greater success. Most us “rangers from the north” are looking to each other and realize that it will take our communal efforts to steer through this storm – and come hell or high waters – a community I’m proud to fight for is ours.”

 

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