by Donny Clutterbuck

I’ve been in the service industry for more than half of my life, and one of the most common questions I’ve been asked is “So what else do you do?” Or maybe “What’s your real job?” As if what I’m already doing isn’t quite enough. Well, everyone, I hate to break it to you, but this has been and still is all I do. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m motivated to succeed and create. I’ve accomplished a lot of other things in my life, but they were all to further my career, body, mind, and community. I don’t count those as a real job.

Barely anyone in human history has moonlighted as an architect to get through bartending school, right? It seems to me that architecture and surgery are two things that one cannot simply be “good at” without training. Bar work does not share that quality—and I mean that at the most basic level. Basic surgery takes years of schooling, while basic bartending takes a smile and a watch. Therefore, I don’t know how to take your question. Are you saying that bartending is and can only possibly be a stepping stone for any reasonable human being, or do you mean to say that I’m so smart, charming, and good-looking that I absolutely must be doing something better with my time. Or maybe you’re just hitting on me. Which is totally fine.

The fact that bartending hasn’t lately been a career is in no way an indication of its inability to be one in the future. Or now. The architecture of the human body is deigned better for standing, squatting, or laying than it is for sitting. If I were to say that ten years at a desk job are better for your body than ten years of running around behind a bar, I’d be unsure of the statement’s truth. Maybe ten years of binge drinking are worse for your body, yes—for sure. But as trained professionals who aren’t as focused on consuming the product as we are on properly distributing it, we can make it a long term gig. And we can do it just as well as any other profession.

Let’s say a CPA works for accounting firms for 15 years and is simply tired of getting up too early every day, and staying late at work. He’s tired of being nearly a bottom-rung punching bag for everyone in the world trying to pay less taxes, and all on time. Now let’s say a bartender bartends for 15 years, and is simply tired from being up too late and getting up too early. She’s tired of being an emotional dumping ground and at the whim of those trying to get a drink expediently. Every job, at it’s basic level, eventually creates a desire to climb up the ladder.

As an accountant, she has the options of becoming a financial advisor or partnering up on her own accounting firm. This will likely yield more money, but at a larger risk and require a much larger skillset and knowledge base. Maybe even a good reputation. As a bartender, he has the options of becoming a bar consultant, brand ambassador, liquor rep, or maybe even partnering up in his own bar. This will likely yield more money, but at a larger risk, and require a much larger skillset and knowledge base. Definitely a reputation. Hopefully a good one!

You probably see what I’m getting at, here. Yes, you can open a dive bar and hire happy people to work for you. This requires not much more than motivation and cash. But you can also open a low-level tax shop with not much other than the above. The base-level employees and shops will always be accessible, while the trained and educated versions of each take motivation, passion, education, and experience. I do not mean to demean dive bars or tax shops. There is an important place in the world for each, and they can, per se, be careers as well. However, those shooting for constant progress in any field are trying really, really hard to be better and smarter. All the time. Everything at first is a stepping stone—and likely everything you do after that is quite the same. In my case, though, bar gigs are both the means and the end.

We take steps to better ourselves, as career bartenders. We ingest less of our product out of boredom or addiction. If we’re to ingest spirits, we’re likely trying to learn something from them (most of the time). We go home at night and read books about spirits, beer, wine, and business management. We research cocktail methods and the physics behind them. We interact with one another and share knowledge. We plan out the next day’s experiments and predict the problems that will occur during service so that we can better fix them. We do it for ourselves, but in reality we do it for you. If you don’t have a good experience, we don’t have a good night. We, quite literally, have crippling nightmares about our failures. Barmares are the worst.

This is the exact reason I’ve fallen in love with this industry: no one wins unless everyone wins. There’s something really romantic about that mandatorily shared victory. It all seems frivolous, but somewhere deep in our cultural or genetic history, there’s a need for socialization and intoxication. Usually, in conjunction with one another. It’s quite beautiful. It’s social lubricant. It’s human!

I’m a bartender, and I have been for a long time. I may have been born with it, or it may have been an accident. I’m constantly aiming to learn and grow. I consult with and for others in our industry, and I will take on more responsibility. I will seek more knowledge. I will make sure your drinks are better each day, and I’ll make sure that I know your preferences each time you stand or sit at my bar. I’ll greet you with a smile, and I’ll not push you to do anything you don’t want to do. Hell, I may even talk you out of pushing it a bit too hard! I interact with dozens of people every single day, and all I want to do is learn from it. I’ll keep that creepy guy away from you, or at least distract him.

I am dynamic. I am motivated. I am more than any one thing I do, and I’m more than the sum of them. I’m here to help, and it’s all I do. It’s all I want to do. I am a bartender, and this is my real job.

also published to 585 Magazine & USBG.org

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