Brittany Van Hook is ready for bar conversations to return when the pandemic ends.
Brittany Van Hook remembers the moment she realized she wanted to change her career path from teaching to hospitality. An aspiring Spanish teacher, Van Hook was at work one day when it hit her that she'd had enough.
"I was sitting in the student-teacher lounge, surrounded by all of these punk-ass kids who didn't care," Van Hook recalls. "I'd had it. I realized that all I was to them was a babysitter and that I was not going to babysit for $36,000 a year."
Now in a much happier place bartending at the Bellwether, Van Hook knows that her assessment of her students may have been harsh in that moment. However, the complete lack of joy she felt toward teaching had been overwhelming, especially when juxtaposed with the happiness she felt working at her night job. Bartending at a 3 a.m. pool hall, she loved the energy of a full room and enjoyed taking care of people. The smiling, laughing and hustle, combined with the fact that she was making a good living, were all she needed to understand that she could make a career out of the hospitality business.
After deciding to pursue the industry as a career, Van Hook landed at Table 3 in Wildwood, where she met her "restaurant mom," Beth Williams, who taught her everything from wine service to how to succeed as a woman in a male-dominated business. She carried that knowledge with her after she left Table 3, working at 801 Fish, Tank Sushi Bistro and Mandarin, all the while trying to figure out her place in the hospitality world.
Van Hook's job with 801 Fish moved her to Denver, but it would be another restaurant there that would really light the spark for her about food and restaurants. Working at True Foods, a health-focused restaurant and bar, Van Hook realized how much she loved being in a place that focused on both good food and sustainable, healthful ingredients — an understanding that helped her find her groove in the industry.
Van Hook returned to St. Louis and began working at the Angad Arts Hotel, which would provide another key awakening for her. While working alongside then-beverage director Meredith Barry, Van Hook developed a passion for cocktails and bartending, and she soaked up every bit of knowledge she could. When she left Angad for the now-shuttered Oaked in Soulard, she used what she learned under Barry to help develop the restaurant's cocktail menu and bar. Unfortunately, it was short-lived.
"It was super heartbreaking," Van Hook says about Oaked's closure. "John and Anne [Cochran] are the greatest people, and unfortunately, they just got into a bad situation. John was so good to us. He called every single one of us to let us know about the closing. It was just heartbreaking, because I'd worked so hard to build the bar, and it was really going to be something. It was really hard to swallow."
Fortunately, it did not take Van Hook long to fall in with her new restaurant family. Not long after Oaked closed, she began bartending for the Bellwether and Polite Society team, where she feels like she is really flourishing. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has been very difficult for restaurants, she remains hopeful that the strength and tenacity of the people who make up the industry — and the Bellwether and Polite Society team in particular — will get them through.
"We are in survival mode, and we are survivalists, but we are going to get through it," Van Hook says. "We have to keep telling ourselves that. If we can survive this, I don't know what we can't survive."
Van Hook took a break from the Bellwether's bar to share her thoughts on the state of the hospitality industry, the strength she gets from her partner, dog and restaurant families, and why she can't wait for the chance to bring two strangers together at the bar again.
As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
I simply worry every day, whether it’s me potentially bringing the virus home to my loved ones, or if one of our coworkers tests positive and we have to close for a few days. Every day is high anxiety and pure stress. Being at work is so tough because I love to express my love and happiness to our guests, and we can’t do that fully right now, because we have to protect ourselves by wearing a mask and keeping our distance.
What do you miss most about the way you did your job before covid?
I’m that bartender that loves to get in those deep conversations and talk for hours if I could. I also love when I get two strangers sharing memories and having a good laugh. It’s the best feeling when you can help someone make a new friend. With COVID, I respect everyone’s space including mine because right now it’s about keeping everyone safe.
What do you miss least?
I do not miss walking out that door at two in the morning. I love coming home to my partner and weenie dog by 11 p.m. every night. It is a beautiful thing.
What is one thing you make sure you do every day to maintain a sense of normalcy?
My life ain’t normal right now, but I do make sure that my partner and I sit down together and have a cup of coffee and talk about how we are going to attack our day. I always make sure I cook us a hot breakfast before we walk out that door. Nobody wants to see me hangry.
What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
Pizza Head and a cold Stag.
What are the three things you’ve made sure you don’t want to run out of, other than toilet paper?
Soda water (Topo Chico). I have a weird fear of running out of wood floor cleaner (I got problems), and I have a secret stash of Glade PlugIns (cashmere woods is where it’s at).
You have to be quarantined with three people. Who would you pick?
My partner, my dog (because she’s human on the inside) and my mother.
Once you feel comfortable going back out and about, what’s the first thing you’ll do?
When it’s safe to go out, I am going to go to the Gramophone and order mac and cheese with a double shot of Old Grand-Dad and a Civil Life Angel and the Sword while dancing my ass off with Stan the Man.
What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people feel comfortable returning to normal activity levels?
I think the capacity will not be at 100 percent for a long time. We will not see a three-row-deep bar, and I think everyone is going to have their own friend bubble, and it will be challenging to invite a new friend in.
What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
This is easy, the owners of Be Polite Hospitality group. Through everything they have given me hope and strength to get through each workday. We are going to be more than OK, so please be ready to relax and dine at the best patio this spring.
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