Bartending Isn't Easy. Here's How Four St. Louis Veterans Keep the Drinks Flowing

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Bartending isn't easy.
Bartending isn't easy. RYAN GINES

On a random weekend some years ago, I rolled into a bar in Dupo, Illinois. It was named after the owner, who, it appeared, was the lady sitting in a little recessed nook. She was watching the local news from her chair, volume turned way up. She served me a beer, but when I tried to ask a few questions, they went nowhere. She'd seen and done enough in that job.

It can happen to the best bartenders, whether their name is on the front door or not. The stresses can be nuts, the social tension a real thing.

I would know. I visited that little bar in Dupo as a journalist, back when I wrote a nightlife column, but four years ago, I myself became a part-time bartender. For me, a ticket off the adjunct-teaching train came through the co-purchase of the Tick Tock Tavern, which had been sitting empty for nineteen years in Tower Grove East. The previous owner, Charlotte, was a firecracker, running an "old-man bar" in a period when such spots dotted south St. Louis. When she was done, she was done for real, locking the front door and living upstairs for another nineteen years, bottles of Galliano and Pepe Lopez tequila opened and aging (poorly) on the backbar.

I didn't start bartending right after my partners and I reopened the Tick Tock, but in recent years I've gotten into aspects of the trade. I remain a cap-popper and draft-puller at heart. There is no bartender's apron in my wardrobe, and ingredient lists above four cause my robot brain to overheat.

Even so, it remains a difficult gig. A few months back, my new doctor was manipulating my aching left knee, moving it hither and yon while looking for clues. In between awkward bursts of movement, I heard questions and answered in the negative: No, I hadn't suffered any trauma in the knee, and nothing had knocked into it, banged off of it or otherwise made contact. The pain, I assured him, had come from a three-day stretch of bartending.

Even for those of us working on rubber mats, the hours of standing, interspersed with quick bursts of movement, can take a toll on your sticks. For some of us, it's ankle pain, for others, the knee — and so on, with bartending aches and pains slithering north all the way up to your neck and shoulders. The older you get, the greater the chance that a body part that's agreed with you forever suddenly decides to let itself be known. For me, a bum knee was a new entry to the catalog of afflictions. It would take a very effective cortisone shot to make life immeasurably better.

But it's not only the wear and tear on the body. Talking to a quartet of St. Louis bartenders who've been in the game for twenty or more years, I found myself thinking about what makes the game difficult today.

These four veterans have made everything from Brandy Alexanders to liquid marijuana, rusty nails to green-tea shots. Yet the people they've served have changed as much as the drinks they drink. Back in the day, the challenge might have been getting someone to try something new. Today, it's getting a barfly to put their phone down and talk to someone new.

They've been there and done that, but they haven't given up. They could teach that lady in Dupo a thing or two. Me as well.

Venice Cafe is so overstuffed with curiosities, the staff keeps a laminated FAQ sheet behind the bar. - RYAN GINES
Venice Cafe is so overstuffed with curiosities, the staff keeps a laminated FAQ sheet behind the bar.

The Artist
Red Keel
Venice Cafe

Staffers at bars with a lot of stuff on the walls know the drill. You're going to answer the same query a dozen times, a hundred times, a thousand times. At O'Connell's, the questions are going to revolve around the antiques, the images of balloons and boxers, the chandeliers. At Yaqui's, the painting of Josephine Baker, hung next to a series of painted volleyballs, will draw inquiries. At the Tick Tock Tavern, the owls and clocks bring questions on a daily basis. At Venice Cafe, the questions are about ... everything.

It's almost as if a cheat sheet would help.

Voila! Red Keel has answered questions about the colorful Benton Park bar more times than she can count, and now she's now able to pull out a single sheet piece of paper, wrapped in plastic. It was written by bar manager Chad P. Taylor and owner Jeff Lockheed. The basics of the place are all here, giving a sense of the artistic landmark's beginnings as a coffeehouse with digressions into its name, its ownership and the artists who help make the place what it is.

That group includes Keel, who worked on many of the mosaic tile murals at the Venice. For a while, she pursued art full time, but the cash money always helps and so she's been back at the Venice off and on for twenty years. She works alongside the club's long-running Monday night open mic, as well as a Saturday afternoon shift that alternates live bands playing classic country in one case with reggae in the other.

"Once you meet me, you know me," she says. "It's not hard, though you might see me in public and I'll be confused without context. Give me some context! 'Is it from mosaics, the bar business? How do I know you? I'm Red.' That's all I've got."

In her colorful blazers, her curly hair pulled back in a trademark style, Keel says, "It's about being large and being on stage. You're bigger than life. You can't really do that in most areas of your life. It's fun to come in, get that energy out of yourself, make good friends and get a family going here."

She figures that about 15 to 20 percent of the Saturday happy-hour crowd are regulars, a number that rises to a 40 percent rate on Mondays. She knows their quirks and habits and conversational go-tos. The new folks, well, she'll prompt them for the same.

That portion of the job has changed immensely since she began her work at Patrick's Westport Grill in the 1980s.

"One of the biggest differences is the cellphone, and that means people aren't here to meet each other," she says. "People are very into their phones, they're very cliquey and not going to interact, which I think is a shame. It's very closed-minded. If you sit down, shut off your phone and interact with humanity! These are people who live near where you live. There are far less preconceived notions and biases when we get to know the real human inside. We all just want to be acknowledged. So I say 'hello' to everyone and anyone leaving gets a 'goodbye.' I'll even holler that over the band.

"I want them to know," she continues, "that I appreciate you for giving me money and hanging out here. You'll get a smile and sometimes that can make a night; that I acknowledge you and you acknowledge me. It makes you feel special."

So, go ahead, ask her a question, any question. She's Red. She won't mind.

Dan Swinford leans in to catch an order at Three Monkeys. - RYAN GINES
Dan Swinford leans in to catch an order at Three Monkeys.

The Mercenary for Hire
Dan Swinford
Three Monkeys and Taha'a Twisted Tiki

Dan Swinford hurts. Thanks to the hours spent in the job, he says his hips ache all the time. They have suffered the most from his time on the mats, "along with my wrists, knees and decorum."

Ask him what folks might not realize about the bartending trade, and he speaks of just that. "The physicality of it, I think," he says. "They don't see you in the bar after shift, lugging six cases of beer up a flight of stairs, or lugging up ice or whatever it might be."

But that answer still runs a close second to something else: "The BS that you sometimes have to put up with."

He explains, "Not matchmaking, per se, but peacemaking. Some people, you don't want to sit together. You toss that coaster down quickly, because you know two people are going to clash. It's the politics of it. You know someone's a Trump supporter. And someone else you know is a flaming liberal. As a rule you don't want to bring them together. You have to be aware of the clientele."

Swinford, 51, has worked outside the industry and inside of it as a manager, but he currently bills himself as a bartending "mercenary for hire." He's settled of late into a few regular shifts at Taha'a Twisted Tiki in the Grove and Three Monkeys in Tower Grove South; he also kept recent hours at the West End Grill & Pub until that spot's closure. Prior to that he'd held a position at Onesto, preceded by his lengthiest stint, which was at Sandrina's. He's worked on both sides of the river and gigged during every part of the day in a host of environments. He's seen a little bit of everything.

The years have taught him a lot. For example, he says he has no problem cutting people off. He feels the same about asking someone to leave, and won't hesitate to quash a toxic conversation that has the potential to spread bad vibes throughout the bar.

Controlling the feel of the room, he says, is the key in many respects. Of the perfect night, he says, "This is purely my side, but it's when you have the right mix of regulars and some new people. Music is important and so is keeping a certain mood. ... Everything comes out of the kitchen right. And whoever you're working with, you're jiving to, you're doing the dance."

Dancing out the front door with some money helps, too.

"Let's not bullshit ourselves," he jokes. "At the end of the night, it could have been one of those glorious, magical ones. But if you've counted out and made twelve bucks an hour ... then it wasn't one."

For now, the lifestyle still works for Swinford.

"This was accidental," he says of his career. "I honestly hadn't bartended in twentysomething years before I went back at Sandrina's. I did it as a stopgap while I looked for something else in management. But I got used to not answering the phones a thousand times, or fixing problems right then and there."

He speaks of the joys of not sitting in a cube. And of the anti-joys of "a bone spur and hips that are shot." The tradeoffs of the trade.

Cindy Capps keeps the beer flowing at Old Rock House. - RYAN GINES
Cindy Capps keeps the beer flowing at Old Rock House.

The Fixture
Cindy Capps
Old Rock House

Cindy Capps is among the primary staffers at the Old Rock House, and it's her whom you'll often meet and greet as you order a drink at the primary ground-floor bar. Her history as a bartender follows a classic arc in that she's had time off over the years, taking the time away to pursue other goals.

Her first gig in the industry, she recalls, came "when I was 20 or 21, a little itty-bitty place in Lemay across from the Bean House called Mickey's. It was owned by this old man whose son Mickey took it over. It was Lemay, so you couldn't be cliquey. Everyone knew everyone who came in. Very working class down there. It even had brain sandwiches."

Capps' next step took her to the golden years of Laclede's Landing, working at Lucius Boomers and Timber's, "where I got a job as a server and then learned how to tend bar," she recalls. "I've been doing it on and off ever since. I took time off for a baby who is 22 now. I worked at a new-age bookstore. But I always went back to bartending. It's something I really enjoy."

For a good long while now, Capp, 53, has called the Old Rock House her bartending home. As a music venue, it's subject to the seasons, and the current one means a little less action, as bands aren't touring as aggressively in the winter as in other times of the year.

While the Rock House books a variety of bands, a strong subcurrent of jam bands, bluegrass and its variants attract a steady group of music fans that she may know by face, by name or by drink.

"It's unique," she acknowledges. "It's not like you can just walk in here any time and have a beer. There are a lot of funk shows, jam bands. Which is awesome. Those are super-nice, happy crowds. Mellow, chill people."

The pace, Capps says, can come in waves. "If it's a bigger show, and we're sometimes sold out, I'm five people deep immediately and people want their stuff. They wanna get down front, get back their spot and dance. I'm fast, but I'm not magical. I can't crack out your five different shots and a margarita and an old fashioned in 30 seconds, I'm sorry. It's a different mindset. People at another kind of bar tend to linger, instead of everything being a mini-emergency.

"I was working an Aaron Kamm show at our upstairs bar, which is really little," Capps recalls. "I was surrounded, it was so busy, and I was mercilessly getting old-fashioned orders. I was busy and stressed, but so many people were kind: 'We're rooting for you, no worries, take your time.' It was really a nice sense of them just trying to help me get by. Those encouraging words are always cool."

As a venue bartender, she knows that some customers have driven five hours to see the band. "They're usually super-happy to be there," she says. "So unlike a restaurant or corner bar, if you're out of a particular beer, it's not a big deal. They're already here and are going to have a good time.

"And," after all, Capps adds, "I'm in the business of making people happy."

Bartender-for-hire Doug Morgan invented a shot that’s downed around the world. - RYAN GINES
Bartender-for-hire Doug Morgan invented a shot that’s downed around the world.

The Inventor
Doug Morgan
Numerous spots

A dozen young people walk into the Tick Tock at the tail end of a snowstorm, looking for a specific NFL game (we don't play the league) and twelve Vegas Bombs (we typically don't make them, but can). I pull up an app, find a common recipe and locate a key Schnapps under the bar. It's not pretty.

At this, the busiest moment of the evening, a dozen young people drink shots that don't include vodka, but they assume does, saddening every human being involved in the encounter. As they attempt to call up the Cowboys game onto a blank TV screen via their own apps, they comment that the drinks taste a "bit like vanilla." Sigh.

There's no lack of information about what's available to consumers, what the trends are, what you can ask for at a bar. But all rules go out the window when people travel in packs, get set on an idea or have to have what they need or want, no matter the environment.

Doug Morgan, 50, has known a lot of variations on this story. Currently, he's a fill-in bartender at this place and that, but he's logged years behind the bar at some key spots in St. Louis drinking lore: the Hi-Pointe, Riddle's Penultimate, Boogaloo, the Upstairs Lounge and, notably, the Delmar Lounge, where he held an ownership stake.

There, he saw a wave of cocktail culture hit the edge of the U. City Loop. His staff was instructed to make whatever was ordered, even in that wild time between 1:30 and 3 a.m., when the crowd was surging.

"When we started going out," says Morgan, "the choices were shorter and they were the exact same everywhere. Some nicer beers and different cocktails; you might have a nice wine list. It's a 'careful what you ask for' scenario. When I came up in bartending, it was with the birth of the martini thing. We did it at the Delmar, and the Famous Bar did it right behind us. I like making a nice cocktail for someone, maybe something nice to accompany your meal. Now if it's two in the morning and the crowd's five deep and the bartender's really frowning about making fancy martinis ... well, I was adamant about it. No matter what time it was, you serve it. We got over that hump."

The environment today, he says, has become quite a bit more difficult.

"I want you to enjoy your drink, I'll do my best," he says. "But there's almost this culture of stumping the bartender. It comes off as, 'Ooh, ah, do you have this?' I want you to get what you want, you should be able to get what you want. But there's a bit of knowing where you're at. If you're out specifically for specialty cocktails and then walk into Joe's Corner Pub, you're not going to get what you want, just like you don't ask for tenderloin at McDonald's. Or cheese fries at Ruth's Chris, even if they can do it."

He continues. "This happened recently: Somebody asked me the choices of ice cubes. 'I'm sorry, excuse me?' I mean, I get around, and I have yet to go to the place that offers you different ice-cube options."

Morgan has a particular notch on his belt, one that travels with him. It's "the Sandinista," a shot that he and CBGB linchpin Matt Wagner co-created in an early iteration of the Upstairs Lounge. The drink was a variant on Blueberry Hill's spicy version of the Prairie Fire. Morgan and Wagner came upon this recipe: Cuervo, Worcestershire sauce, Rose's lime juice, black pepper and sriracha. The drink caught on around the south side and migrated to different bars, with and without Morgan making them.

In time, it would be seen at bars in New York, and a friend eventually took Morgan to Minneapolis for a round at Grumpy's, a legendary bar that just recently closed to make way for an eight-story apartment tower.

As Morgan recalls it, the arrival of the creator of the Sandinista created a stir at Grumpy's, where the drink was the shot special for metal night. Morgan ended up creating 65 of them on the spot. Got a standing ovation for the trouble.

We don't all get these moments, no matter our age as a bartender. But there's always the next shift, which will differ from the one before it and one after. The thrill is elusive, but it's always out there.

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