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

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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."

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