Behind the Bar To Your Health

Bartenders Reflect on Working the Holiday Shift. And Celebrating After It’s Over.

Image: Louis Hansel

If you work in hospitality, you know that the holidays can be a grind, with long shifts and packed houses. But while the winter blues are very much real behind the stick, working the dreaded holiday shift doesn’t have to suck that badly. For one, the tips are generally pretty good. And even when it’s stressful, you’re not alone. Beyond your team, there are thousands of bartenders across the country slinging drinks for the folks who find their way into bars with family and friends, or even alone, on the holidays.

So what can you do to make the holiday shift just a little more bearable? First, remember that even though you aren’t with your family, your co-workers can be your chosen family for the night. “Working in hospitality you seem to spend more time with your workmates than you do your own family,” says Ryan Gavin, the bar director at New York City’s Gran Tivoli and Peppi’s Cellar. “These people become your new family, and in the craziness of the holidays, you need the support of your family.”

Start the night with your usual pre-shift routine, whether that’s meditating, working out or just having a good meal. That’ll get you in the mindset to deliver on the stellar service you always provide. If you’re the boss, consider arranging some kind of family meal for your crew beforehand.

“The best restaurants I’ve worked in have had a giant feast for everyone to attend about an hour before the shift with real holiday food,” says Amanda Swanson, the bar manager at NYC’s Fine & Rare. “We all sit together and share a lovely meal and some laughs before embarking on the next eight hours or so of madness.”

“We’re open 365 days a year, with a lot of schedule requests specifically around the holidays, which usually leaves me entertaining the masses,” says Simone Goldberg, the head bartender at The Standard hotel in NYC. “My first tip for making it through this shift is a big, hearty breakfast. These shifts are usually long, so it’s important to eat and stay hydrated.”

Once you’re at the bar, try to get into the holiday spirit. Whether it’s smiling more than usual, doling out a few more shots or even dressing up your drinks a bit, you want your guests to really feel like they’re celebrating a special occasion. “A weekend shift on Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s Eve is mayhem just about anywhere—but in New York, the crowd demands zeal and the drinks need to fit that criteria,” says Vivian Song, the head bartender at NYC’s Tang Hotpot. “For that extra holiday panache, I like to tuck some extra seasonal ingredients, be it syrups and purées or a garnish to make the guest’s night memorable.”

The holidays often evoke special moments that bartenders can witness or even be a part of. “There was a couple one year who walked into the bar the night before Christmas,” says Song. “They had been childhood friends, high school sweethearts, and were sitting at the bar reminiscing on all their hilarious and mischievous times together. A bottle of sake and a few cocktails later, they bumped the music. I was requested to join in on a hug at their departure.”

Rifqi Ali Ridho

During the holidays, it’s also not uncommon to accept gifts from your guests, depending on your bar policy. “The upside of working on Thanksgiving is that you usually get food from a lot of different families,” says Michael Neff of Houston’s Cottonmouth Club. “I myself worked at The Cottonmouth Club this last Thanksgiving and had stuffing from at least four different families. Delicious.”

While the holiday season is joyful for many, it can be a time of sadness and sorrow for others. “During holiday shifts, you generally gather orphans, many of whom are away from their own homes for whatever reason and want to substitute the family they have at the moment with the family they wish they were with,” says Neff.

Now is the time to take care of your bar guests as though they were guests in your own home. Share in any happiness, but if you see someone who may be alone or in need of conversation, offer whatever holiday cheer they’re willing to receive. As the late Gaz Regan once said, “Don’t just ask someone how they’re doing and walk away. look them in the eye and wait for them to respond.”

At the end of the night, after you and your team have survived yet another holiday shift, it’s time to relax and unwind. Yes, you’ll be tired, but if you can, rally the troops and head out to a local dive, order greasy food or sing karaoke. Whatever simple pleasure looks like to you, do it guilt-free but responsibly.

“To cope with the stress and time spent working, I recommend going out for drinks with your coworkers after the shift,” says Marshall Minaya, the beverage director at Valerie in NYC. “I remember when I first started in the industry, it was the thing that kept me going. Knowing we were going to go out for a few drinks together was worth all the work.”

“I always know my local dive bar (7B, aka Horseshoe Bar) will be open come hell or high water,” says Goldberg. “Sneaky fact about that bar: They have a great Champagne selection by the bottle for very reasonable prices. It’s become somewhat of a tradition to pop a bottle of Dom Perignon that evening with some Chinese food from whatever spot is open. (They let you bring your own food.) Champagne, greasy food and a city to yourself doesn’t sound like a bad Christmas to me.”