Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

Bartenders Reveal What It's Like to Take a Break from Bartending

Image: Elizabeth Reyes

The entire job of a bartender, says Patrick Gaggiano, “is to make other people’s—stranger’s really—wants and needs come true. For 12 hours a day, six nights a week, we are anticipating those needs.” Gaggiano, a Boston-area bartender who currently works for Jägermeister, says that it’s common to “get your nose too close to the page,” which narrows your way of thinking. “You miss the things going on in the world around you. It makes your creativity wane and motivation slow down.“ Taking a break to travel and reflect “is one of the only times as a bartender that we get to think about ourselves.”

Patrick Gaggiano. Natasha Moustache

While most bartenders I’ve spoken to in recent years have mentioned how easy it is to get burned out in the hospitality business, the realizations they’ve come to during a pause between gigs have been diverse. We asked a handful of industry pros about their travels, discoveries and advice for any bartender who’s considering taking a break.

For many, travel serves to inspire a future project. Julia Momose, recently of Chicago’s GreenRiver, says she has always been “go-go-go” but recently realized she was putting her “heart and soul into a bar that was just a stepping stone” toward her greater goal of opening her own spot some day. Momose says she’s thinking about her time away from a full-time job as a “gap year,” and she’s eager to observe cocktail techniques in her upcoming travels through Puerto Rico, Amsterdam, Belgium, France and Japan. “To see other professionals in action is my favorite way to learn.”

Julia Momose. Sammy Faze Photography

Caitlin Laman, who left San Francisco’s Trick Dog in 2016 to visit Tokyo and Milan, as well as to work in New York and Mexico City before settling in Chicago, says that her travels have inspired her to think about a bar’s atmosphere and decor. “It’s easy to get obsessed with one design style if you don’t see much else. The more I travel, the better idea I have of what I want my own bar to look and feel like. Many of my favorite bars abroad have a way of looking warm and full, like they have been there for 200 years.”

Laura Newman of Sweet Polly in Brooklyn says that traveling with “someone who didn’t work in the restaurant industry really opened my eyes to what consumers are looking for and totally changed my opinion of what sort of bars I thought would be successful.” Newman, who now plans to move to Birmingham, Ala., says that observing bar culture elsewhere “made me more open to the idea of opening a bar outside of NYC (which I eventually hope to do). It made me realize that there’s more to bar ownership than a tiny seated-only space with $16 cocktails.”

Caitlin Laman. Julia Letarte

Even when the benefits of travel are deeply personal, they can shape a bartender’s professional path and make them remember why they got into the industry in the first place. “Living in New York City can give you this false idea that you are in the center of the world, maybe the universe,” says Kiersten Schilinski, who currently bartends at House of Yes and Donna in Brooklyn. “But to some woman running a dairy farm in rural Estonia, it doesn’t matter. I think everyone needs to have their ego challenged,” she says. “It allows you to build empathy.”

Christian Suzuki, now the bar manager of Tradition in San Francisco, agrees, adding that visiting countries where English isn’t the primary language “showed me how patient people were with me. Whether if it was asking for directions or explaining a dish, patience and different approaches of hospitality were two things I took from traveling and apply it to my work ethic today. I also traveled without a phone, which made organization and punctuality two traits I still try to practice every day.”

Laura Newman. Lena Nicholson

Dustin Drankiewicz, now a partner at Chicago’s Deadbolt, said it took an eight-week trip to “start learning about who I was and what I wanted.” After years of overseeing beverage programs for others, he resolved to launch his own projects. “I realized everything I was doing while killing myself for someone else I could do for myself too,” he says, noting that he also learned that he “didn’t need drugs or alcohol in my life to pursue this career.” His advice: “Leave all distractions behind, whether that’s your cell phone, computer, alcohol, TV. Really just dive into what your mind is doing.”

Dustin Drankiewicz. Jonathan Shimabuku

After all, says Drankiewicz, “on your deathbed, you’re not going to be talking about that awesome shift behind the bar or that time you got so hammered and got a fucking pineapple tattooed on your ass.” A break is sometimes “all you need to get re-motivated and to jump back behind the bar or pursue that ‘one day I want to’ goal.”