Lucinda Sterling and Middle Branch’s High Bridge cocktail, made with Landy VS cognac, Mellow Corn whiskey, simple syrup, lemon juice and Angostura bitters (image: Paul Wagtouicz / Matt Taylor Gross)
It’s been more than a decade since bartender turned bar owner Lucinda Sterling got her start in the industry. She scored her first drinks-serving gig at the late Sasha Petraske’s storied Milk & Honey back in 2005. Having landed the job on a whim after driving cross-country from Colorado to New York with no real plan, she dove headfirst into the hospitality business, rising from cocktail server to bartender at Petraske’s West Village charmer Little Branch and eventually partner at his Kips Bay outpost, Middle Branch (full disclosure: I currently bartend here.)
Sterling’s career-first mentality didn’t leave much room for what some might call a traditional trajectory: getting married, starting a family, settling down. When I had asked her in passing about having kids, she said she never saw herself as a mother. But that all changed last year, when Sterling, at 39, found out she was pregnant. It was then that something changed in her heart, like an imaginary switch she never knew had been turned on. “I thought to myself, This might be my only chance,” she says.
Middle Branch (image: Dan Q. Dao)
It’s no secret that the hospitality industry can be tough on women, from not-infrequent incidents of sexism to inflexible policies for maternity leave and even just finding time to date with the erratic hours and late nights. “I think for women finding the right partner if you’re a bartender is the biggest challenge,” says Sterling. “It’s like you’re on the opposite side of your customers, who are coming in to your bar to go on dates and meet people after work. There’s a stereotype that women behind the bar are fun, like to go out and aren’t as serious.” For Sterling, things were further complicated by her professional activities outside of the bar, from consulting on menus to participating in cocktail competitions and developing recipes. “If you’re bartending full time and also working on personal projects on the side, dating might not be part of the work-life balance you need,” she says.
But what happens once you’re already pregnant? Eight months in, Sterling is still taking shifts here and there, admitting her level of agility and stamina behind the bar has greatly decreased. Though it hasn’t been easy, as a business owner, she has been able to rely on her staff to help pick up the slack and fill in the gaps where needed. “Middle Branch has always had such a great team of bartenders whose skills go far beyond bartending,” she says. “It makes them able to do jobs that fall outside just making drinks, from ordering ice to making sure we have the proper amounts and brands of alcohol behind the bar and just managing each other every night.”
Middle Branch’s Queens Park Swizzle, made with white rum, lime, simple syrup, a sugar cube, mint and Angostura bitters (image: Matt Taylor Gross)
Of course, while Sterling can set her own hours and take as much time as needed, not every bartender will have that opportunity. Regarding her own employees, she says she wants to accommodate each individual based on their needs: “Everyone is different—there are those who are workaholics and won’t want to give up their shifts, and there are those who will need the leniency to work part-time and still make that extra dollar. It’s important to be flexible, because you have a talent pool that is so limited.” As for all young female bartenders, especially those whose employers are not as accommodating, Sterling advises “doing as many events outside of bartending as you possibly can and building up an incredibly large network while you’re still young and have energy.” By getting involved in consulting and events, she says, “you won’t be stuck in any one position, at any one bar. You will always have others you can reach out to, and you’re never going to be just a bartender. You’re going to be someone that people seek for creativity and expertise.”
In addition to inspiring her to think about her own maternity leave policies, Sterling’s pregnancy has moved her to create a more family-friendly environment at her Red Hook, Brooklyn, establishment, Seaborne, which was notably her mentor Petraske’s final project before his passing. “Before I became a mother-to-be, I was very much against the kind of environment that would cater to mothers and children, but I decided that I was going to completely allow strollers in the bar, partially to justify my own child being allowed there,” she says. With a low level of music and a spacious atmosphere, she hopes that Seaborne will become a place that the neighborhood’s many new parents, like herself, would feel welcome.
Middle Branch’s North Lights, made with Tanqueray gin, Lillet Rosé aperitif, curaçao, lime and grapefruit juice(image: Matt Taylor Gross)
With a due date fast approaching, the soon-to-be mom is looking forward to down time and getting to know herself as a completely different person than she has known for the past 10 years, as bar owner and bartender. As a first-time mom, she sees her experiences as a boss and leader contributing to her skills in the new endeavor. “You need to have patience with anyone who is young and new, such as a bartender who is just starting out,” says Sterling. “You want them to be able to walk right away, but you don’t want them to walk too far. You want to hold their hand and guide them as much as you possibly can. What has kept me so involved with Middle Branch to this day is precisely that exchange I get with another person.”
Looking to the future, Sterling isn’t worried about what she would tell her child about what she does for a living. “There’s a lot of pride in what we do today. My parents probably frowned upon my being a bartender for fear I was in the wrong environment—beware of loose women and all that,” she says laughing. And she credits her own mentor for establishing the codes of conduct that helped the industry’s reputation improve over time: “Thank you to Sasha Petraske for reinforcing those rules that existed during Prohibition times for us to manage ourselves in drinking and be respectful to ourselves as well as others. Hopefully that’s an ingrained value from day one.”
Editor’s Note: Since the publishing of this story, Lucinda Sterling has welcomed a baby girl named Zeta.