Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

Sober Bartenders Say They Feel Great. But Does Not Drinking Hurt Their Business?

Image: Wes Duvall

Every day, we bar professionals are barraged with messages glorifying the sale and consumption of alcohol. We’re literally incentivized to keep people drinking—more drinks, more sales, more tips and so on.

Brand reps are encouraged to visit (read: drink at) accounts every day in an effort to gain attention from busy bartenders and managers. Heavy alcohol consumption is seen by many in the industry as a status symbol, almost a rite of passage. Drinking on the job is common and even expected in some cases. Many bars have no substance abuse policies or look the other way when they’re violated.

And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the bar and restaurant industry is growing. The industry added 24,000 jobs a month between August 2016 and August 2017. There are now nearly 15 million Americans currently working in bars or restaurants, more than any other time in U.S.history.

Hard statistics on substance abuse in the bar industry are scarce, but recent studies have shown that restaurant and bar workers rank first among drug- and alcohol-addiction-prone jobs. In order to maintain a sustainable industry, with healthy employees who grow with their employers, substance abuse needs to be taken more seriously, and the messaging around alcohol consumption, as well as the definition of hospitality, needs to be looked at more critically.

But what about people who don’t, or can’t, drink? Is it possible for them to thrive in this industry? Many on the inside say no.

In November, The Bar Institute, an industry-focused educational conference, held a seminar in New York City called “The Drunken Elephant in the Room” on the very subject of the professional implications of long-term sobriety. It had nearly 40 attendees (in a room intended for 20) and went over its allotted time by more than 30 minutes due to overwhelming audience response.

There are plenty of anecdotes, as well as scientific evidence, on the benefits of abstaining from alcohol. But in this industry, it can be a challenge, both staying sober and staying successful.

In creating this seminar, Chris Cardone, who quit drinking in 2015, set out to explore that challenge and found that while quitting itself was not easy, “not drinking has actually enhanced my life in many aspects, while it hasn’t had even one negative impact on my career or personal life,” he says. “You don’t have to drink to be successful.”

A claim like this can be shocking to someone who works in a world where you might get a weird look if you refuse to do a round of shots with bar regulars or constantly sit out of the notorious “staff meetings” that may happen multiple times per shift.

To hear an accomplished bartender who won the United States Diageo World Class bartender competition in 2017 shrug off the potential downsides is encouraging for the many people behind the stick who struggle with alcohol abuse.

But Chris’ story might be more the exception than the rule. Natasha Torres, a bartender at Mission Chinese Food in New York City, says she has been passed over for job opportunities after disclosing her sober status. Potential employers question her ability to create cocktails without drinking, but, she says, “the creative process and my having a drink are two totally different things.”

Furthermore, she says she has experienced a certain degree of hostility from bartenders as a nondrinking patron. “That’s not what hospitality is about,” she says. “Your job is to provide this experience and make this a comfortable space for everybody.”

Industry professionals staying sober on the other side of the bar also face challenges. Jan Warren, a brand ambassador for Brooklyn Gin, himself nearly a decade sober, makes a living selling gin. That means spending a lot of time in bars.

“Brand work is about bonding, and a lot of us bond over drunken conversations and 3 a.m. walks over bridges,” he says. “I feel like I can miss some easy opportunities. That being said, literally everything is easier sober. I strongly believe that, at least for me, the positives far outweigh the negatives.”

For bar workers looking to thrive in an industry that promotes the consumption of alcohol, the challenges to achieving a sober life are many. Setting aside structural impediments like lack of access to affordable health insurance, job insecurity and low pay, bar workers can also face resistance from within the industry—from the very colleagues who claim to care about them.

But that’s changing. If the seminar at The Bar Institute was any indication, we’re ready for change.