Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

What Bartenders Are Doing Right Now to Earn a Living

In general, it’s not being behind the stick.

A bartender prepares to-go cocktails wearing Ashley Roshitsh's handmade mask.
A bartender prepares to-go cocktails wearing Ashley Roshitsh's handmade mask. Image:

Guy Hand

It should come as no surprise that hospitality industry workers have the highest unemployment rate in the nation, accounting for 21.3% of unemployment claims as of August 2020. Bars and restaurants have been closed for months in some areas and have extremely restricted occupancy limits in others.

Although some bars and restaurants have been offering food and drinks to-go, there generally aren’t enough shifts to go around for all former staff members to pick up enough hours and tips to stay afloat of their financial responsibilities. So what’s a worker supposed to do when a place they called their second home is forced to shut its doors because of a global pandemic?

Pivot to Virtual

When she wasn’t working behind the bar at San Francisco’s Bon Voyage, Rebecca Pinnell was teaching spirit and cocktail classes at the prestigious members-only club, combining her love for the beverage world and for education. When the shelter-in-place order was enacted, the club reached out to her, asking if she would teach her classes virtually, a request that sparked what became a virtual cocktail-class business

It wasn’t long before Pinnell’s Zoom classes became more than a means to pay the bills. Just a few months after she began her project, organizations such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) started reaching out to her to host virtual lessons for charity. “Boys & Girls raised $9,000 with just two classes, and CCI raised $20,000 with three,” she says. 

Rebecca Pinnell teaches virtual cocktail classes.
Rebecca Pinnell teaches virtual cocktail classes.  Rebecca Pinnell

Creating Portraits and Protective Masks

Ashley Roshitsh, previously a bartender at Queen’s Park in Birmingham, Alabama, didn’t imagine herself painting portraits of people’s pets before the pandemic began. But after painting a portrait of her dog and sharing it on her Instagram account, commissions from people wanting her to capture their furry best friends began to come in one after another. 

When a friend working for Tito’s Vodka posted online that the company had extra bandanas for those who wanted to make masks, Roshitsh responded right away and with a sewing machine she borrowed from a friend started making masks for friends and family, which, within a few weeks, turned into a full-time business she has been running by herself. 

“When Queen’s Park reopened for to-go food and drink and limited-capacity seating, I wanted to let those shifts become available to people who didn’t have a way to make money outside of bartending,” she says. “Once I saw the feedback I was getting from pet portraits and now masks, I felt this was a better route for me.” 

In addition to giving up her shifts to her coworkers, Roshitsh has been making masks to include in grocery care packages the local brand ambassadors have been putting together for bartenders in need. Furthermore, to help local bar Lou’s Pub, she donated a portrait of the bar front to the owners, who have been selling prints of the piece to raise funds for their staff. 

Channing Centeno created Purple Pineapple Project, an outdoor pop-up providing free food for protesters at rallies and small events.
Channing Centeno created Purple Pineapple Project, an outdoor pop-up providing free food for protesters at rallies and small events.  Channing Centeno

Powering Protestors and Feeding the Public

When the Black Lives Matter movement began and Brooklyn residents took to the streets to protest, Channing Centeno of Tiki & Slow Jams (T&SJ) joined forces with his friend Samantha Casuga, a bartender at The Dead Rabbit, and created Purple Pineapple Project. Fueled by donations, Purple Pineapple Project became an outdoor pop-up providing free food for protesters at rallies and small events for organizations such as the Kids Peace Movement

When he isn’t feeding the public at local rallies, Centeno can be found hosting virtual happy hours with T&SJ and inviting the public to try his drinks at bars across the nation. “Tiki & Slow Jams was an event intended to bring the public together for good drinks and music,” says Centeno. “But since the pandemic doesn’t allow us to do that, we decided to help people create that space of their own by providing them with drinks and a playlist.”

Alongside his partners, Devin Kennedy and French Marshall, Centeno collaborates with brands such as Bacardi and connects with bars spanning from New York to Los Angeles to host a pop-up. When purchasing T&SJ drinks, customers receive a QR code that leads to a music playlist fitting the pop-up’s vibe.The intent is that drinkers will enjoy the tunes while sipping their cocktails. 

The Daijoubu pop-up supports the brands co-founders Caer Maiko and Sharon Yeung love that could be hurting right now.
The Daijoubu pop-up supports the brands co-founders Caer Maiko and Sharon Yeung love that could be hurting right now. Daijoubu

Helping Bartenders and Brands

“There are a lot of great brands that have 90% of their total sales happen on-premise” says Caer Maiko, a co-founder of pop-up Daijoubu. “We did brand-sponsored events before, but once the pandemic started, we decided to not take sponsorship now and instead support the brands we love and that could be hurting right now,” she says, referring to brands like Italicus, which is used in Daijoubu’s most popular drink, the Tapioca Express. 

At one point over the summer, people could purchase the drink in Austin, Houston and San Jose, with a percentage of sales donated to Asian Americans Advancing Justice in response to the rise of hate crime against Asian Americans in connection to COVID-19. 

When Maiko and Sharon Yeung started their Daijoubu pop-up, they wanted to expose Texans to a bigger range of Asian flavors beyond shiso and yuzu, the most common ones found on cocktail menus. But when the pandemic hit, Daijoubu’s purpose extended beyond the glass. “We felt that if anyone was going to talk about it in our industry, it would be us,” says Maiko. 

With her former workplace’s kitchen busy preparing meals for Good Work Austin, Maiko set up shop for Daijoubu in the very front of the bar, collaborating with four local Asian American food producers who did not have any other space in which to operate. Together with Yeung, Maiko was able to help employ 10 people who would otherwise be out of work. While Daijoubu has been successful for the length of its duration, Maiko remains hopeful that bars and restaurants can return to full operations once conditions are safe for both guests and staff.

Well-Earned Advice

There’s no end in sight to the current pandemic. If you, too, are considering a side project in the meantime, these bartenders offered some thoughts and tips on how to get started. First of all, “Pick something you can see yourself doing a year from now,” says Maiko. “You will be spending a lot of time and energy on it, and you want to make sure it’s something you truly love.”

Equally important is to not get overwhelmed. “Do one thing at a time; if you can be patient with yourself, you can go a lot further than you think you can,” says Roshitsh. And believe in yourself. “You are your own hurdle, and you have to go for what it is you want regardless of what you tell yourself,” says Pinnell. “Put yourself out there and work humbly and honestly. It’s worth it.”

And, finally, picture your achievements. “You never know if you will succeed until you try,” says Centeno. “Everyone’s story is different. What is your story going to be about?”