Bar Wars: The Back-Breaking Lives of Bartenders

PHOTO James Moreland teaches up and coming bartenders at the Culinary Institute of America in New York City. He said the psychological aspect of bartending -- making the customer king -- is the hardest skill to master.PlayCourtesy James Moreland
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Town restaurant, a New York City hotspot, was four-deep at the bar, with a lounge full of about 60 customers and 180 more in the dining room.

"We were leading the cocktail culture at the time several years ago," said then-head bartender James Moreland. "We were really doing some extravagant things."

One was a signature pitcher of mojitos, so big it required two barmen to carry -- "If your bar could put out a good one, then it was on fire," he said.

But a barman slipped as he headed for the dining room and sent the vase-sized vessel smashing across the floor. In his panic to return behind the bar, the hapless server slammed down the heavy, wooden trap door, collapsing an entire wall of glass shelving.

"Not a bottle of liquor was left standing, broken glass and liquor was everywhere," said Moreland, 38, who now teaches up and coming bartenders at the Culinary Institute of America.

Such are the perils of bartending -- a delicate balancing act between keeping the customer well-lubricated and not injuring yourself or the cocktails in the process.

"The bar froze, then we just started laughing about the whole thing," said Moreland, whose paycheck was docked for lost revenue. "It took us some time to get going again, but the crowd was very cool about it. It was a live disaster on stage that everyone shared in."

Bartending is one of the most physically and psychologically challenging professions, especially during the holiday season in New York City, where cocktails and customers are king.

The physical demands of the job are brutal on the hands and knees -- "bending up and down, like pilates movement," said Moreland. "You are always getting the odd broken glass cut on a finger or hand and it takes so long to heal."

"The job is physical no matter what," he added. "But it's the psychological, standing in front of 10-15-20 customers every night. It's like a show and it really takes a toll on you."

A 2005 study from the University of Alberta and Napier University of Scotland reported in Science Daily revealed that bartenders were at the highest risk for on-the-job injury among hospitality workers.

The study said they were prone to back injuries from lifting 29-pound beer kegs, shoulder pain from pouring and reaching upper shelves for premium liquor.

Not to mention the occupational hazard of booze itself.

More than 16 percent of bartenders and waiters ages 18 to 49 test positive for alcohol and illicit drug use, the highest category, more than even artists and entertainers, according to the federal" target="external">Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Bartenders also tend to self-medicate with Advil or a shot of whiskey, ignoring repetitive stress injuries, and few employers offer health insurance.

Bartenders Complain of Injuries to Wrists and Shoulders

Women can be especially vulnerable to injury.

Chelsey Dunkel, a managing partner and beverage manager for three high-end wine bars, is a trained dancer, but even she struggles.

"It's absolutely more taxing on your body than dance," said the 25-year-old, who does occasional shifts at Manhattan's Vero bar.

"You're constantly standing, shaking, moving, grabbing with quick turns," she said. "Your feet get stuck to the floor and your feet don't move with you."

Women may be more agile behind the bar because their hips are wider, but often their chests can be a problem, adding to back woes, according to Dunkel.

"Carrying three cases of beer up and down the steps, meandering around people who are wasted, it's so tough on my body," she said. "You torque one wrong way with a case of beer and your knee is shot."

Some days she'll work a 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift then go out partying afterwards.

"I rarely get sleep -- only four or five hours a night," Dunkel said. "But it's an adrenaline rush and it's fun, even though it's serious business and I have responsibilities."

Jeff Isaacson, managing partner of Gerber Group, which runs 28 upscale bars worldwide, said today's customers are more demanding than ever.

"They are paying the price and they expect the service," he said. "And that's what we are about."

"People come in to celebrate, to sulk," said Isaacson. "A bartender is a little bit of a psychologist. You have to be able to read people pretty quickly. Some want interaction and others want to be left alone."

"You have to be able to take criticism and insults and be able to understand verbal abuse," he said.

Duane Fernandez, head bartender for Donatella Arpaia's DBar in New York City, has consulted chiropractors and acupuncturists about the repetitive stress on his body.

"For me, it's the shake," he said. "If you don't shake correctly, it ruins your back alignment."

Physical therapists say that shaking a cocktail is similar to the motion of a baseball pitch or a tennis serve. Mixing 200 to 300 cocktails a night can be grueling.

But so can the theater that bartenders must perform.

"The hardest part for me is having to be on," said Fernandez. "People come into the restaurant and expect you to have energy about you and make them feel comfortable...This is your performance, and even if you don't want to talk to anyone, you have to be on."

The customers can also be part of the physical challenge. One of his regulars had a disagreement with a lady at the bar.

"He was the sweetest guy, but he was so mad he picked up his glass and smashed in on the bar," said Fernandez.

"I was treating this lady so nice and she ruined one of my guest's experiences," he said. "She got loud and I kicked her out immediately. I didn't even give her the check."

But Fernandez said bartending has been his calling and he can't imagine doing any other kind of work.

"I read about a gentleman who works in the premier hotels -- at the Waldorf Astoria -- and he's been there for years," he said. "He's put his kids and grandkids through school and supported his family. I look up to these guys."

In the end, bartenders say the lifestyle, and especially the generous tips, make the job worthwhile. Some earn upwards of $500 a shift or $2,500 a week, and that doesn't even include their hourly wage, according to Fernandez.

Master mixologist Moreland, an Australian who trained as an engineer before coming to the United States, said that's what lured him to the profession.

"I jumped behind the bar and made more money in a week than an engineer in a month," he said. "And I had a much better time."