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Every day’s a little different

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SHAWNDA LEHMAN, bartender/manager at the West End Tavern, has made a career as a bartender. Like others in her profession, she finds the work stressful at times but ultimately rewarding. Every day brings something new. Bartenders may be serving customers who are happy and silly or drowning in sorrow, or just need a listening ear. (Photo by RANDY ROBERTS)

By SARA ARTHURS
STAFF WRITER

They console the grieving and celebrate with the joyful, must know lots and lots of drink recipes and how to delicately handle belligerent customers. Working as a bartender is a lot more complicated than it may seem at first glance, but is rewarding and enjoyable work, area bartenders say.

Asked about a typical day at Alexandria’s, bartender Rachael Van Buskirk said there is no such thing. The day starts with preparing the bar. This means stocking beer, liquor and the fruit used as drink garnishes. She sweeps and mops the floors.

“After you open it’s kind of the waiting game,” Van Buskirk said.

She said a bartender must “be prepared to move as quickly as possible” on a moment’s notice.

Alexandria’s can go from nearly empty to bustling in a few minutes. Van Buskirk said a slow night is in some ways more stressful than a busy one, since bartenders depend on tips.

A very busy night can also present challenges but “busy is good,” she said.

And when the place is busy, time passes quickly, she said.

Van Buskirk has been a bartender for about five years, since she was 21 and in college. She has tended bar in Bowling Green and worked at Uncle Buck & Boudreaux’s and the Downtowner before it closed. She’s been at Alexandria’s since September.

“Every day’s a different day,” she said.

Shawnda Lehman, bartender/manager at the West End Tavern, has been a bartender for 21 years, the last six at the West End.

“I love it, absolutely love it. … This is my profession. This is my career,” she said.

Every day is different and she loves getting to walk into work and feel that she is among friends.
Lehman has witnessed the ups and downs in a customer’s life, including couples who get engaged at the bar and families who come there after a funeral. She has served people at retirement parties and has seen couples become parents. Last fall a couple renewed their vows on their 40th wedding anniversary at the West End.

“People come here for joy, for sorrow,” she said.

She, too, said the job can be stressful but it’s “a fun stress,” like a shot of adrenaline, she said.

Lehman worked at a Big Boy restaurant as a teenager “and I was the worst waitress in America.” She vowed never again to work in the field but later, putting herself through college working multiple jobs, decided she wanted to earn more than minimum wage and found work at Oiler Pizza Pub. She was thrown into learning how to mix drinks and said everyone learns the techniques differently.

Drinks that are popular now may not be what used to be popular.

“It’s fun how trends change,” Lehman said.

At Alexandria’s the staples are cranberry and vodka and rum and Coke, along with “go-to beers.”

Customers request old fashioneds and Manhattans. And, Van Buskirk said, “Sex and the City” fans go for Cosmopolitans and chocolate martinis.

Learning how to make drinks is a matter of experience and memorization, she said. One challenge is that often the same drink may have different names.

At Logan’s Irish Pub, Guinness Irish stout is the typical order.

Jess Bundy, bar manager at Logan’s, said he likes that the job involves taking care of people.

“You stay busy,” he said. “There’s always stuff to do.”

Bundy said it can be a challenge “making sure everybody’s happy” when things get busy but “it’s a pretty enjoyable job.” He has worked at Logan’s for three years and tended bar at other establishments before that.

Bartenders see a mixture of regulars and newcomers.

Alexandria’s has many regulars who Van Buskirk and the other staff get to know but there are also always new faces. Often people who are traveling for business, such as with Marathon Petroleum Corp., may have never been to Findlay before.

During the lunch shift, when the West End is more “a restaurant with a bar,” there is a 93-year-old man who comes for lunch every day, Lehman said.

There are many evening regulars, too. But Lehman also enjoys meeting a first-time customer. She recently served someone who had lived in Findlay many years but never been to the West End before.

She said patrons include all occupations and backgrounds.

“When you walk through those doors, you’re someone,” Lehman said.

She and her staff, even if they may be having a bad day themselves, strive never to let it show and always to make customers feel special.

She said she supervises a “wonderful” staff, most of whom have several years’ tenure at the West End.
St. Patrick’s Day is a particular highlight.

“It is magical. … Everyone’s happy,” Lehman said.

One challenge of the job is knowing when to cut off a patron who has had too much. This can be a delicate situation and Van Buskirk said there can be some awkwardness involved. However, she herself could do jail time for serving someone who went on to cause a drunken-driving accident.

“When I choose to serve you a drink I choose to become liable for you,” she said.

She said when to cut someone off is a judgment call and one bartender might make a different decision from another.

She said sometimes someone who has had too much to drink will get belligerent, although management will back up the bartenders and “stand behind us.”

Alexandria’s, like most bars, has a rule that patrons cannot put their head down and fall asleep.

Lehman said the West End has zero tolerance for fighting. Being a bartender requires the skill of anticipating a problem before it happens when someone is drunk and belligerent.

It also means dealing with many different emotions. Since bartenders see people during times of sorrow as well as joy, they must know how to respond. Lehman said if she sees a regular who is coming in after something like a funeral she will offer condolences and give them a hug.

Often patrons will open up to a bartender.

“We end up being a lot of people’s therapists,” Van Buskirk said.

People may not “think it’s such a big deal” to serve beer and drinks but “it’s not an easy job,” Van Buskirk said. She noted she may encounter 300 people in a day.

“It is fun,” she said. “It’s a blast,” even though a thick skin is necessary, as is patience.

Advantages of the job include a usually flexible schedule. If someone wants to tend bar 10 hours a week they can do so, Lehman said.

Asked what she enjoys most about the job, Van Buskirk said “you get to meet so many people.”

She has worked other jobs in addition to tending bar, most recently as a technical writer at Marathon. She said many of her career opportunities came out of conversations and connections made at the bar.

“It’s nice to constantly be meeting people,” she said, and nice to feel that she’s helping people relax and unwind.

Arthurs: 419-427-8494
Send an E-mail to Sara Arthurs

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