On any given night in Newark—with the possible exception of Sunday—at least one of Main Street’s bars will be hopping. While the busyness of the college town’s various watering holes is to be expected, what may be less so is the seriousness with which its bartenders practice their craft. For these men (and a few women), bartending is more than a side gig to earn some extra cash.
Mike Schmidt, who works full-time at the busy sports bar at Grotto Pizza, says he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“There’s a lot of people who are unhappy with what they’re doing, but they need to work, so I’m one of those lucky few that actually enjoys what they do,” Schmidt says.
Schmidt, who goes by Schmidty most of the time, has been working in the restaurant industry for 10 years and has been bartending at Grotto’s for six. For him, the key to being a successful bartender is to be as outgoing as possible. A little flirting doesn’t hurt either, he says, and for that reason, he lets patrons guess his age.
“One girl the other day said I looked like I was 32,” he says. “Then she asked for more ice in her drink, and I took a huge ice chunk that was frozen together out of the [cooler] and just put it on her drink. Everyone at the bar just started laughing and taking pictures and putting them on Facebook and stuff. It’s just another way to have fun.”
Schmidt says he and the girl later became Facebook friends, and she sometimes comes in to visit. Main Street bartenders—whether they’re working at the high-end Stone Balloon Winehouse or student favorite Klondike Kate’s—agree: a good bartender establishes reciprocity and creates relationships with the patrons in his bar.
It’s a part of the art of bartending, or perhaps craft is a more apt word. Bartending does, after all, walk that fine line between art and trade, and it certainly requires special skill. Just ask Joseph Polecaro, a bartender and server at relative newcomer The Stone Balloon Winehouse.
“Someone will come in and say, ‘I’m in this mood, what drink can you make me?’ Ask a summertime bartender to do that, and I don’t think the person will be very happy,” Polecaro says.
The Stone Balloon Winehouse caters to an older, more professional crowd than most Main Street bars. For that reason, The Winehouse focuses less on manufacturing drinks and more on tailoring the drink to the customer. That drink can be an herb-infused cocktail or a carefully selected glass of wine, Polecaro says.
“When someone comes in and says, ‘I’d like a nice white wine, Chardonnay would be fine,’ and I say, ‘Let me show you this,’ and she says, ‘Oh my God, this is the best thing in the world,’ our job is accomplished,” he says.
A quick glance at The Winehouse’s 15-page wine menu provides a dizzying array of options, which bartender and server Dustin Gros says number high in the hundreds.
Gros knows them all.
“There’s a $1,000 bottle that fortunately, I have tasted, but 99 percent of the people are not going to have the chance to taste that,” Gros says. “So you have to go and do your homework on it and be ready to educate someone if and when they were to buy that, because that’s a big deal.”
This is the standard at The Stone Balloon Winehouse, Polecaro says. The servers there will taste the wines the restaurant offers on their own, discuss them—bodies, bouquets, finishes and more—amongst themselves, then read write-ups in magazines such as Wine Spectator.
Gros has passed the sommelier first level examination, and like Polecaro, works primarily at the Winehouse. Its further proof that for those who’ve made a career out of bartending, the craft is serious business.
Brian Ford has been working at Klondike Kate’s for 20 years. When asked what he liked about bartending, he responded, “What is it don’t I like about it? I did accounting for two years when I graduated from Mount Saint Mary’s, and hated it. Hated every minute of it, couldn’t see myself doing it, and [had] bartended my way through college.”
Bartending has turned out to be a lucrative career for him—possibly on par with accounting.
“People kind of look at it as a second-class job because we wear khaki shorts and T-shirts and ball caps, but let ‘em keep wondering,” Ford says. “I see people I went to high school with come in and they’re like, ‘This is all you do?’ I’m not living at the Y.”
Ford says he’s gotten used to the hours and enjoys the active nature of bartending. A lack of limited vacation time doesn’t hurt either, he says, but what he enjoys most is the social nature of the job.
“When you come in here on Thursday nights and it’s slam-packed, you’re just motoring along, you’re not really talking and joking, just manufacturing drinks as fast as you can to get them out,” Ford says. “But that’s only an hour and a half out of an eight-hour shift. The other seven-plus hours, you’re just sitting here talking to people, making them feel comfortable, making them your regulars.”
For as much as bartenders try to socialize with their customers, there comes a time at many Newark bars (at Kate’s, it’s Thursday around 11 p.m. during the school year) when the guys behind the bar have to put their heads down and go to work.
Schmidt, from Grotto’s, will repeat the order he’s just taken over and over in his head as he fills it, trying his best not to make eye contact with any patrons until he’s ready to serve them. He works through his section from one end to the other as quickly as possible, but the crowds that form at certain corners of the bar make getting to every customer in a timely fashion challenging on busy nights.
Complicated orders paid for on multiple credit cards don’t help either, he says.
“There are some nights where we walk out of here and we’re like, ‘Was this everybody’s first night in a bar?’” Schmidt says.
At Main Street’s most popular student bars—Deer Park, Kate’s, Kildare’s, Grotto’s—the bartenders usually finish work between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., Schmidt says. On slow nights, they leave earlier, but it still takes him two to three hours to wind down enough to get some sleep. He typically goes to bed between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m.
“As people are getting ready to start their actual, real jobs, I’m falling asleep at night,” he says. “It’s different. You just kind of have to adjust to the fact that as people are doing their morning thing, I’m sleeping until 12, 1, 2 o’clock.”
Schmidt says he goes through phases where he’ll only sleep until 10 a.m., but his body quickly reminds him that he needs six to eight hours to function. Another challenge of the bartender’s schedule is the dating scene.
“It’s very hard to be in this business and date outside of the business,” Schmidt says. “Unless you’re dating somebody who’s a nurse and works 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., you’re not going to have the same hours.”
Despite dating difficulties and the trouble of squeezing an entire day into the few hours before work, Schmidt and Ford agree that they could never work a 9-to5 desk job after years of bartending.
“I love it,” Ford says. “I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else.”