Behind the Bar

A trio of bartenders sound off on working in the age of COVID-19

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, and with it renewed restrictions on dining out, I've been conducting what I internally think of as Pandemic Portraits—an informal series of pieces about foodservice workers during lockdowns.

Thus far, this has included server Jen Stillions, Back Road Pizza owner and operator Piper Kapin and Il Piatto's owner and chef Matt Yohalem, each providing insight into how they've been coping with lost business, mask-fighting patrons and what they perceive to be the future of the foodservice industry (assuming it has a recognizable one).

Until this week, however, we've yet to hear from bartenders.

Ask anyone who's worked in the biz and they'll tell you that tending bar is one of the most high-stress positions. In many cases, bartenders are responsible for an entire restaurant's drinks. The pace is fast and unrelentingly fraught with potential peril: Unruly customers abound, cutting people off is no fun and someplace within it all they need to handle coworkers, special orders and, in New Mexico, some of the strictest booze laws and penalties in the country. With a pandemic raging? It's even harder. In fact, between the time we set the interview and then wound up speaking, Radish & Rye (505 Cerrillos Road, 930-5325) bartender Laurel Hunziker found herself out of work yet again.

It's tough, she says, both from an income point of view and because a large chunk of any Santa Fe restaurant's patronage is tourism and out-of-staters.

"A lot of restauraneurs who I've spoken to and worked for have said the same thing, 'We want our employees to be safe and healthy,'" Hunziker tells SFR. "Within our industry, we're all trying to look out for each other, but the concern is how many guests are going to get it?"

"On top of that," she continues, "there are all the people I know who are in a more vulnerable position—who are undocumented or for whatever reason can't get into the unemployment system, or…these are people choosing between bad and worse, and shaming people because they have to take what they can get seems really heartless; how are we expecting people who are barely scraping by to not [work] when there's really no safety net?"

This speaks to a wider online trend wherein workers wind up hassled because they want or have to go back. For her part, Hunziker says she could have stayed on unemployment, but ultimately wound up feeling strange about it when she was willing to work. Further, at Radish & Rye, she says the owners will give any non-compliant patrons the boot for shirking masks or playing fast and loose with regs. Additionally, she notes, many foodservice workers she knows are feeling antsy, herself included, and it's not just about money.

"A lot of us enjoy the work, and we enjoy being a part of the social community and pulling back out of that is a little difficult," she explains. "We're hoping this shutdown only lasts a few weeks."

Longtime Matador (116 W San Francisco St.) bartender Jonah Prokopiak agrees about the social aspect, and also says he's concerned that unemployment could be yanked out from under him at any moment.

"Honestly, I'm kind of worried," he says. "The Matador has been closed since March, and the reopening date keeps moving back. It's a little disconcerting. It's been a long time since I haven't worked for this long. I just want everyone to be safe, but I also need to make a living. It's a super-fucked dichotomy. But The Matador is definitely re-opening. I don't want anyone to think that we are closing."

Meanwhile, at the Thunderbird Bar & Grill (50 Lincoln Ave., 490-6550) on the Plaza, bartender Jules Walker continues to work full-time thanks to the restaurant's outdoor space. Others, they say, were let go at the onset of the pandemic, so they're grateful to still have the job after a two-month furlough period. Still, given the location and nature of the eatery, many of Walker's patrons wind up being tourists, and though we can all probably agree on their importance to our local economy at almost any other time, that's a scary prospect right now.

"They're pretty much our main people who come in, and a lot are from Texas and California, which would have been great last year, but given the circumstances…" Walker says. "But we have signage about wearing masks, we've been trained to tell people to please wear a mask and I haven't had people who've gotten outraged about that."

Hunziker, Prokopiak and Walker agree that one of the best things that could happen to bars right now would be changes to -liquor laws, even temporarily. As it stands, restaurants require a special permit to sell packaged alcohol, and the vast majority of bars in town can't send customers off with to-go booze. Such a change has been a popular refrain amongst foodservice workers of late.

"I think it would make a good impact," Walker says. "It would give my bartenders and employees less exposure to people. And even though I feel like it's much safer than a few months ago when we had to close up, I would say I'm still a little nervous."

So, is there an answer that'll work for everyone? Probably not.

"My big thing is I want people to be more considerate. Just be decent," Walker says. "It just feels like when a lot of these people come in, not only are they stressed about life, they're bringing it into the restaurant. I'm dealing with this, too! I would want more people to understand we're scared, but we're doing our best to keep a happy face on for you."

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