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Even the corner bar must change with the times

Rochester Business Journal
May 16, 2014

There are occasions when a columnist cannot rely completely on personal experiences and observations but requires some additional input from an authority in the field. That was my situation as I considered the topic of bartenders. I didn’t have to search very far to find my expert; I interviewed a college senior who happens to be my grandson.

My thesis is that tending bar, once a primarily male domain, has become gender-neutral.

Years ago, bars didn’t get much publicity unless they were found to be in violation of the liquor laws and were fined or closed for a period of time. They also attracted some attention when there was trouble on the premises. The bartenders were strictly bit players, seldom attracting any attention unless there was trouble.

A series of feature articles on specific bars wasn’t considered newsworthy in those days. In fact, if a writer even mentioned a saloon, the reference was immediately deleted by skeptical editors who suspected it was a “plug” for the place in return for free drinks.

I follow the bars in the daily newspaper. It’s a research approach that not only is cost-effective but also enables me to get to bed at my usual hour. The paper publishes a weekly feature story about a different bar, the ambience, the variety of beer and food, and the type of clientele. The story usually is accompanied by a photo that includes the bartender.

Nearly all the bartenders photographed are young women. Furthermore, even the most casual observer would quickly conclude that the majority of female bartenders are attractive. I decided it would be prudent to confirm the accuracy of that impression before publishing my findings.

“Oh, yeah,” replied my grandson. “And most of them are very pretty and friendly.”

By coincidence, just a few days after that interrogation I was introduced to a young woman. I asked where she was attending school, and she said she had already graduated. Yes, she is a bartender. She confirmed that her gender helped her in getting the job.

My experience with bartenders has been limited but typical, since it started when I was a college student. I developed a liking for a blue-collar place a few blocks from the campus. I became acquainted with the proprietors, Henry and Bud, both of whom worked behind the bar. It was there I learned a revealing lesson about the often synergistic relationship between bars and politicians.

Both men were personable, but Bud seemed able to greet everyone by name. He had a following—how big a following I never realized until the November day when he was elected to the City Council. That provided insight into the role of the neighborhood tavern as a political springboard. Two years later Bud was elected mayor. When he somehow learned I was about to graduate, he insisted on treating me to a steak dinner. He was the first of only three bartenders who ever knew my name.

The others were Ray and Ernie, who had grown old and occasionally cranky behind the bar. They had long memories and talked as much as they listened. When Ernie died, Ray, whom no one ever described as a sentimental man, sighed and said, “He was my only friend.”

At some moment between then and now, tavern owners determined there were benefits to be found by hiring women as bartenders. That was a major change and was widely adopted. Years ago there were relatively few women seen sitting on the stools as customers; now they are often on both sides of the bar.

Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.

5/16/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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