Friday, October 6, 2017

Pilates Behind the Bar

This week is USBG Education Week, which means lots of seminars, panels and talks in all the local markets. Generally, these revolve around the normal topics of cocktails, menus, career paths and the like. But one in the Atlanta market stood out to me personally, so I made sure to attend, and I'm so glad I did!

Marcia Polas is an Occupational Pilates trainer -- meaning she teaches people how to use their bodies better at their jobs. If you've spent any time behind a bar, you probably know what it's like to wake up after a long shift with aching feet, a stiff back and claw hands. Bartending is a physically demanding job. Most notably it destroys shoulders and hands, many bartenders are forced into retirement from repetitive shoulder trauma from shaking drinks and scooping ice.

I have spent my life in physical jobs. Staring in high school, I worked in restaurants until age 23, when I moved into the construction industry. Fifteen years later I found myself back in bars and restaurants, serving then bartending, where I've been since 2011. I've spend my life on my feet -- usually on concrete -- lifting, turning, reaching and bending.

Add to the three decades of physcial labor, the fact I have scoliosis (diagnosed in 7th grade), which led to nearly crippling and career ending back problems by age 28. Seven years ago, during a brief acting stint, I had multiple muscles torn n and around my shoulder by a stunt gone wrong, and no insurance, so I had to rehab that myself, which took years, and a lot of massage therapy and still requires constant vigilance. I also have been an active weight lifters for almost 20 years, and live an active life.

I know pain, and I know a lot of ways to work on my body. I have spent hours on chiropractic and massage tables, I've tried yoga, various stretching regimes, Egoscue, foam rollers, lacrosse balls, elastic bands... You name it, I've probably spent at least a few weeks, if not years using it. And most have had some positive impact. Over the past 20 years, I've reduced my spinal curve, improved hip and shoulder alignment noticeably, and eliminated or reduced many of my back and related issues. But after a long shift behind the bar, I still wake up aching and stiff.

Until now.

Ok, I still am a little stiff, but its only been a couple days, and undoing years of abuse takes time. But the instant relief and noticeable results of one group session with Marcia was one of the most exciting things I've experienced in a long time.

She began by teaching us all how to put on our shoes. Yes, its basic, and yes, we all noticed an immediate difference. Which is the point: She gave us simple, practical changes that make real improvements in how we feel and move.

Next she taught us a better way to stand, from the ground up. As she taught us each small change, we stood on concrete for almost two hours. But unlike my usual experiences, I felt my feet tingling as blood flowed in, my hips loosening up, and then the Holy Grail: As I stood there listening, my lower back, still sore from a weekend of rough shifts, relaxed!

Let me repeat that: While standing on concrete, my back relaxed. I have laid in bed for hours with heating pads and not been able to get that to happen. Some days, nothing short of muscle relaxers, which knock my out, can do that (and since I hate pill and being sedated, I just choose to suffer instead).

Marcia went on to teach us how to relax our shoulders and necks, to improve how we shake drinks and scoop ice (she HATES Koldraft, by the way).

Already convinced, I left with every intention of practicing what she taught us behind the bar and retraining my movement patterns. Then I climbed onto my motorcycle to ride home...

If you've ever ridden a motorcycle, or even a bicycle, you probably know the dull ache that comes from being hunched over the handlebars. When I swung my leg over and dropped into the seat I instantly noticed something was different. My lower back felt different, it felt supported, it felt strong. It did not feel hunched or arched, and I wasn't thinking about sitting up straighter or arching my back?

Marcia's teaching of activating the hamstrings while standing had carried over to a more comfortable sitting position on the motorcycle (and in general, as I sit here writing). Rather than flexing my back and trying to sit up straight, activating my hamstrings worked beautifully, and without thought!

I've now worked two shifts behind the stick, one which was really rough, and I am not nearly as sore as I'd expect to be. I know it will take time to fully retrain my body, but I also know it is possible, because I've done it before in other ways. Forming new movement habits is totally possible, and worth while.

In addition to all that, we learned how to speed out post-shift recovery with some self-care, which is easy and worthwhile.

Probably my favorite thing about Marcia is her firm belief in teaching rather than being a crutch. She doesn't want people to just come to her constantly to get fixed, she wants you to learn to heal yourself and pass it on to others. (Burning Man Principles of Radical Self-Reliance and Gifting, in case you don't know!)

If you live in New York City, go see her, she's worth every penny. If you don't, contact her at Polas Pilates to set up a group session for your bar team, or local bar hive. If you happen to live in Atlanta, hit me up and I'll be happy to share what I learned from her (its ok, she encourages it!)

Thank you Marcia! And thank you again to the USBG for bringing her to Atlanta.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Birth of Nigel

Part of being a bartender is figuring out what drink will satisfy a guest, most of the time it something pretty easy, either a common drink or something on our menu. Then there are the times when you get creative, either because a guest asks you to, “Just make me something!” or because you get inspired – the guest, something you heard, something new behind your bar, a song, who knows what? More often than not, those drinks die a lonely and forgotten death, just a one off.

But sometimes, just sometimes, they take on a life of their own. Such is the case with “The Nigel.” This drink started humbly enough a couple years ago when I was asked to make a mocktail (non-alcoholic cocktail, for those who don’t know) for a pregnant guest. She wanted something sweet, refreshing, and fun.  Not much to go on, who doesn’t want a drink like that? But I’d become interested in some cardamom bitters we had behind the bar, so I decided to play with them.

I through together a combination of the bitters, grapefruit and lime and simple syrup, just to see how it would go. Alone, the juices and sugar would have been a heavy, sweet drink, so I had planned on adding soda, but just for grins, I grabbed a can of Ginger Beer to see how that would work. Turns out it worked really well, she ordered several more before the end of the night.

It became my go-to mocktail. I played with proportions and ingredients, sometimes swapping grenadine for the simple syrup to give it more fruitiness and a richer color. I served it on the rocks most of the time, but why not up in a coup? Then I decided to try it with alcohol. I loved it with gin, the botanicals and citrus all play well together and make a refreshing and complex drink. Again, it became an easy go-to for someone wanting something non-specifically “different” and refreshing.
Some of the servers really enjoyed it and would recommend it to guests, and a ticket would print out “mocktail – GF and Ginger,” and thus the unnamed utility drink floated in limbo for a couple years.

Until last week.

Our venue hosts a lot of company parties, especially during the holiday season. Last week, we were the happy hosts of a company reunion. A group of about 20 former co-works came in to reconnect, years after their office at the company had closed and they had scattered.

Early on, one particularly effusive and gregarious gentleman with a voice like Satchmo and a personality larger than life, named William Mitchell, asked for a vodka drink. I don’t remember the exact exchange, but he wanted something special, so I pulled out my long time go-to utility drink and made one up, with vodka instead of gin. And William LOVED it, he immediately began recommending it to his old friends, and of course a few ordered it.

This was not the first time such a thing had happened. The drink had a similar effect with a smaller group of women the week before. I didn’t think much of it. A little while later, I got an order for “a couple more… Oh, make it three! No, four!” Before long, most of the reunion was drinking them, and William was insistent I name it.

It’s also not uncommon for a guest who loves a new drink to insist it be named on the spot. Having been through this ritual many times, I usually just shrug and smile, knowing the drink will slip away into a memory, another one-off. This one had been floating around in my repertoire for so long, it had sort of taken on a specialness to me, and though I had considered naming it, not any name would do, so I hemmed and hawed and avoided naming the drink at that moment.

William, who’s middle name is Nigel, decided HE would call it “The Nigel,” after himself, because he prompted me to make it, and that was enough for him. I told him that would do for now, not wanting to disappoint a guest, particularly one having as much fun as William.

Over the next couple of hours, I must have made 50 of them, usually 3 to 6 at a time. Severs approached the bar asking, “Do you know a drink called ‘the Nigel’? Someone is asking for three.” It had become the hit of the party, and every few minutes in my corner of the world, someone was saying, “I’ll have a Nigel!”

It was sort of like that episode of Cheers, where everyone enthusiastically orders a Screaming Viking, as a prank, piping up one after another from all around the bar. Except in this case, the drink was a real one, which they loved, and no one was trying to get anyone to quit.

By the end of the night the name had stuck, the drink is called the Nigel. It may not be the most dignified name for a drink, but it is special. It has a story, its associated with one of the most fun nights I’ve had behind the stick, and I can’t make it anymore without hearing that deep, raspy voice, bellowing out of William’s barrel chest, “Three more Nigels!”

So, William, I know you’re out there. You have the distinction of having a drink named after you in earnest. You join the ranks of Hemmingway, among others (some lesser, some greater) who have such an honor. Whether or not your cocktail becomes a classic to be cherished around the world for generations remains to be seen, but at least you can point people here, and say you were there the night, at the Painted Pin, when Freeland created the Nigel, and named it for you.

In my mind the Nigel will forever be a drink to be imbibed with a light heart and good company, or at least in the memory of such times. Thank you William.

 To make a Nigel:

1/2 oz lime juice
1 oz Grapefruit juice
1/2 oz 2:1 simple syrup (3/4 oz if using 1:1)
1 1/2 oz vodka or gin
2 dashes Cardamom bitters
Top with Ginger Beer

Combine juices, syrup, bitters and spirit in a shaker with ice. Shake vigorously, with the joy and love of old friends in your heart. Top with ginger beer and pour all into collins glass. Garnish with a lime wheel and server. 

Alternately, strain into a coup to serve up. 

Double the juices, and leave out the spirit to serve as a non-alcoholic mocktail.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

In the Wake of the Election - Handling Creepy Guys

In the wake of Trumps election, there was an issue at my bar last night which reminded me how important it is for bartenders to set an example.

This is scenario which plays out all to often at bars everywhere: A male patron is attracted to a female bartender. He only orders from her, tries to flirt, and views her graciousness as an invitation to continue rather than just her politely doing her job. Soon he's crossed over into inappropriate behaviors and the poor bartender has little recourse.

I work with several women behind my bar, and have developed a way of handling these things. First, I think its important to understand a bit about human behavior psychology. Any time a behavior elicits a positive response, the behavior is reinforced and will continue. If over time, the positive response is diminished, the behavior is likely to escalate before it declines and is ultimately extinguished. This is called an "extinction burst."

Seconds, its important to understand that a flirtation male patron probably does not mean to offend or upset anyone. He's acting according to his programming. This behavior has gotten positive results for years. He doesn't comprehend that the positive responses were a result of uncomfortable women trying to navigate the expectation of their job, while deflecting aggressiveness by may with smiles and deflection as they've learned to do their whole lives.

There might be any number of ways to handle this situation, as a male bartender. I have done it enough to see a pattern in how it usually plays out, and know what to expect. That allows me to control the interaction and generally solve the problem. My goal is to make it clear to the offending patron that their behavior won't be rewarded, without offending them or putting the women behind my bar in any more of an uncomfortable situation.

As soon as I become aware that a guest is making one of the women bartender's uncomfortable, I'll discreetly ask her if she'd like me to take over serving them. Its important to show her the respect you are about to enforce on the patrons, if you don't respect her, why should they?

With her permission, I make sure to intercept them every time they try to get her attention, and anticipate their needs before they have a chance to even look for her to fill a drink or ask for a menu. More often than not, it ends right there. Most men will just let it go at this point, and the problem is handled.

Sometimes, they might say, "Oh, I'll wait for her." This is that extinction burst I mentioned. Since I have her permission to handle them, I'll simply tell them, I'll be happy to take their order in a slightly firmer voice, I might say, "she's busy, let me help you." Since I knew their insistence was a possibility, I've prepared my response, and this is usually enough.  After a couple such interactions it becomes clear to all but the most obtuse patron that they are not going to have her attention anymore.

(I've even had some such patrons thank me later, telling me "She wasn't as nice, I don't think she liked us," totally unaware that her demeanor was a response to them making her uncomfortable. To me, this is the ultimate win. The guests' experience ended on a high note, and I look like a hero them.)

Of course, if they continue to escalate, it may be necessary to inform them that they have made her uncomfortable and she does not want to serve them, or even have security intervene, but I've never had it reach that point. By knowing how the interaction will likely progress, and being prepared in advance to handle their responses, I can de-escalate and deflect their attention from her and back to having a good experience in my bar.

There is a broader context to this which I believe is important in today's social and political context. First, we are setting a standard of respect and behavior for other men to mirror. We are showing in subtle ways that making women uncomfortable is not acceptable in our bar at the very least. As bartenders we are generally the cool kids, so our behavior impacts those who come to our bars, this is an opportunity to make the world a little better.

As I explained earlier, men have been conditioned to behave in inappropriate ways, and not all of them are aware of it. By changing the outcome of their behavior, over time they will learn to behave differently. If not through conscious awareness, then at least through conditioning.