Every now and then a friend will ask me about how I got into wine. I love sharing the story! So, kids, sit around the campfire and toast the marshmallows while I tell y’all a tale!
Like many others of my generation, my wine interest started with Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill, and then later morphed into “Hearty Burgundy,” “Mountain Chablis,” and, of course, White Zin. To say nothing of Bartles & Jaymes. Because I wasn’t into getting drunk, I treaded lightly around alcohol, with the possible exception of my 21st year. You know. It’s the year when everything is suddenly legal. But all it took was one hangover…
Many years passed and wine absolutely was not an important part of my life. It wasn’t until the late 80s/very early 90s that I began to revisit wine. But even then it wasn’t a direct path. I was first a barback, then bartender, then a nightclub bartender at several locations in Southern California before I became a bar manager. I learned a lot about what goes on in the back of the house and behind the bar. As I used to tell my friends about my working as a barback, it was the hardest work I ever did for minimum wage in my life. My rise from barback to bar manager was less than two years, and I loved every minute of it. But unfortunately I had a few clashes with the owners of the place where I managed, which was a nightclub. It’s an interesting story.
The mentality of a nightclub is far different from that of a regular bar. Any generic nightclub with aspirations to greatness knows that it’s all about glitz and glamour. While the place I had previously worked had been a nightclub of sorts, it was of a different type in that it catered to older folks on some evenings and to rockers on others. (Trivia note: it was one of the places where the Red Hot Chili Peppers got their start). So in addition to the fact that they were open during the afternoons for Happy Hour which something that *real* nightclubs simply didn’t do, there was no “glamour” there.
The glitzy place hired me away from the quiet establishment to manage their new nightclub. I jumped at the opportunity although I let them know that I had the “day job” which took priority. While I had been bartending several evenings a week, it didn’t take a toll on my real life and I knew that this opportunity would be more demanding. Even though it would be more demanding, it would still have to be the second job, always. They understood. Of course, it ended up being a much larger part of my life and I found myself working 40 hours a week at the day job and sometimes nearly as many at the nightclub.
As the bar manager, I had the responsibility of hiring and firing people. I tried to hire the best for my servers and for my bartenders as well as those in the backbar area. I hired some great people, and had to fire a couple who were hired without my knowledge and who always proved to be either incompetent or thieves. You see, the one thing I didn’t immediately realize – and they didn’t tell me – was that the owners were looking for “pretty” people to do the work.
As an aside, Las Vegas looks for pretty people all of the time. That’s what they ask for when hiring, and because of the basis of the businesses here – adult-themed Sin City resort destination – it’s expected, and everybody understands that. But where I was *wasn’t* Las Vegas. Not by a long shot.
When I ran the bar operations (hiring, firing, ordering, keeping inventory, inspecting for cleanliness, pricing, training, blah blah blah), the bar income paid all of the bills as the night club and its connected restaurant got on their respective feet. I introduced a computer-based inventory system (the miracle of Excel). The bartenders were knowledgeable, the barbacks were efficient and alert, and the servers were personable. The drinks were priced well, and I worked with the bartenders to come up with some original recipes. I instituted a few new policies, such as opening the doors early Friday afternoons for Happy Hour, and anyone who came and purchased drinks could stay for no cover charge when the nightclub opened. I also persuaded them to allow the restaurant to stay open late in order to get the after-hours business. I worked with the restaurant manager to come up with special snacks for the new Happy Hour and recommendations for a limited but tasty after-hours menu. You’d think that’d be enough, right?
Unfortunately, the owners wanted glamorous people behind the bar and as servers. The tall geeky guy with the wicked sense of humor, who was creative, bright, and a helluva bartender? They preferred a woman, preferably with noticeable physical assets, if you get my drift. The chunky girl who was serving the cocktails, upselling like crazy, and making them a ton of money? She either had to lose weight or I had to fire her. Needless to say, this resulted in quite a conflict since I was all about efficiency, functionality, and repeat business. I argued, pleaded, reasoned, rationalized. They were absolutely blind to the fact that everything was running smoothly – and profitably – with regular people doing their jobs and doing it well. Maybe I made it look too easy?
And then two things happened to turn everything upside down.
Part Two: I Have *What*?!?