My name’s Justin Zalewski, but most people know me as Z. Bars and restaurants have always been a part of my life.
From a young age, I learned about the complexities of back-of-house catering operations at my family business.
Through that experience, I learned the foundations of hard work and the grit and patience it takes to work in the hospitality business.
Since leaving Western Michigan University in 2007, service industry work has been my main source of income. While in college I received invaluable, hands-on training on how a restaurant/bar is run at the highest level, from both a business and customer service aspect. I have worked every aspect of the business. I started as a bouncer, then became a barback, line cook and finally a bartender.
In early 2008, I took a position as head bartender for one of BMG’s concepts: Blackfinn American Saloon, which brought me to Charlotte later that year. I’ve since tended bar at various locations throughout the city, and currently work as a bartender for the Blind Pig in NoDa.
These experiences have led to this column, which will serve as an outlet for myself and other service industry workers across the city to help create a more harmonious bar experience for everyone involved.
I’ve often joked that, the same way you must get a license to drive when you turn 16 years old, you should get a license to drink in public at the age of 21. In these pages, I’ll be sharing some stories that will only go to prove why I say that.
As any bartender will tell you, every shift brings the potential to witness tales that are stranger than fiction, and I’ve seen plenty.
Hopefully you can get a chuckle at some of the stories I share and, most importantly, have a better understanding of what it’s like to work in a bar and how to act when you are out enjoying cocktails. So let me tell you about some shit I saw last night…
As business at the bar started picking up around 11 p.m., I noticed an incoming Christmas party at the entrance. These wild animals were dressed in what could be described as a poor attempt at following a Great Gatsby theme.
Let’s just say that 50 people walked into the bar that night and 49 have a job today.
As I surveyed the clientele, I made a quick scan to be sure that everyone was still fit to enjoy cocktails. Alas, my white whale appeared. He was a mountain of a man standing 6 feet tall and weighing in around 290 pounds. I could tell from the way he talked to coworkers as if they were standing 50 feet away that tomorrow he would be the topic of the day around the office water cooler chatter.
As the blubbering behemoth made his way to the bar to place a drink order that would never be filled, he stepped lazily and took three bar stools with him. Gravity, momentum and the 10 bourbons he apparently ran though at his company party were all fighting him, and the odds were not in his favor.
As he gathered himself and attempted to play it off, he commenced with his order. I had already prepared him a triple water on the rocks. What happens next is where everything went wrong for the big fella.
“I will taaakkkeee a boouuuurrrbon on the rocks” he muttered to me, drooling. I simply replied, “Sir, how about a water?”
“Fuck you,” he replied.
“No more drinks for you, friend-o.” I told him, and with co-workers looking on in shock, the apparent man in charge stepped in and tried to guide him away from the bar, but Chumlee wouldn’t have it.
This is when I stepped in and began to escort him out of the bar, but then he took a sloppy swing at my security. Again, gravity began to take effect, and as he spilled out onto the pavement, he told me he was going to kick my ass.
That’s no problem, I hear it all the time, but I worried as I walked back into the bar that I would be greeted with a group of big man’s angry co-workers. After all, I had no beef with them and only aimed to make their party a more pleasant experience.
Not to worry, however, as I was instead greeted with cheers and high fives. Apparently he was not the most popular professional on staff. With him gone, the team confided that they hoped his hangover would keep him from work the next day.
Keeping that man’s story in mind, here is some solid advice for the holiday cocktail season: Don’t get so fired up on booze at your company Christmas party that you end up unemployed by Christmas Day.
Also, seeing as how this is the New Year’s Guide, a holiday that we in the service industry consider one of three major amateur nights for people getting drunk and showing their ass, here are a few more tips to get you through to 2019 unscathed.
Have your drink order when you approach the bar. This will save your bartender and everyone around you valuable time.
When the free champagne toast takes place at midnight, don’t be a hog and try and drink five. Have one and move on.
Pace yourself! You need to make it to midnight.
If you are with a group of friends, take turns buying rounds for each other. It will all even out at night’s end.
I understand that not everyone likes the same shot, but come to some sort of an agreement with your group on a shot everyone can enjoy. Nothing is worse for a bartender than to have to make one green tea, one royal flush, two lemon drops (never order lemon drops) and a cherry bomb.
All that being said, I look forward to seeing everyone out there having a good time. Let’s roll out of this crazy year in a dignified way.