A Healthy Bartender?

Keeping good health has always been a challenge for me. I’ve been fighting ‘Fat’ since I was a kid (although, not sure it should be classified as a fight). I’m a large person who puts on weight pretty easily/quickly. I’ve also chosen a relatively strenuous profession. Bartending is physically and mentally exhausting. This topic has been discussed at length… Toby Ceccini gives a clear account of the rigors of bartending in his book, Cosmopolitan. I remember reading his book, and feeling the same pains when getting out of bed and walking on what felt like stumps for feet. Long hours and few breaks prevent any type of normal nutrition plan. Late nights leave us slow in the mornings, never getting a full night’s rest (sunlight doesn’t help wholesome sleep patterns). More recently, The New York Times published an article detailing the physical challenges of the craft bartender. Like these bartenders, I also suffer from tendonitis in my elbow and shoulder. After 5 shifts in a week, I can’t comfortably sleep on my right side. Beyond the physical obstacles lies the profession’s mental challenge: an elaborate juggling of customer emotions. We are performance artists, constantly adapting to various, and particular audiences (see the brilliant study by Sherri Cavan for more on this and bar culture across the many forms of ‘Bar’). Often times, inquiring/aspiring bartenders glorify the challenge of learning extensive recipes for drinks. I typically reply with a detour… The biggest challenge isn’t the drinks. It’s people and their many preferences. And, with as much experience as I’ve gathered, I’ll never surely know how to react to everything about everyone. I’m forced to stay on my toes. Caution is my ally and curse. I’m never relaxed around customers, even regular patrons, because the second I do, I make mistakes, and stand at risk of offending those who help me pay rent. And, imagine how all that concern builds when you’re faced with more customers than you can effectively give service to… aka a busy Friday night. The stress mounts to a near break point – that moment when you begin to realize how deep in the shit you are. It’s like getting an MRI, an almost claustrophobic experience formed by others needs. Yeah. That.

So… why am I still bartending?

I LOVE what I do. I know that’s cliché. I really am being honest. Contrary to the tension of staging mini performances for many over the course of a long shift, I love meeting new people. I love making pleasant strangers happy. I love problem solving. I love the stress. I love being aware of my limits and pushing my potential. I love seeing the people I work with do the same. It’s a worthy challenge: the rigor of a busy night. More than all, I love that feeling after a tough shift, when we huddle up, take a deep breath, share a beer, a story, and a deep sense of camaraderie. A fellow bartender related our profession to adult sports. The team element and the clear goals make the comparison obvious. I grew up playing team sports. Most of the people I work with did the same. It’s no wonder why a sports-loving person, like myself, would gravitate towards bartending.

But, the profession is slowly taking its toll… A few years back, I figured a way to lose a lot of weight (over 150lbs) during my first stint as a manager of a busy bar. My diet was strict, maybe too strict. Eventually, I lost a bunch of weight (good?). I also had surgery on a hernia because of poor digestion (bad). I scaled back my routine to something a bit less strenuous and had moderate success. Then, I quit said job, went to graduate school, and took on a general manager position at a cocktail bar (El Dorado). I was a full-time manager, full-time student, part-time teacher. Not the easiest schedule. And, let the weight gain begin! I was coping with stress poorly. My diet and exercise routine required too much time. I left it behind so I could barely squeak by with my ‘primary to-do’s. Soon, the routine of stress, and eating due to stress/emotions, and lack of exercise became a fixed cost.

After graduate school, and a bit more time with El Dorado, I became the general manager/bartender at Noble Experiment. It was my first full time bartending gig. My new habits fit perfectly with the long hours: eat something heavy and unhealthy so I could retain some type of energy through the night. Then, after my shift, maybe a burrito? Why not? I was starving and it’s convenient. Between my time at El Dorado and Noble Experiment, I gained 80lbs.

Not everyone has the same experience. Many of the people I work with have healthy routines, or the ability to eat burritos at 3am and not gain weightt, or both (I hate them). I just happen to possess none of the above.

Then, I got engaged… I consider it a moment of intervention. My health trend could prevent a lot of experiences with my family to-be. My fianceé was equally, if not more concerned. She suggested a cleanse. At first, I thought it was a temporary fix. What’s 10 days going to do against a lifetime of bad habits? Somehow, I managed to set my doubts aside, and followed suit. We were using a raw veggie and fruits cleanse. It was good, but lacked some efficiency (mainly cost, and frequency of meals during work shifts). The 10 days were easily met, and left me optimistic for another attempt… A couple months later, we tried again. It was a huge success. We picked up where we left off, using old tricks, and time savers with new ones, namely cost reduction and larger portions split into extra meals during work shifts. Exercise was also a big part of the second session. The intention was 15 days. I’m quickly closing in on 30. I’ve lost a bunch of weight. I’ve got a ton of energy on less sleep. My cholesterol is at a healthy level. Much of the physical pains have subsided. My ankles aren’t swollen and painful in the mornings. Even my tendonitis is scaled back. I’m more alert, and energized throughout shifts, making interaction with customers much more rewarding. All good, for now.

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Will it last? I hope so. It’s been pretty easy, and very efficient. I’ve been off booze throughout. Initially, I feared my regulars would feel less connected if I wasn’t having an occasional drink or shot. It’s been the opposite. They want to support me (I suppose I support them in some strange manner). I’ve been off caffeine with no changes in energy (coffee is a funny thing. I was drinking coffee to feel normal, purely addicted, rather than getting a boost). When the dust clears, and I hit 30 days, I plan on using a 6-day plan, with a moderate cheat day. But, part of me wants to keep going (see comments above about challenges/goals).

The important part: I’ve found a way to be healthy and bartend/do what I love. It could be a means to longevity. I was starting to think, at 32 years old, I only had a couple more years left in the tank. The rigor was going to catch up in the form of serious illness, namely heart disease. If I stay on track, that will change.

…Another important part: This shouldn’t be read as an infomercial. We deviated from a strict cleanse, and found something that worked for us. I only wanted to share a very real worry. I’m not urging anyone to do the same. My fianceé left the cleanse routine before me, and is occasionally enjoying a glass of wine, and (plenty) of chocolate (a fierce addiction). We’re only looking to sustain a healthy lifestyle. We could be on the right track.

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Is Bartending unhealthy? No. People are unhealthy. It’s a good, honest profession that requires discipline on multiple levels to reach degrees of success. I knew I had to change my health rituals if I’d get any further as a bartender. I’m battling my tendency to eat in extreme during times of stress, but also balancing my urge to be over zealous and/or too strict with health regiment. I’m my own rival. But, I’m learning… Just like a young bartender learns to balance the needs of too many customers. If anything, I hope I’m maturing. I hope becoming capable; better at dealing with my emotions and better at being me, so I can bartend a while longer. It’s a game I don’t wanna quit.