There are 14.7 million employees in the restaurant business. I was one of those people in my 20s working as a bartender at different popular nightclubs in San Francisco. Queue the dance music! You guys, bartending at my main spot, Dragon Bar, in the 2000s was what Studio 54 was in the 70s: self-defining. It was so much more than just slinging drinks. It was being part of a drunken-dysfunctional family and navigating the growing pains of being a young adult in the city.
But bartending isn’t all Fernet-Branca shots with ginger chasers (a cult San Franciscan industry favorite that we drink more of than anyone else in America). It also requires: hustle, dedication, 24/7 work ethics, money management and learning to create boundaries.
November is National Entrepreneurship Month so I’m sharing how the tools I learned from my bartending days are the same I use today running a successful photography business, being a photography educator and regular contributor to a handful of publications.
It was a few weeks after my 21st birthday and I went to Cloud 9, a nightclub in San Francisco. The manager Tobias, who was clearly intoxicated (duh), asked if I wanted to learn how to bartend. I assumed he was just making conversation and laughed it off. A few days later I got a call from him. He had tracked down my number from a mutual friend and said he was serious about training me if I was serious about taking the job.
Now, the truth is I was raised very religiously and drinking alcohol was not permitted. It was a bold decision to become a bartender – rebellious in fact. My mom threatened to cut me off financially if I took the job. I defiantly told her that was fine. My gut told me I’d make enough money to support myself (pretty naïve of a 21 year old but turns out my gut was right!).
This fork-in-the-road decision informed my entire 20s. About a year after working at Cloud 9 the owners bought and opened a new bar, called Dragon Bar, and asked if I wanted to be one of the bartenders. Um, yes! My new manager, named Troy, taught me that a good leader and boss is one that balances kindness with boundaries. He empowered me by giving me autonomy and also created a culture of transparency (maybe too much transparency at times…haha). Not only did I meet my future husband while bartending at Dragon Bar but I also met some of my very best friends. Bartending also allowed me to finish college and start my career in the corporate world.
Bartenders are micro-entrepreneurs. Every night when I showed up to work, I had to be ready to connect, laugh, talk and be willing to tolerate and laugh at some pretty bizarre things. I had to hustle. That hustle is the main driver behind choosing to be entrepreneur and it coursed through my veins. Hustling is a job requirement both in the sense of moving quickly and working hard. Among us bartenders we would have a friendly competition to see who would ring the most sales in a night. I always won. I’d like to add that for a very long time I worked with two extremely handsome and tall male bartenders. But I was the multitasking queen.
In business, you need that hustle. Yes, it can be learned. But it needs to burn in your soul. You have to want to hustle – to work fast and hard. Every market seems to be “saturated” with photographers and all other types of entrepreneurs. Don’t use that excuse to justify the struggles or downfalls of your business. It just means you need to hustle a little harder than the others. When I started my photography business, I hustled by focusing efforts on search engine optimization. I knew in my market that would quickly get my business in front of the greatest number of people searching online for my services. From there, I could network and leverage word-of-mouth client testimonials.
I’m still hustling. But the hustle is different. I’m refining. Such as looking at new ways to make my business more efficient like using automation for my client workflow or reaching a new audience. The hustle never stops.
When you’re a bartender you must show-up to every shift. It’s paramount. And let me tell you, it’s a grind. I worked every holiday and weekend for eight years. I was never envious of my other friends going out to fun events and clubs on the weekends. I never felt remorse of missing out on a special party or holiday. I was focused on thing: showing up. In the bartending world, if you’re flaky you won’t last a nanosecond.
This one trait, dedication, is what I attribute to the success I have as an entrepreneur. Without dedication and showing up every day my business would come to a halt. Every single day I pour my dedication into my business be it shooting, editing, website or content creation – you name it I’m thinking and working on it. Weekends and evenings included!
Bartending taught me how to balance the life of being an entrepreneur. Working weekends and evenings is a grind. After I graduated college I jumped into the corporate world working at a public relations agency while simultaneously bartending. Everyday or close to it, I’d work from 8am until 3am. Like I said, it was a grind. But it was required if I wanted to continue to live in San Francisco and pursue a career. And I knew I didn’t want to be a career-bartender (lucky me, I worked with some amazing older female bartenders who unintentionally mentored me).
These days, ironically, I’m still working weekends and evenings – in-addition to my regular weekday/daytime hours. It’s easy for me to work odd hours and to book photoshoots on the weekends and evenings. Sure, I miss my family, but I’m more accustomed to working odd hours. And again: dedication.
Let’s talk money. Entrepreneurs don’t have the luxury of relying on an employer to deposit a paycheck into their checking account every few weeks. It’s imperative we manage our finances so we don’t go into debt and to ensure we’re offering our services at a profitable rate. Bartending taught me how to manage my cash. I worked for tips. I paid with cash for everything including my rent. Having cash on hand was great. But it was easy to blow quick. So I learned how to manage my money to guarantee I had enough to cover all my expenses (except for that one time I was traveling in Thailand and I ran out of cash! Thank goodness for a great roommate who wired me money – thanks Scotty!).
Wow, did I ever learn about how to create boundaries as a bartender. From creating simple boundaries such as saying no to solicitations from patrons or keeping my emotions in check because alcohol does bring out the best and worst in people. I learned a lot about myself and what I was willing to tolerate or not. As an entrepreneur, it’s my responsibility to keep my boundaries in check. Sure, it would be so easy to say yes to grab tea with a mom friend during a time I should be working. But each time I bend or blur my boundaries the more I comprise the promises I’ve made to myself about reaching my goals.
Because entrepreneurism is fluid it’s important to establish a structure that you can adhere to. Just like I wouldn’t expect an 8am-5pm-er to skip a few hours of work to hang with me, the same applies to me.
Did or do you work in the bar or restaurant industry that helped you become an entrepreneur? I want to hear your story and the lessons learned in the comments.