Life Behind Bars

Rob Kalesse

Rob Kalesse

, Uncategorized

Four Delaware bartenders dish on serving The First State

Walk into most restaurants, and whether it’s a slow Tuesday afternoon or a busy Friday night, there’s usually something going down at the bar. Customers are laughing and carrying on, or yelling at the TV, or even singing along to the acoustic duo doing covers of Dave Matthews and Billy Joel.

In the center of it all is the bartender. He or she mixes drinks, pours beers, takes orders, conducts traffic, tell jokes, and in effect creates an environment that makes customers feel at home.

We spoke with four “lifers” with a total of more than 85 years behind some of Delaware’s most well-attended bars to find out what it’s like being the ringmaster of all this action. They revealed how they got started, what keeps them in the business, and described some unique tips they’ve received over the years. They also threw in some advice for today’s bar-hoppers.

Alan Rutherford, The Man at Kid’s

Just a little over 20 years ago, while he was waiting tables at Kid Shelleen’s Charcoal House & Saloon in Wilmington, Al Rutherford was offered a shot at tending bar during one of Kid’s famously busy Sunday brunches.

Anyone who has stopped in for steak and eggs between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on a Sunday knows that the scene at Kid’s can be a dizzying display of servers, hostesses and kitchen staff working as a well-oiled machine.

For Rutherford, it was baptism by fire, but he survived it, would continue working nights while getting his master’s in physiology from the University of Delaware, and then would be faced with a decision to make when he graduated.

“Most people will tell you they get into bartending for the money, and I’m no exception,” says Rutherford. “The job offers I got when I graduated were for peanuts, so I decided to stay on at Kid’s, and I’ve been here ever since.”

Now 48, Rutherford hasn’t a single regret. He’s become as much a part of the bar scene at Kid’s as the comfy swivel chairs aligned on the back side of the bar itself. But aside from the money – Rutherford says Kid’s has been a “gold mine” – the North New Jersey native says you have to love people to be a good bartender.

“The best part of tending bar is the people, although the worst part of tending bar can also be the people,” says Rutherford. “I’d say 95 percent of the people are great; they come in to share their stories, hang out and have a good time. But of course you’ll always have that 5 percent of cantankerous folks that just don’t want to be nice. For each type of person, you have to be a professional and try your best to show them a good time.”

Over the years, some folks have had a little bit more of a good time than others. During the 1990s, when Kid’s was under different ownership (the Trolley Square icon is now owned by the Harry’s Restaurant Group), Kid’s featured a DJ Night on Thursdays that sometimes got a bit rowdy.

“Yeah, I remember seeing some girls get up on the bar on those crazier nights,” says Rutherford. “And I remember seeing some of those girls’ clothes come off. After a few incidents, we had to, um, discourage that. The ‘90s were a different time.”

Today Rutherford still enjoys his job, but does feel that the younger clientele has changed the relationship between bartender and customer, mostly because of the smartphone. They’re constantly on their phones, he says, and it comes off as rude.

“I don’t want to sound like an old guy, but the kids with the cellphones…it’s gone too far,” he says. “We used to have a no cellphone policy years ago, but that doesn’t fly anymore. I’d just say that if you’re gonna go out to the bar, enjoy your experience. Engage with your bartender, your friends, and the atmosphere. Kid’s is a really fun place to hang out, and I think you miss out on that if you’re constantly looking down at your phone the entire time.”

Matty Kasper, Starboard Icon

Drive down Route 1 through Dewey Beach just about any weekend from Memorial Day through Labor Day and you’ll see a packed house and lines out the door for what is one of Delaware’s most popular bars, The Starboard. Somewhere buried among the throng of bikini-clad ladies and the dudes in swim trunks you’ll usually find Matty Kasper busy juicing hundreds of grapefruits and opening bottles of Bud Light.

It’s been that way for 18 summers, ever since Kasper, now 44, was offered a job bar backing (basically being a busboy for the bartender—getting him ice and other supplies, cleaning up after hours; a bartender starter job). That turned into a bartending gig a few summers later.

It’s been said that Starboard bartenders don’t quit; they simply die, implying that the gig is so coveted because of both the money and the excitement of working at such a busy establishment that no one ever leaves the job. Kasper agrees.

“It really is a phenomenal place to work, from the co-workers to the owners to the regular customers that come through here every summer,” says Kasper. “It’s like a big family here, which is kinda cool. The hours can be rough, but the pace of the place makes them fly by. However, if you want to be a bartender here, get in line.”

While The Starboard does great business for New Year’s Eve and St. Patrick’s Day weekend, things really kick off on Memorial Day weekend, when Dewey sees its annual flood of out-of-towners and vacationers looking to kick back and have a few adult beverages. Kasper says that three-day weekend is the longest stretch he works each year.

“The craziest shift is Memorial Day Sunday. We can’t serve booze until 9 a.m., but we’re open for breakfast at 8 a.m.,” says Kasper. “By 8:59 a.m., we have a line of 300 people around the building, and the waitresses already have pre-ordered drink tickets for their tables. Once it strikes 9 a.m., the floodgates open and it doesn’t stop until 1 a.m. the next day.”

He says that’s roughly a 22-hour shift, if you begin with a 7 a.m. call time and continue until all the checks are closed and the bar is cleaned Monday around 4 or 5 a.m. Though he doesn’t know how many crates of oranges or grapefruit the bar goes through to make its famous “Crush” drinks, Kasper says he’s been told by distributors that they sell the most Absolut Ruby Red vodka in the country to make the drinks.

When bartenders get busy, according to Kasper, they have a system of getting to patrons one by one, avoiding long waits for people based on when they belly up. However, if you’re at Kasper’s bar during a busy shift, one thing can guarantee you slow—or no—service: Yelling “Yo!” or calling him “Bro!” if you don’t know him.

“If people just stand there and smile, or raise their hand, I’ll get to them,” says Kasper. “It’s when you start yelling at me that I’ll likely tune you out and move on to the next person. I know you’re waiting there, and I’ll get to you, just be patient.”

Brian Ford, Mr. Main Street

Brian Ford is another lifer. For 23 years, Newark bar-goers could find him perched at Klondike Kate’s on Main Street. Every Thursday around 5 p.m., he’d have the same set of regulars who bellied-up and joined him and co-workers for what felt like a weekly private party.

Now down the street at Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen, Ford finds himself in a slightly different environment. The hours are a little easier and the clientele is a little more grown up, but he still feels that being a good bartender comes down to a few fundamentals.

“For me, bartending is all about interaction with the guests, and getting to know people,” says Ford. “The drinks and food, to me, have always been secondary. You can get a Ketel and tonic or a chicken sandwich anywhere. But if you get to know your bartender, and maybe even become friends, you’ll go back again and again.”

The 44-year-old has certainly worked at enough bars—including Scratch Magoo’s, Firestone and the Columbus Inn in Wilmington—to know that guests can sit at any table and have a waiter or waitress serve them a burger. But to Ford, the bartender-customer relationship is different.

“A martini is just a martini, but if I ask what you do, ask your name, and get to know you a little, I guarantee it’ll be a more memorable martini than usual,” he says. “And I’m not just trying to start new relationships for better tips, but it usually does work out that way, which is great.”

Ford says he’s been rewarded heavily over the years for great service. Parents of a University of Delaware ice hockey team member once tipped him a thousand dollars for “looking after their son,” while another regular once offered him keys to a beach house in Key West.

“Don’t get me wrong, those kinds of tips are great, and I’m always very appreciative when someone goes out of their way to show their gratitude,” he says. “But a lot of younger bartenders today, from what I’ve seen, kind of expect 20 percent or more just for showing up. It doesn’t work that way.”

Ford says tips need to be earned, rather than expected. As the bar manager at Grain, he’s trying to instill the ideals of hard work, conversation, and relationship building with the next generation of bartenders.

“If you can get on a level with your customers where you become Facebook friends with them, or text them to go out and grab a beer the next time you’re not working, you’ve really gone above and beyond as a bartender,” says Ford. “When you’re tending bar, you should be having fun with the people around you. With two bars here at Grain, that’s our goal: to create a great atmosphere at each one.”

Nicol DiMarzio, Logan House Linchpin

Nichol DiMarzio pours a Yuengling lager upstairs at Kelly's Logan House. (Photo by Anthony Santoro)

Nichol DiMarzio pours a Yuengling lager upstairs at Kelly’s Logan House.
(Photo by Anthony Santoro)

Now a 24-year veteran of the restaurant-and-bar business, Nicol DiMarzio’s start in the hospitality industry includes a bit of humor as well as a historic tragedy. Her first bartending shift took place in her home state of New Jersey, where a customer ordered a Bloody Mary, and after tasting it, asked for DiMarzio to make it hotter.

“I went in the back and microwaved the thing,” says DiMarzio, laughing. “I had no idea he meant make it spicier; that’s how naïve I was.”

So much for the humor. The tragedy was on a much greater scale. Her first “real shift” as a bartender, as she puts it, came just days after the Sept. 11 attacks, while she was working as a server at Kid Shelleen’s.

“One of the owners at the time had a son who died in the terrorist attacks,” says DiMarzio. “It was awful. But that Friday, we held a benefit and they needed an extra bartender. I guess they figured that for that kind of event, no one would complain if my service was slow on a Friday night. They threw me back there and I started working bar shifts the next week.”

For DiMarzio, bartending is about three things: interaction with guests, the money she’s made over the years, and avoiding the monotony of a corporate desk job. She’s now at Kelly’s Logan House, where she acts as manager much more often than she tends bar, but she still enjoys talking with people.

“I’m not the kind of person who would start up a random conversation with people on the street,” she says, “but get me behind the bar and I can’t stop talking with them. Just don’t call me sweetie, baby, or hon.”

Besides her disdain for pet names, DiMarzio also doesn’t like it when she hears people ask her co-workers about getting a “real job.” She says some customers don’t view waiting tables or tending bar as real careers, just because they’re not 9-to-5 desk jobs.

“I’ve had people ask me what I do for a living while I was tending bar,” she says. “I used to work for DuPont, but I couldn’t do the corporate desk thing. That’s probably one of the best parts of working in the restaurant industry: things are a little more relaxed, and you can joke around and have fun with customers.”

For DiMarzio, a good regular bar patron asks about how the bartender is doing, and has some respect for the job. After working at places like Six Paupers, Dead Presidents, Lime and even the long-forgotten Café Bellissimo, DiMarzio says the guests who treat bartenders the best usually get treated the best in return.

So to sum up: the perfect bartender is a professional—not some moonlighting amateur—who will lend a sympathetic ear, deliver a well-mixed drink in a timely manner, and expect an appropriate gratuity for his or her services. In return, customers are expected to be respectful, keep cell phone use to a minimum, and never, ever use the words “yo,” “bro,” “hon,” “baby,” or “sweetie” within earshot of the bartender.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.