Style, charisma, service. You know a keeper of a barkeep when you have one.
Sure, plenty of bartenders are just passing through the profession – dreaming of the future while pouring a drink — and that, of course, is how life is supposed to unravel for them.
But that’s not who we’re talking about here. Instead, we’re bellying up to those who’ve built bartending into an abundant, fulfilling and in some cases, lifelong career.
Evan Barnes, who started his bartending career right after college in Whitewater, has been mixing and serving on and off for more than 15 years in Atlanta and Milwaukee.
In Milwaukee, Barnes worked at Hi-Hat Lounge, The Garage, Red Light, Nomad World Pub, Cafe Hollander on Downer, Palomino, Comet, Nessun Dorma and Bryant’s.
"I feel I've made a good, solid connection with my customers everywhere I've worked," says Barnes.
Barnes sees some bars as more than watering holes and as significant pieces of Milwaukee’s past. Bryant’s, for example, has been around since 1938 and today, still looks and feels like a step back in tavern time.
"I love what John Dye (Bryant’s owner) has done for the history of just one place," says Barnes. "There is such great history in my profession. And there are other John Dyes in Wisconsin keeping our stories and taverns alive and relevant. Taverns are the hub for neighborhood information, a meeting place for those neighbors, a place to take a date or sit and catch up on sports. That list goes on and on."
One of the most admirable aspects of the bartendering world is how strongly bartenders support other bartenders. Especially the good ones.
"We are blessed with career bartenders in Milwaukee. I haven't seen this as much in other cities," says Barnes. "Paul Kennedy, Tom Julio, College Dave (Mikolajek) – and the list stretches on and on."
Richard Kerhin has 27 years of experience in the bartending / service industry and he echoes the sentiment.
"People like Jim Sweeney, Jim Biava, Geo Kiesow, Bill Castagnozzi and College Dave are a rare breed and should be appreciated just a little more," he says.
Kerhin worked at Von Trier, Elsa’s, Hi-Hat Lounge, Eagan’s, Club Havana, Izumi’s and Carnevor before he moved into management.
"I think bartending takes a special kind of person. Even people like me who enjoy it and spend many years doing it burn out, need to switch," says Kerhin.
Many career bartenders long to own their own bars someday.
"I have wanted to open my own place for at least a decade. Capital is hard to find. I would love to work for myself, every bartender I know has a pretty good idea of 'how it ought to be,'" says Kerhin.
Greg Nadasdy, who currently works at Saz's, has ownership on the bucket list.
"I have not owned a bar. Yet," says Nadasdy, who has also poured at Mason Street Grill, Nanakusa, Roots, Euro Bar and Saz’s.
Barnes took a shot at operating his own tavern with Evan’s (now Lee’s Luxury Lounge in Bay View), but it only lasted one year. However, what he learned during that time was extremely valuable and what others took away from the experience is still celebrated today.
"I was told that my picture remains on a refrigerator in England from a couple that got engaged at Evan's. She said ‘yes’ and I was tending bar that night. I bought a bottle of champagne and had it sent to their table and later joined them for a toast," says Barnes.
"That is one of the moments that makes me want to never give up what I like doing. Don't get me wrong, I could always make more money or sleep better nights if I changed professions and I certainly think about it, but it will always be my profession of choice."
Preferring to work evening hours attracts many bartenders to the profession and keeps them there.
"I'm a night owl." says Nadasdy. "But I also like the people, having fun, cracking jokes. And I honestly love the action: making drinks, washing glasses. I’m like a shark at work. Got to keep moving. Got to keep my hands busy."
Of course, most of all, having an interest, appreciation and curiosity for people is integral to solid bartending.
"I always enjoyed the people," says Kerhin. "As a bartender, you are the person responsible in many cases for providing much-needed relief from the stress of so-called 'normal' jobs. A little levity, some compassion, a warm welcome mean a lot."
And for most bartenders, although tending bar is a job and collecting tips is integral to their livelihood, friendships / relationships are a valuable currency.
Heather Newman, who has poured at Points East Pub for eight years, started working there because she loved live music but stayed for the people.
"Now I get to go in and work with some of my closest friends every day," says Newman.
Barnes simply likes interacting with people and making them happy, especially if they’ve had a rough day.
"I love customer interaction. I love making folks happy and I genuinely want to be there with them while they are celebrating and if for some reason they aren't celebrating, I look forward to helping them look on the bright side," says Barnes. "I want to help where I can and be what a good bartender should be: a friend."
Whether or not they planned to tend bar as a career varies. For some, it was a conscious decision and for others it’s just how it worked out.
"I think for a while, maybe a decade, I considered that bartending was going to be my career," says Kerhin. "Then I started feeling a little old and decided to get into management, which is less physically demanding."
For Nadasdy, career bartending was not a plan, but a good fit that stuck.
"Life just unfolded this way. Got into the biz because I needed a new field and all my roommates at the time were in the industry. After that ... this is the first job I had that made total sense to me, kept my interest and used all of my skill sets. I don’t ever plan on leaving it behind," he says.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.