Not Your Father's Bartender

  • By:  Susan Williamson

Who’s behind your favorite bar? Chances are it’s a woman since 60 percent of American bartenders are women. For three local ladies, bartending offers a fun and financially rewarding way to meet and interact with interesting people. These well-educated, well-spoken millennials have chosen alternate careers over nine-to-five office jobs.

And—what are we drinking? Cocktails are more popular than ever, and new mixtures pop up daily on sites like “The Tipsy Bartender.”  Requests for drinks like a “Super Heineken”—Heineken, Blue Curacao, lemon juice, and lemon lime soda—or “Ankles in the Air Shots”—orange vodka, coconut rum, peach schnapps, pineapple and orange juice—keep today’s bartenders on their toes.

Virginia Beach resident Priscilla Queen works at Catch 31 at the Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront and enjoys the constant interaction with all types of people. “I remember names and faces well,” she said, “so I like forming relationships with the regulars. A bartender is a pseudo therapist and I hear lots of stories. Since we are oceanfront, we have convention goers, local regulars, and tourists.”

Priscilla moved to Virginia Beach when she was sixteen and her dad retired from the Navy following stints in the South Pacific. After graduating from First Colonial High School in 2008, she started college because all of her friends did. “I was a communications major, but I realized I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and I would probably end up working some job that I hated, so I left,” she said.

She found a job as a cocktail waitress at Red Dog Saloon in Norfolk when she was attending ODU. “I’m a fast learner and observant,” she said. “I watched the bartenders, and they were good to answer my questions.” Next she began tending bar at the Hilton’s Sky Bar. “It was a clubby atmosphere, evenly fast paced. Most of the bartenders are women. The customers mostly wanted basic drinks like vodka and tonic or beer,” Priscilla said. As she gained experience, she increased her speed and the complexity of the drinks she could make.

“Catch 31 is a high-end, high volume bar. The tips are great,” she said. “I like bourbon, so my favorite drink to make is an old fashioned. The drink that really wows the customers is a Miami Vice, a strawberry daiquiri made with pina colada mix.” Picture a large clear glass with a layer of bright pink top and bottom, a white layer in the middle, and garnished with a slice of pineapple. “Everyone who sees one wants to know what it is,” Priscilla explained.

She’s been bartending full time for five years. When I chatted with her, she was recovering from two days of eleven hour shifts each. “It does involve long hours on your feet, and it is difficult to have opposite work schedules from your family and friends,” she said.      

Looking toward the future, Priscilla is back in school, pursuing an online degree in dietetics from the University of Alabama. “I think I could help people as a dietician,” she said. “But even when I finish, I will still probably bartend two or three nights a week. I’m used to having that ready cash as opposed to a bi-weekly paycheck.”

When not behind the bar, Priscilla spends time with her friends and boyfriend. “I enjoy doing things outdoors—frequenting First Landing State Park, going on bike rides, to the beach,” she said. “I also enjoy concerts and will travel to DC and other places quite often to see performers that do not normally come to this area.”

For Amandalee Stasiak, bartending at Eagle’s Nest Hilltop is just one of her jobs. In addition to the twenty hours a week she puts in at the country-western nightclub, the ODU sociology and marketing graduate works as a human resource manager for a group of local companies.

“I’ve tried regular jobs but I’m not a morning person,” she said, “and where else could you bring such interesting people together?”  When she started tending bar eleven years ago, drinkers were getting into the flavored vodkas and Red Bull mixes. “Go-to shots then were Jäger [an herb-flavored cordial] while now the latest thing is shots of Fireball, a cinnamon whiskey,” Amandalee said.

Her favorite drink preparation is a classic white margarita. “When women ask me what to order, I often suggest a dragon berry [rum] and Sprite because it is light and fruity,” she said. “People ask me for drinks they’ve seen on YouTube videos of ‘The Tipsy Bartender’ and Pinterest, and I may have never heard of them. But if they know the ingredients, I can replicate them.”

Amandalee started working at a bar in her native Massachusetts when she was eighteen. “My best friend’s brother worked security there, and it seemed like a really fun place,” she recalled. “I started as a cocktail waitress, and my employers trained me to be a bartender.” A visit to some Navy friends stationed in Hampton Roads brought her to the beach. “I loved it, and I wanted to escape the cold New England winters,” she said.

“Now that I’m in my thirties, I probably only have three more years of bartending in me,” Amandalee said. “Standing on concrete and repetitive motions are hard on the body. I’m also a massage therapist.” Looking up with a smile, she said, “I’m a bit of a gypsy.”

After long hours of standing, she loves to soak her feet in an Epsom salt bath with a few drops of lavender and bergamot and massage them with lotion afterwards. “I also roll my foot on top of a lacrosse ball for deeper pressure, ” she said.

Dealing with intoxicated customers can sometimes be an issue. “But,” she said, “we have an excellent security staff.”

In her free time Amandalee likes to paint and sketch and has always wanted to write as well. “As I transition out of bartending, I hope to be able to pursue some of my passions,” she said. “My husband and I hope to start a family, and that would be hard with my current schedule.”

North Carolina native Savannah Goodling grew up in Jacksonville and attended college at UNCW in Wilmington, majoring in elementary education and minoring in psychology and marketing. By her last semester in school, she realized she didn’t want to deal with the politics and stress of teaching.

She also decided to leave North Carolina. “I didn’t want to be one of those people who grew up in an area and never left,” she explained. “So I picked a spot on the map where I’d never been and decided to move there.” In July 2016 she and her Pekingese, Cookie, moved to Virginia Beach, not knowing anyone in town. That December she started real estate school, earning her license in February 2017. She started working at Long and Foster and loves being a realtor. “Helping people is what makes me sleep at night,” she said. She has found homes for buyers and renters and is now developing skills to become a listing agent.

Since real estate sales are commission based, Savannah needed another source of income while she built her business. She purposely chose bartending because she had experience in the restaurant industry and wanted a way to meet people. “I started working as a server and hostess when I was eighteen. I always watched the bartenders. In my twenties, I was always the one who made drinks at parties,” she recalled. “In my last restaurant job I was promoted to management, which gave me an opportunity to work behind the bar as well as in the kitchen.”

She now tends bar thirty to forty-five hours a week at Stoley’s, a neighborhood bar and restaurant located near her real estate office. She gets to know her customers, and if they have a regular drink, she makes it when she sees them come in. “That kind of service is rewarded in tips,” she said. “When I develop a relationship, I let them know I also work as a realtor in the neighborhood, and that’s beginning to pay off for me.”

Her favorite drink to make as well as consume is a martini. She added, “Stoley’s is known for their large martinis.” She also enjoys creative opportunities, such as the monthly themed dinners. “One of our owners is also the head chef, and he comes up with a theme for a four-course dinner,” Savannah said. “Another bartender and I along with the liquor dealer come up with drinks to match. The customer gets four courses and four drinks for $60. We have two seatings, six and eight-thirty, for sixteen to eighteen people, and it sells out every time.”

Savannah describes herself as “down-to-earth” and said that helps her to be able to laugh off unusual experiences. In showing rental properties, she has walked in on clowns, masks, and once an armoire full of dolls. “I had dreams about that one,” she said. “I never know what I will find behind closet and attic doors.”

While her schedule includes almost no down time, Savannah does indulge in a monthly reflexology foot message at Tao Foot Spa and regular pedicures to take care of her feet.

Even after her real estate career grows, the twenty-eight year old plans to continue bartending. “I will probably still do a shift or two a week because it’s fun.” Her advice to patrons is, “Your staff is working hard to take care of you. Please take care of them.”

Although more than half of bartenders are women, the percentage of men behind the bar is still greater at high end, fine dining establishments, which offer the highest earning potential. As late as 1970, it was still illegal for women to pour whiskey in California. Thankfully, here in Tidewater, hardworking, talented ladies like these are an integral part of the local bar scene.

Susan Williamson has been an extension agent, newspaper editor, educator, food coop manager, and professional horsewoman. She is the author of two novels: Turkmen Captives and Dead on the Trail. She currently resides in Williamsburg with her husband and labradoodle.

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