Alex Negranza is the bar manager of Better Luck Tomorrow in Houston, a cheerful joint where folks gather to drink bourbon-rum-brandy Cold Fashioneds and eat crispy patty melts. Negranza wants his colleagues to be just as happy as the bar’s carefree guests, so he’s made it his mission to get them involved in health and wellness initiatives.
It’s something he started thinking about when he began noticing that many of his mentors were losing steam and developing health problems in their mid-30s and early 40s. “These are people who have been bartending for multiple decades doing the same thing,” he says. “Late nights, lots of distilled spirits, casual day drinking on their off days—smoking for some of them.” He realized that that wasn’t the future, or even the lifestyle, he wanted for himself. “I didn’t want to live up to the stereotype of a bartender who didn’t know how to balance the extreme demands of working in the hospitality and beverage industry.”
For the last six months, Negranza has been working out five to seven times a week as well as taking Soul Cycle classes two or three times a week. Buoyed by the benefits of regular exercise, he began organizing spin classes, rock-climbing outings, and yoga sessions to help inspire his fellow bartenders to prioritize their health. He even organizes juice cleanses and meal prep for those “who have a hard time eating enough food throughout the day.” These activities, as well as a six-month fitness initiative that includes gym memberships, personal training, and workout routines specifically designed for those in the bar world, are cosponsored by liquor companies eager to support the local bartending community.
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“For many professionals,” Negranza explains, “hospitality isn’t a switch that can be turned off or on. It’s a lifestyle that carries into every aspect of our lives. It’s a constant sacrifice of ignoring our own physical and emotional needs [so we can] rise to the occasion to help improve and enrich others.” After years of service, he says, that lifestyle takes its toll. “I find that the balance for me comes in mental and emotional stability, but the physical gains and benefits [of exercise] help me do my job better and better each week. I can’t see any other way to do it if I’m going to last … in this industry.”
In recent years, the well-being of bartenders and sommeliers working long, physically demanding hours has received increasing attention. Some are taking regular breaks from drinking the alcohol that permeates their lives; others are grateful for the trend toward brand-sponsored group physical activities that afford a convenient opportunity for much-needed rejuvenation. More and more beverage industry professionals, despite their grueling schedules—and the constant temptations that surround them—are focusing on self-care and the pursuit of a healthier lifestyle. Here are 11 suggestions on how to boost health and wellness from bartenders and somms around the country who have made the commitment.
1. Prep Your Meals Ahead of Time
One of the biggest challenges with a busy schedule and night hours is finding the time to eat well. Late-night meals and those consumed on the run aren’t usually that healthy. But with a little forethought, Chris Brown, the beverage manager at Metropole inside Cincinnati’s 21c Museum Hotel, says bar staff need not succumb to the ease of fast food. On one of his two days off work, Brown prepares a large amount of a simple dish—Thai red curry, for example—that he splits into portions to eat throughout the week. “One of my favorite combinations is tofu, snow peas, mushrooms, and green bell pepper,” he says. “You then add a little curry paste and coconut milk and it’s done. It reheats well and can be eaten over brown rice. If it becomes too difficult to prepare, the prep time itself will become the deterrent from cooking.”
2. Don’t Skip Breakfast
Brown also emphasizes the importance of breakfast. Before going to bed, he typically prepares a blend of whole rolled oats with yogurt, chia seeds, and frozen blueberries or strawberries for a quick, nutritious breakfast the following morning. Kaitlyn Caruke, the head sommelier at Walnut Street Café in Philadelphia, studied nutrition and food science at the University of Vermont and believes that background has led to the healthier choices she’s made during her career. She’s more likely to recommend herbal tea over nightly cocktails, for example. “Wake up fresh,” she says, “and you’ll enjoy that shift and drink even more tomorrow.” Caruke is also a big believer in the benefits of the morning meal. “Make a healthy breakfast,” she says. “Give yourself time at home to sit and relax before work.” In her own kitchen—far from the restaurant’s seductive cinnamon rolls and cranberry crumb pies—she kicks off most days with a nutritious smoothie made with banana, blueberries, turmeric, cinnamon, almond milk, spinach, fresh ginger, and protein powder. For something more substantial, she combines one fried egg with two egg whites or makes oatmeal with chopped almonds and honey.
3. Drink Lots of Juice
Once or twice a year, Jodie Battles, the beverage director of Toro, Coppa, and Little Donkey in the Boston area, tackles the Whole30 program, shifting her diet toward eggs, sweet potatoes, and vegetable-laden salads for 30 days. It works “as a bit of a reset,” she says, “especially in our industry, [where you’re] eating what’s quickly available when you have a minute to do so.” More regularly, though, she relies on her Breville juicer for a pick-me-up, creating energizing concoctions with kale, green apple, lemon, ginger, and turmeric, or beet, carrot, and ginger. “As long as I plan to have the produce on hand,” she says, “it really doesn’t take too much time.”
4. Say No to Caffeine
New York transplant Jon Howard, the head bartender at the Henley inside Nashville’s Kimpton Aertson Hotel, used to drink two cups of coffee in the morning supplemented by a stream of soda and caffeinated tea throughout the day. Last fall he boldly decided to give up caffeine. “I was either way up or way down,” he says. “I lost focus once the crash came, and I was compensating with more caffeine.” To be more effective at his job and more even-keeled, he decided he needed to be more in tune with his thoughts, and he wanted to be able to control the way he did things—without the use of stimulants. Now when he’s tired, he allows himself to shut off completely, which has also made for a more consistent sleep cycle. In the morning, he finds “good, clean energy” in an apple, not an espresso.
5. Find Your Ideal Workout
“I believe you can accomplish everything you want to with appropriate time management,” says Ben Potts, the bar manager and co-owner of Beaker & Gray in Miami. That’s why, wacky restaurant schedule aside, he’s devoted himself to CrossFit three to five times a week over the last seven years. “I’ve been exercising since I was about 15 years old,” he says. “I’ve tried just about everything.” Potts enjoys the CrossFit strength and conditioning regimen the most “because it’s a group activity where you can compete against others but more importantly yourself. It’s a great way to balance my lifestyle because it’s rigorous and I hold myself accountable to my performance.” Believing that exercise and teamwork go hand in hand, Potts is fond of orchestrating team-building workshops with his staff at gyms.
6. Start Running
“You need to be taking care of your body and mind every day,” says Bryan Dayton, the co-owner and beverage director of Acorn and Brider in Denver and Oak at Fourteenth and the soon-to-open Corrida in Boulder, Colorado. “If I’m not taking care of my body and mind, then I’m not going to be performing as well as I need to be.” Dayton runs at least six days a week and is preparing for a 100-mile race later in the year. As a teenager who played soccer and ran cross-country, he was drawn to the track, he says, because it helped him expend energy and clear his head. In 2001 he took his running to new heights, first practicing competitively on Shut-In Ridge Trail outside Asheville, North Carolina, and going on to win two 50K trail championships back-to-back in 2006 and 2007. “[Running] is like drinking a cup of coffee for me,” he says. “It’s part of that daily routine. You really just have to make time for it.” Building a strong team at work and promoting healthy behaviors from within that team, he adds, helps make a balanced lifestyle possible. “People should support each other so that everyone can make time to live a healthier life.”
7. Get on a Bike
Memories of his father’s old Cannondale bike collecting cobwebs in the corner of the family garage is what motivated Johnny Livanos, the bar program director of Ousia in New York City, to begin cycling two and a half years ago. “I started to feel the repercussions of standing all day on my feet and knees. I needed a low-impact exercise routine,” he says. Cycling is also a convenient activity, one he can fit in at any time of the day, even when he only has an hour to spare. “Cycling is somewhat of a moving meditation,” Livanos says. “When you’re riding and moving pretty fast, you have to be hyper aware of all your surroundings.” In good weather he rides 20-mile stretches three to four times a week. If he’s feeling particularly adventurous, he’ll head up to Westchester or over the Williamsburg Bridge to Red Hook, Brooklyn, for a stop at Widow Jane distillery.
8. Just Dance
When Heidi Turzyn, a sommelier and the beverage director of New York’s Gotham Bar and Grill, fled the suburbs for the city at age 18, she didn’t stop taking the beloved ballet classes of her youth. Instead, the classically trained dancer found a soulful new home where she could train at the Ballet Academy East, under the tutelage of legendary teacher Francis Patrelle. Years later, weekly ballet classes at BAE have become workouts that help keep Turzyn physically fit and mentally stimulated. “I find that after a class I’m more focused and can multitask and problem-solve quickly.” She enjoys the feeling of being present and focused that she gets from ballet. “It’s a time when there are no distractions, no phone calls, no emails—and when I was little, no parents. Ballet still plays a role in nurturing me but on a different level. It always centers and keeps me grounded. When I’m there, it’s a time dedicated to working and being better than the day before.” Just as in the wine world, adds Turzyn, ballet involves a fierce attention to detail and the tradition of passing down knowledge.
9. Do Yoga
Yoga has been a game changer for Pamela Wiznitzer, the creative director of the New York hangout Seamstress and the national president of the United States Bartenders’ Guild. Wiznitzer says she recognized in 2016 that her inability to say no to people, work, and other demands on her time was toxic and starting to take a toll on her health and sanity, causing too much anxiety. At the time, she decided to take a step back and breathe. Now she always makes time during the day for herself. “Before, I gave myself to the world,” she says. “It’s important to be a bit selfish when that time is used for self-improvement and wellness.” These days, when she’s not on the road, she regularly attends Vinyasa yoga at Y7 Studio, where classes often incorporate hip-hop music and are fueled by top-notch instructors who help Wiznitzer refine her strength and improve her flow. She first started practicing yoga in 2014 after a friend brought her to a class as a way to help her through a tough transition time. “I was hooked from the first downward dog,” she says. “Yoga is an opportunity to center myself amidst all of the chaos in the world and access and harness positive energy. It just feels great to stretch, flow, and move my body beyond the average shaking and stirring of cocktails.”
10. Report for Combat Duty
As a kid, Bret Heiar, the wine director of Nico Osteria and Publican Anker in Chicago, was fascinated by martial arts and took up judo and karate. Then a Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, gym moved in next door to the Kung Fu studio he’d joined with his friends; 20 years later, his devotion to his Thai boxing training is still going strong. Three to four times a week this combat sport from Thailand helps Heiar sleep and move better—and balance stress. “You set a routine, and if you look at your week ahead of time and you can’t make it, you rearrange your week,” he says. “It might not always be ideal, you might not always get the best workout, but you show up as much as you can.” Another Muay Thai boon for Heiar is that he trains with a small group of industry pals. “It’s not for everybody,” though, he says. “One hundred people say they’re going to come work out, ten actually show up, and one or two stick with it—but those who do almost always end up loving it. There is a camaraderie that develops, and you genuinely want to see your friends get in shape and do better.”
11. Pair Martial Arts with Music
Jacyara de Oliveira was living in Brazil and traveling through the country when she visited a cultural farm in Bahia that was showcasing Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art that combines African dance, rhythm, and percussion. “I fell in love with the movements and kept training after that,” says the beverage director and lead bartender at El Che and La Sirena Clandestina in Chicago. Several years later, much of her time outside of the bar is focused on Capoeira. “I have taken the time to define my work schedule around that of Capoeira,” says de Oliveira, who trains with the International Capoeira Angola Foundation two to three times a week. “I have to be strict with myself about saying no to events and opportunities that cut into that time.” Taking time to focus on the physical body and practice movements that increase strength and body awareness has always made her happy, she says. “But the fact that Capoeira involves a dedication to music through song and percussion incorporates my spirit and love for singing.” Capoeira also promotes mindfulness for de Oliveira, which she aims to practice behind the bar—and throughout all areas of her life.
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Alia Akkam is a writer who covers food, drink, travel, and design. She is the author of Behind the Bar: 50 Cocktails from the World’s Most Iconic Hotels (Hardie Grant) and her work has appeared in Architecturaldigest.com, Dwell.com, Penta, Vogue.com, BBC, Playboy, and Taste, among others, and she is a former editor at Edible Queens, Hospitality Design, and Beverage Media. A native New Yorker, Alia now calls Budapest home. Follow Alia @behdria.