Industry Issues

The Bars Putting Workers’ Well-Being First

With the worker shortage ongoing, some bars are creating more supportive and appealing workplaces with a range of benefits to attract—and retain—employees

An illustration of a bartender pouring drinks with symbols of health and mindfulness surrounding them
Industry professionals are rethinking what a healthy and happy staff looks like. Photo credit: SevenFifty Daily staff.

“Oh God, we can’t take the shift drinks away.” This is what Jamal Hassan, co-owner of the Sesame Collective group in Portland, Oregon, remembers thinking in the spring of 2022. “We can’t take something away that’s so traditionally a part of the end of a shift, where everybody sits around and has a drink,” he says.

But Hassan and his team were trying to create a hospitality company in Sesame Collective, which operates six restaurants, that puts the health and well-being of its employees above all else. So, after a little hand wringing, shift drinks were out as a benefit and, in its place, came an employee wellness program offering free mental health counseling, financial planning, life coaching, healthy recipes, webinars about a balanced lifestyle, and discounts on gym memberships. “The more we dug into the issue, we realized there were better, and healthier, benefits we could offer that the entire staff could benefit from. A happy and healthy employee that has a balanced life is ultimately a much higher-performing employee,” says Hassan.

The result? “Well, honestly, it’s been one of the most widely accepted of the new policies,” Hassan says. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised that the pushback was, especially on the bartender side, practically nil. In fact, we find that a lot of our staff appreciate the additional resources and did not miss the pressure to always feel like they had to have a drink after their shift.”

Sesame Collective’s decision is part of a broader transformation taking place across the industry as the exodus of workers, which reached a peak during the pandemic, continues to make staffing difficult. As of this May, nearly 1.2 million job openings remained in the Accommodation and Food Services sector in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (USBLS), and the quit rate of 5.1 percent was the highest of all the industries tracked by the Bureau. The rate of job openings in the category was also, as of May, the highest of any industry at 7.7 percent. “Almost every bar I know is currently and actively hiring,” says Cole Newton, the president of the United States Bartenders’ Guild.

To reverse these trends—and also prevent any future Great Resignations from hitting the industry so hard—many bars are essentially trying to clean up their act: ditching their reputation as freewheeling, unhealthy, and, in many cases, exploitative places to work in favor of more structured, nurturing ones. 

Some of these attempts are being pioneered by young, forward-thinking bar groups whose leadership has experienced firsthand the industry’s failings when it comes to labor and is on a mission to change it. And they are being joined by smaller independent bar owners who are also striving to put the well-being of their workers first—despite the increased costs that often go with it.

The new approaches they are deploying include everything from fresh takes on career advancement and making mental health of employees a priority, to a reexamination of the long-held axiom that the customer is always right. “There’s been a realignment of the power structure between workers and owners,” says Newton. “And for owners that don’t realize that, they’re having a lot of difficulty trying to return to a status quo that itself was unsustainable.”

An Industry at Breaking Point

While these issues aren’t new, many credit the pandemic shutdowns and the ensuing Great Resignation for prompting the industry to take an inward look at itself. “We’re living in an inflection point, and it also is long overdue,” says Newton. “The pandemic accelerated the movement towards a focus on health and wellness, and shared decision making and fair compensation, and all these other things that were holding the industry back.” 

Abigail Gullo, a co-host of the industry podcast Drink and Learn and the creative director at Loa Bar at The International House hotel in New Orleans, points to what she calls “inhumane” labor practices like 12-hour shifts without breaks and forcing workers after the initial pandemic shutdowns to police customers’ behavior amidst ongoing social distancing and masking restrictions. “If you work in the hospitality industry and look to your elders, where are they?” she asks. “You don’t see a lot of 50-year-old waiters, 60-year-old bartenders, you know?”

Sexual harassment has also been a major problem. “I would say that close to 100 percent of women and a significant number of men who work in bars are victims of sexual violence of some kind,” says Newton. “Women I know who work as both bartenders and strippers have told me that they feel safer and better protected from sexual violence in the strip clubs than they do working in other bars.” His assertions are backed up by data: More sexual harassment claims are filed by hospitality workers than in any other industry in the U.S.

From left to right: Jay Stapleton, vice president of people support for Pouring With Heart (Photo credit: Arlene Ibarra); Collin Nicolas, owner of the Pink Rabbit, Fools and Horses, and Dirty Pretty (Photo credit: @tyandchey); Sabrina Donahue, director of operations of the Pink Rabbit (Photo credit: @tyandchey); Kathryn Kulczyk, co-owner and general manager of the The Albemic (Photo courtesy of Kathryn Kulczyk)
From left to right: Jay Stapleton, Pouring With Heart (photo credit: Arlene Ibarra); Collin Nicolas of Pink Rabbit, Fools and Horses, and Dirty Pretty (photo credit: @tyandchey); Sabrina Donahue, Pink Rabbit (photo credit: @tyandchey); Kathryn Kulczyk, The Albemic (photo courtesy of Kathryn Kulczyk).

Pervasive substance abuse has been another long-term problem, points out spirits educator and licensed professional counselor Laura Green, who, as founder of Healthy Pour, teaches seminars to clients like Hyatt Hotels about mental health and improving the work environment. “When I started doing this work in 2016 and talking about substance use issues, people would look at me like I had six heads,” says Green. “I could see them thinking, but there was a silence in the room. They were like, ‘what are you talking about?’ I was like, ‘wow, we got a long way to go folks.’”

Supporting Career Advancement in Bars

While much of the current self-examination was caused by the shock of the pandemic, other forces have been at work as well, including a gentrifying of the industry as craft and cocktail culture has taken hold. These trends have populated the industry with more workers who view their jobs not as transient but as lifelong careers. “There’s an increase in the respectability of bartending as a profession,” says Newton. “There have been a lot of people drawn to it that could have very easily flourished in other professions.” He says many of them have felt more empowered to push for change.  

Green believes the traditional way the industry regarded employees as, in Newton’s words “interchangeable cogs,” was not random. “If you want to chew them up and spit them out and cycle through employment that way, it benefits you that your people don’t have any sort of understanding of mental health, or how the workplace impacts it, or financial literacy. Because then they just accept it,” she says. “And I think what a lot of people are seeing now with incoming personnel is that they have that language, and they have higher expectations.”

Given all this, career advancement is one of the areas companies are focusing on as they look to attract and retain good workers today. Los Angeles-based Pouring With Heart operates 25 bars throughout California, Colorado, and Texas. On day one, the company presents employees with a career map outlining paths to future leadership roles. If a security host, for instance, is able to hit specified goals, he or she can find themselves moving up the ladder to barback, bartender, and manager. The company has a community support manager whose job is to guide every employee through their career journey and make sure they have what they need to advance.

“The DNA of our company is bartenders,” says Jay Stapleton, the company’s vice president of people support. “Our CEO was a barback. All of us who are in the higher echelons of the company now have been bartenders. So, we’re all completely in love with the industry and feel like it should be taken more seriously. It could create these beautiful careers for people. We started to do a lot of this before COVID, and then COVID just kind of turbo-charged everything in a sense.”

In Portland, Oregon, Collin Nicholas, who owns Pink Rabbit, Fools and Horses, and Dirty Pretty, also takes personal pride in watching his employees move up the career ladder within his growing company. For example, his director of operations, Sabrina Donahue, started as a server at Pink Rabbit when it first opened, while his bar director for all three sites started as a barback. “Creating a space for those who want to continue to grow allows me to not only retain certain people, but also participate in them growing and learning, which in turn benefits our team at large and the business’ growth,” says Nicholas. “Because I truly can’t do the lift of opening three bars within two years just on my own.”

Fostering Community in the Bar Space

One of the things Donahue especially likes about working for the company is its emphasis on open communication. The group makes a lot of use of the communications app Slack. “Every single day there’s bartenders and servers jumping on there and being like, ‘hey, I’m noticing this is happening, maybe we should try this,’ or ‘we’re out of this, where can I find it?’” she says. “It’s a lot of everybody taking charge and keeping the place going together. It enforces ownership and a sense of pride amongst the team. I’ve never worked in a bar that’s done that. But it’s a lot of fun to hear from everybody all the time.”

Another thing she appreciates is the tip pool. “This is the first job I’ve worked in that has a tip pool,” she says. “And I know it’s becoming more and more common. But I think doing so has really made it team oriented. Everybody on the team basically knows how to do every job and will jump anywhere that’s needed in a moment.”

The result of all this? “I am always so excited to come to work,” she says. “I feel like everybody on my team is so important to me, and it’s not because of where I sit in the company, it’s because of how much we have grown so close and care about each other.”

For Nicholas, who’s now in his late 30s, this is part of what he’s trying to build—in contrast with some of the negative experiences he’s witnessed coming up. “So, I [want to be a part of] creating a safe environment where they have a sense of ownership, they have a voice that’s heard and that creates a lot of really positive momentum and energy in people and then, in turn, a team.”

Good Benefits Aid Staff Retention

At The Alembic in San Francisco, co-owner and general manager Kathryn Kulczyk retained 80 percent of her staff over the pandemic. Despite being a relatively small bar, she has strived to make her employees’ needs a priority and this has gone a long way, she says. This includes doing whatever it takes to make sure they receive good wages and full healthcare coverage. 

Adding service fees has helped The Alembic cover these costs, and they’re explained on the menu. “On the first page it says that we include a four percent employee wellness fee to every check to help us offset the cost of healthcare for our staff,” she says. “A lot of restaurants in San Francisco are doing that.” She adds, “We create a lot of respect within our staff. So, I think that’s why they continuously come back.”

It’s increasingly common for companies to offer benefits reminiscent of Silicon Valley startups, such as free weekly yoga classes, financial wellness seminars, or, more uniquely to this industry, education-related trips to distilleries. “We want to find passionate people who are interested in long-term growth opportunities rather than just a short stint in the industry, so we provide inspirational and educational training and development opportunities to help drive our team’s love of the service industry and growth,” says Miranda Breedlove, the national director of bars and lifestyle operations at Hyatt Hotels

Breedlove also says that outside of Hyatt’s own training, the company also offers financial support for Wine & Spirit Education Trust study, BarSmarts, sommelier courses, category-specific wine and spirits courses, and educational trips to wineries, distilleries, and beverage conferences around the country. She also highlights the virtual seminars led by Healthy Pour’s Green designed to “focus on destigmatizing the conversation around mental health in the service industry and highlighting tools for creating a more mindful, considerate work environment.” 

Andrew Ross, the co-owner of The Whale in Asheville, North Carolina, emphasizes that employer retention is only possible in a positive work environment. “Quality workers have gravitated to quality employers. And I think that should be a lesson for anyone that’s an employer—you want to make sure you’re creating a quality workspace.”

An increasing movement is also pushing back against the prevailing notion that a worker’s role should invariably be subordinate to that of the customer. For Kulczyk, the adage that the customer is always right is one of the industry’s “worst qualities,” she says. “Employees end up getting thrown under the bus in the process of trying to right whatever wrong. It belittles the server, belittles the bartender, belittles the host, and makes them feel like they’re being reprimanded and also doesn’t help them learn from their mistakes.” Instead, Kulczyk instructs her staff to give the customer her business card and tell them to reach out to her. “There’s techniques to diffuse situations without playing the blame game.” 

From left to right: Jamal Hassan, co-owner of the Sesame Collective (Photo credit: Austin Phelps); Cole Newton, the president of the United States Bartenders’ Guild (Photo courtesy of Cole Newton); Abigail Gullo, co-host of the industry podcast Drink and Learn and the creative director at Loa Bar (Photo courtesy: Abigail Gullo); Laura Green, founder of Healthy Pour (Photo courtesy of Laura Green)
From left to right: Jamal Hassan, co-owner of the Sesame Collective (Photo credit: Austin Phelps); Cole Newton, president of the United States Bartenders’ Guild (Photo courtesy of Cole Newton); Abigail Gullo, cohost of the industry podcast Drink and Learn and the creative director at Loa Bar (Photo courtesy: Abigail Gullo); Laura Green, founder of Healthy Pour (Photo courtesy of Laura Green)

Adds Newton, “It perpetuates a system in which customers think they can get away with anything, and if customers think they can get away with anything, they’re going to continue to verbally and physically abuse members of the staff and that can’t continue.”

Balancing Economics and Ethics

Many of these changes can come at a steep cost. For example, The Alembic’s Kulczyk is the first to admit that being able to provide healthcare benefits for her staff can be a stretch financially. And yet she still manages to price her drinks competitively, if not on the lower end for San Francisco ($13 for house cocktails), while maintaining the high quality customers have come to expect.

When it comes to health insurance, Ross points out, “If your company has under 20 full-time employees it becomes very cost-prohibitive to even explore options.” Despite the extra costs involved, Hassan of Sesame Collective says it pays off in the end. “We find that when people have a much more balanced lifestyle, and a balanced workload that the performance gains offset what the potential costs would be.”

Even so, the industry is vast, and as of 2022, still only 31 percent of accommodation and food service workers had access to retirement benefit plans, 30 percent had access to healthcare benefits, 43 percent to paid vacations, and 52 percent to paid sick leave, according to the USBLS.

But Newton is seeing signs of change. “I know of several bars in New Orleans that have implemented 401k packages for their employees as a way to boost retention, as one example of a type of traditional employment benefit that has long been unavailable to service industry workers,” he says. “This is still relatively rare, but adding a robust benefits package is becoming a lot more common than it used to be.”

And Stapleton says he and his colleagues continue to work hard towards their goal of creating “2,030 meaningful and fulfilling careers” at Pouring with Heart by 2030. “We’re trying to make it so bartenders can go home for Christmas and aren’t asked by their aunt or uncle, ‘When are you going to get a real job?’” he says. “We want them to be proud that they work in an industry like ours.”   


Sign up for our award-winning newsletter

Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights—delivered to your inbox every week.

Andrew Kaplan is a freelance writer based in New York City. He was managing editor of Beverage World magazine for 14 years and has worked for a variety of other food and beverage-related publications, and also newspapers. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewkap.

Most Recent