The life of a bar back

A food critic’s exhausting, debasing and intermittently educational stint as a bar back.

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Photograph: Brian Sorg

Cutting the ice for the evening's drinks

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Photograph: Brian Sorg

Russell Woelfel, bar back at Scofflaw

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Photograph: Brian Sorg

The bar back uses a saw, knife and chisel to cut ice by hand.

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Photograph: Brian Sorg

Malort is on tap at Scofflaw.

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Photograph: Brian Sorg

Russell Woelfel, bar back at Scofflaw

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Photograph: Brian Sorg

Boo-boos happen on the job sometimes.

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Photograph: Brian Sorg

Carrying Kold-Draft ice upstairs to the bar

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Photograph: Brian Sorg

Russell Woelfel takes a moment to acknowledge a customer.

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Photograph: Brian Sorg

Woelfel eyes patrons at Scofflaw.

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Photograph: Brian Sorg

Ice-cutting tools

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Photograph: Brian Sorg

Woelfel juices lemons.

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Photograph: Brian Sorg

Woelfel takes guests' orders.

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Photograph: Brian Sorg

Cleaning glasses

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Photograph: Brian Sorg

Drink orders

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Photograph: Brian Sorg

Russell Woelfel

Andy Gould leads me to Scofflaw’s basement, pulls a saw, chef’s knife and chisel off a magnetic wall strip and secures a clean plastic cutting board with a damp, orange-striped rag. Gould is a partner in Scofflaw, which opened on the west edge of Logan Square in March. He’s also a woodworker and, though not an especially big guy, built like a tree trunk. He makes sawing perfect rectangles of ice look like sharpening a pencil.

For people not of his density, cutting ice is significantly more challenging. If you freeze water in a plastic tub the size of a roasting pan, the resulting 3.5-inch-thick block of ice becomes bulbous at the center. First, you use a chisel to scrape the warped part down to an even plane. Then you use the chisel as a measuring stick, marking an indent every two inches. Then you use a saw. And if you’re me, you have never before used a saw, and you cannot just run the ridged instrument back and forth as if you were slicing bread. You must engage the arm muscles, and if you have nothing of the sort (ahem), you must throw your back into it. You will sweat. I did, anyway.

The process takes five minutes. It takes an hour. I have no idea. At some point, I have a block of ice marked with sawed divets, and to those I take a chef’s knife, and with firm presses I separate a row, and from the row I break off a single cube. I use the chisel to tidy up the edges. Following Gould’s lead, I drop the ice cube into a tumbler, twirling it around with my (gloved) index finger to ensure it fits. I repeat the process a dozen times, then set to work on the next tub. At last, I bring a batch of the hand-cut cubes upstairs to the bar, already a third full with patrons, my chest containing no small amount of pride.

Danny Shapiro, one of Gould’s partners and Scofflaw’s head bartender, motions to the sleeve of my baby-pink T-shirt: “You got something on you.” I look at my left shoulder, covered in a schmutz of blush and mascara from my fairly arduous brow wiping. I quietly resign myself to the reality that this—sweaty and disheveled—is how I am going to present myself for my first day of work as a bar back.

A couple of months prior, there’d been a night when I’d had too much to drink, and I’d confessed to Shapiro, who’d become an acquaintance, that since I’d started covering cocktails as a restaurant critic for this magazine, I’d secretly wanted to work behind the bar to learn how to make the drinks I enjoyed writing about. What I didn’t expect was that he’d ask, “When do you want to start?”

The first problem was I had no idea what a bar back actually did. After my first 12 hours working at Scofflaw (I ended up working six shifts), I can tell you: It’s someone who does every single thing behind the bar except make cocktails. The schedule at Scofflaw is typical: From 3–5pm the bar back sets up the bar, restocking liquor bottles, bottling syrups and—primarily—juicing lemons and limes. From 1:30–2:30am (an hour later on Saturdays), the bar back breaks down the bar, cleaning the last of the dishes and wiping down every surface. In between, it goes something like this:

It is my job to greet bar patrons and hand them a menu, immediately pour them a glass of water and ensure the glass remains full for the duration of their stay, lest I enjoy Shapiro’s good-natured-slash-bitterly-hateful chiding. It is my job to take drink orders from those guests. Meanwhile, the servers place drink tickets from tables at the far end of the bar, and it is my job to grab those orders. If the order is for a beer, wine, shot, straight spirit or simple mixed drink, it is my job to make it. Here, even a gin and tonic is precise: a 1.5-ounce jigger of gin and four Kold-Draft ice cubes, topped off with Fentimans tonic water, a lime on the rim and a straw.

If the order is for a cocktail, I write down the bar seat or table number and abbreviated name of the drink on a ticket pad next to the appropriate bartender. Once the drink is made, I cross it off the bartender’s list, deliver it to the patron at the bar and either give him or her change or add it to a tab, which I most likely need to start. Or, if the drink is for a table, I match the drink to its ticket and set it at the end of the bar where the servers wait. The tickets from servers stack up so quickly it makes my stomach drop to even look in their direction—and this is a Sunday.

Shapiro should always have on hand about a half-dozen lemon and orange peels, in separate cups. If they run low, I am somehow, in between washing glassware, pouring shots and—to Shapiro’s mild annoyance—chatting with customers, supposed to notice this, stop whatever I’m doing and peel a piece of fruit. He should have a bottle of each of the relevant syrups—grenadine, orgeat, demerara, simple—within arm’s reach. He should always have shaved ice, Kold-Draft ice and “big rocks” (a.k.a. the hand-sawed blocks). If he runs low—as each bartender will, about three times a night—I must dash downstairs, fill two buckets, run back up, lift each 30-pound bucket to shoulder height and invert them, one at a time, into the bartender’s bin while pretending not to notice onlookers who seem dubious of my strength and abilities.

For all of this, Scofflaw pays two rates, depending on how many bar backs are working and how much experience they have: $15–$20 per hour (depending on the day of the week), or about $13–$15 per hour. Both of these figures include a cut of the tips. (Because I was working at Scofflaw for research, I did not accept payment.) These rates are generous by the cocktail-industry standard, which bar backs I talked to say evens out to $9–$14 per hour after tips. Though the sad truth about bars is that, both in my experience and that of industry vets, many people tip the same whether the bartender opens a PBR or spends five minutes making a drink with 20 ingredients: one buck.

I knew going into this that bar backing would entail a steep learning curve. But I could not have anticipated it would feel as though I were traversing this curve blindfolded, so unfamiliar with the practices and standards of the profession that my tenure would be defined by a series of mistakes I didn’t even know I was making. “Your coins are…rustic,” Shapiro says of the nickel-shaped circles of lemon peel whose oils are expressed into martinis. “It’s a start,” he says of my slim (if not exactly straight) lime wheels. And then there’s the lesson in peeling oranges—pull from one end of an orange to the other to create a swath of rind, about an inch thick and three inches long, that is twisted to express its oils and dropped into drinks as a garnish. I am confident I’ve mastered this until I see a customer (a fairly well-known bartender himself) pick his orange peel out of the glass and hold it up to his buddies, laughing. The peel, split in the middle, looks like a vagina.

By 2:30am, my lower back feels as if it has metal pins for bones. I’ve been standing for 12 hours. I help wash the bartenders’ mixing glasses and jiggers, clean under the grates, scoop the remaining ice away and take the fruit bowl downstairs, where Shapiro is in the office. I sit in a chair, but that only digs the imaginary metal pins deeper into my lower back. I pour my chest over my thighs and let my head hang between my knees. “Is it okay if we talk like this?”

Shapiro doesn’t seem to mind. “When do you want to come back?” he asks.

This question surprises me even more than the fact that Shapiro offered to let me work here in the first place. I was sure once he realized I wasn’t bullshitting—that every single tiny thing a bar back needs to do is going to have to be explained to me, in detail, and probably at least twice—he would change his mind.

“When can I?”

“Whenever you want.”

“Wednesday?”

“I’ll be here.”

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