Lessons on life and leadership from happy hour to last call
Bartender Ariana Rios pours up an order at Chasers 2.0 in Madison. Photography by Kalli Anderson
There’s a running joke in New York City. When you tell somebody you’re an actor or a dancer, they ask at what restaurant.
At least that’s according to Helen Rothberg, who says she got to where she is now after bartending and serving her way through life, making up for what she didn’t have in money with moxie.
“From all my consulting and all my teaching, the truth is everything I do, I’m just bartending,” says Rothberg, now professor of strategy at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and author of “The Perfect Mix: Everything I Know About Leadership I Learned as a Bartender.” “It’s the same skills. … Everything I know about management and leadership, everything I do is really bartending.”
In fact, she learned so many lessons from bartending that she developed a model to train executives of a multitude of Fortune 500 companies: action, determination, vision, integrity, communication and empathy, which form the acronym ADVICE.
The Tavern League of Wisconsin reported that more than 161,000 jobs in the state are generated by the alcohol industry, many of which are filled by bartenders. For Rothberg, bartending offers them more useful career experience than any internship they could’ve chosen. Through their most notable tales in the night’s darkest hours, these bartenders have learned Rothberg’s leadership lessons to take with them into their professional careers.
“From all my consulting and all my teaching, the truth is everything I do, I’m just bartending.”
— Helen Rothberg
(A)ction: “Do more, say less.”
Behind the industrially remodeled bar at what used to be a bank on the east side of the Wisconsin state Capitol is Sawyer Barron. He’s been in the industry since he was 18 years old, working his way up from barbacking — dropping off waters and cleaning up dishes — to bartending and managing at Lucille, a locally-sourced cocktail, beer and pizza venue.
Since the coronavirus emerged and required patrons to wear masks for the last year and a half, the scene hasn’t looked the same from his side of the bar. Barron says that after the pandemic slightly simmered down in early 2021 and Lucille reopened its doors last June, there has been a fight every single night on the block — almost like people have forgotten how to behave themselves.
“They like to over-consume. And there’s not the maturity that once was,” says Barron, now 26 years old. Despite this, he continues to do the most with his actions for everyone in the surrounding Main Street bartending community. “I wouldn’t hesitate to jump out from behind this bar and go behind Tipsy Cow and just stand there and make sure that everyone’s okay.”
(D)etermination: “Get things done with civility and ingenuity.”
On the west side of the Capitol is bartender Caity Mongeluzo. With a 5-foot frame and a beaming smile masking her cheerful, raspy voice, you couldn’t think of a better job fit for her personality if you tried.
Although she’s now working at Madison’s newest joint for the college crowd, Chasers 2.0, this is not her first gig serving drinks. Now 20, Mongeluzo started bartending the summer after her senior year of high school, first at a Long Island concert venue, then eventually a Hamptons bar this past summer.
“I met Russians, I met people from Switzerland, I met English folks. It was constantly new and changing,” Mongeluzo says. While she worked with a great variety of cultures, the same went for socioeconomic statuses.
Her learning of civility came into play in the face of financial concerns on her own side of the wooden bar slab.
While the affluent residents of the Hamptons could afford to throw away large sums of cash, Mongeluzo says her co-workers there were looking to rake in enough money within two or three months to keep up with rent for the entire year. Yet despite this, she became determined to find ways to take it in stride.
“Financial and economic stress is one of the top causes of depression in the United States, in the world,” Mongeluzo says. “It’s something that I wasn’t struggling with at the time and so I didn’t judge people for how they acted when they were struggling with it, because maybe I would have reacted the same way.”
“All of it came from being in control of something that is always almost out of control.”
— Helen Rothberg
(V)ision: “Know where you’re going and turn the lights on for others.”
Alex Mack is just a block and a half away from Mongeluzo at Whiskey Jack’s Saloon, a Wild West themed bar with a big dance floor, mechanical bull and a lengthy menu of unique shots. She started working there in February 2021 and says keeping up with the crazy hours wasn’t a problem for a night owl like her. However, it’s between the hours of 1 and 2 a.m. when she’s noticed the most eye-opening incidents concentrate.
“European men come up to me while I’m working behind the bar and offer me hard drugs,” Mack says. No matter by whom and with what she’s presented with, she always knows what is ethical during these hours and makes sure to shine light on it for other customers, too.
Ultimately, Rothberg says having a vision of what is right, like Mack, is a trait that can shape careers — especially for women. When men assumed she was the support person walking into their boardrooms in the ’80s and ’90s, she learned how to give people the stink eye.
“They ain’t bothering me. … All of that came from behind the bar. I’m not kidding,” Rothberg says. “All of it came from being in control of something that is always almost out of control.”
(I)ntegrity: “Tell the truth all the time and own your own sh*t.”
Mongeluzo has learned to stand her ground in the face of difficult customer service lessons learned during these hours of peak bargoer booziness.
“Even if you’re smiling and you’re being yourself, that can be taken as a little flirty, and drunk guys are so aggressive and they don’t understand,” Mongeluzo says.
It’s happened to her on more than one occasion. The most notable time was in the face of an authority on the opposite side of the bar top — the host of a group event.
At first, she learned his drink order and smiled along to his frisky attempts. “If someone flirts with you in public and you don’t want them, you’re very clear about it. But when you’re a bartender, you’re trying to get a tip,” Mongeluzo says.
But as he motioned for her to lean over to whisper something in her ear, things took a turn for the worse.
“He’s not saying anything, and when I looked at him, he kissed me. I don’t want to say that’s like … it is, it is sexual harassment,” Mongeluzo says. After brushing it off and continuing to do her job, she almost immediately realized her authority.
“When he came back, I just kind of didn’t give him the time of day, even though he was running the party, and he was the one paying us in the end,” Mongeluzo says.
Although no professional ramifications ensued for either party, she has since changed the way she acts when bartending to what she describes as a “bro girl” and makes her disinterest in any romantic connections extremely clear.
“When you’re a bartender, so little of it really is about knowing how to mix drinks, especially if you’re in a smaller neighborhood place, and so much more about it is understanding how to read somebody.”
— Helen Rothberg
(C)ommunication: “Try to create meaning.”
Barron has never been one for social media platforms, but he finds his bartending job has created enough meaning to replace this aspect of modern digital life.
“This is my social media, but it’s like bar media,” Barron says about both his regulars and other bartenders on the block. “You get to talk back and forth … It’s just something that you don’t really get in day-to-day life, especially at work.”
However, the true bartending communication test for Rothberg is making people feel noticed in conversation while realistically paying them little attention.
“You do that in those subtle ways of bringing them into the story or rolling your eyes at somebody, or making a face or smiling,” Rothberg says. “Whatever it is you do, you develop that communication with your regulars.”
(E)mpathy: “Dare to care.”
No matter how long bartenders like Barron, Mongeluzo and Mack remain in this service role, Rothberg is certain that being able to shapeshift throughout their careers by applying the ADVICE model comes down to caring most about the customer.
“When you’re a bartender, so little of it really is about knowing how to mix drinks, especially if you’re in a smaller neighborhood place, and so much more about it is understanding how to read somebody,” Rothberg says.
For Mongeluzo, creating a shot named after herself for more than 30 people one night was not only her way of feeling what the room needed, but what makes it worth all the sleepless hours.
“Moments like those that come out of nowhere that make the job what it is and makes me keep going back every weekend, every night, pushing myself past humanly possible limits,” Mongeluzo says.
And while Madison’s bartenders may not look like they are serving the same experiences as the dancers and actors of New York City, they may be much more similar than at first glance — just like Mila Kunis, Bruce Willis and Sandra Bullock and other entertainers who once stood in their shoes.