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Beyond The Pass | It All Started With A Margarita

Beyond The Pass | It All Started With A Margarita

You know how it is. You kick around the corporate life for a while, fake laughing at some tame, water cooler material and trying to figure out a way to make the days go by a little quicker.

But there’s something so bland about it all, that you eventually don’t turn up for work one day, confident that your temp agency will understand and place you into another bottom-of-the-ladder position, starting tomorrow, because they too understand your need for stimulation. 

No? Just me?

Yeah, that’s what I figured. Obviously, I was blacklisted and would never work another day as an office temp. A vengeful rage began building up inside of me (and I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next, Hays Recruitment!).

But it did leave me in a bit of a pickle.

You see, I was on a working holiday visa (yeah, the same visa that all of those perpetually struggling swimmers in Bondi are on), and that meant that I had some employment limitations that made finding a full-time job a bit tricky. Namely, I could only legally work at a place for six months, and then I had to go.

I couldn’t get any temp work. That ship had sailed. But the rent wasn’t going to stop, and I was running through my savings pretty quickly.

Where was I going to find a job that didn’t care for government limitations on maximum employment periods? Or polite workplace humour? Or a fully transparent pay structure?

Well, there’s really only one industry that provides that kind of arrangement. And look, I didn’t particularly want to do it, and I hated the idea of losing my weekends, but what choice did I have?

I promised myself that this was only temporary. I’ll keep looking for a job in my field. You wait, I’ll be in and out of this industry in the blink of an eye!

Isn’t that how we all got our start in hospo?

So, there I was. I turned up for my first shift, unenthused and unsure about what I was getting myself into.

I’d managed to land a gig behind the bar in a Mexican joint, with one of the weakest CVs humanity has ever known, helping out a seasoned pro. 

It was the kind of place you’d wipe your feet before you left. Where the light of the sun never touches, and every corner is dark and mysterious. The kind of place where you’d get a shot of tequila, even though you ordered water (legally, we had to serve water), and the good times just seem to appear out of thin air. Think of it like Coyote Ugly, but with way more piñatas, and way less LeAnn Rimes.

I’ll never forget the look on my new work mate’s face when he found out I’d never worked behind a bar before. But I was all he had, so we both (silently) agreed to try and make the best out of an unwanted situation.

Beyond the pass shocked coworkerHe walked me through how to make a margarita, and that’s when it clicked. The beautiful simplicity in taking a few separate ingredients, and making them so much more than the sum of their parts is a feeling I’ll never forget. His nod of approval sealed the deal.

It’s not often you can trace something so abstract back to its source, but I knew that this very moment was when I felt a spark where there was nothing before. I was hooked.

We got onto learning the rest of the menu, and by the time the doors opened, I was about six cocktails deep, and flying!

The shift was electric. The place was packed, the bar was always 3 deep (something I’d soon learn was standard), and the booze flowed like the Rio Grande. I could see this being the beginning of a beautiful partnership, like Holmes & Watson, or Turner & Hooch.

And then he quit.

I had one weekend’s worth of shifts under my belt before I was promoted to Bar Manager (read: lone barman), and those crowds I’d dealt with alongside my short-lived mentor would be mine, and mine alone come Friday night.

What could I do though, really?

I couldn’t quit. I was all in. Never before had I felt such a rush as when we were deep in the weeds. Seeing the orders coming and going with smooth regularity is a drug that can make six hours feel like one. And then at the end of it all, you lock the doors, crack a beer and clean up. Heaven.

So, over the next year I kept going, building up my skill set (and alcohol tolerance), working on my banter, and getting paid via a cheque made out to ‘CASH’ because the owner couldn’t be bothered counting out the pay.

But the time comes in every person’s life when they need some provable income. 

I wasn’t going back to an office. I couldn’t, not after I’d gotten a taste of that sweet hospo life. 

Everything else seemed so sterile in comparison. But I had to go somewhere, and so I said a teary goodbye to my dirty, booze-filled slice of Mexican paraíso, and hello to (shudders) corporate hospitality.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve had a group interview before, but it’s kind of like a guided tour through a venue, where the tour guide is the guy who’s doing the hiring (he’s also the guy who cut you off last Saturday), and is now trying to make twenty timid uni students laugh with some absolutely subpar material. It’s awkward, it’s boring, and it’s most definitely a red flag for how little a business will value you as an individual, should you be hired. If they can’t even show you the respect of a one-on-one interview, they’re not gonna be good people.

But, as is usually the case in hospo, I needed the work, so I bit my tongue and pushed on. Even when he got me to teach the rest of the tour how to make a mojito and I smashed a full cocktail at 11 in the morning. During a job interview.

And even though I had a year’s worth of high-traffic cocktail making experience, I was hired as a weekend glassy. I had to go around picking up empties and taking them back to bar staff who didn’t know their reposado from their añejo, whilst they shouted at me for something. I don’t know what, I couldn’t hear myself think in that place.

Looking back though, the freedom of being a glassy is criminally underrated. Think about it, you don’t have to serve anybody, you don’t have to handle money, you can walk around and stretch your legs, and I was getting paid the same as the bar staff? Sign me up!

Alas, the call came though. I was to be rostered on the cocktail bar. Goodbye, glassy work, you under-appreciated wonder. You’re way too beautiful for this world anyway!

I spent about four months behind that cocktail bar making some of the worst drinks I’d ever been forced to make. 

This was in the era of everything being filled with fruit, and ice, and sugar syrup, and then blended into some god-awful technicoloured nightmare. Give it a tacky name and charge twenty bucks to anybody soulless enough to buy one. I tried to make the menu more respectable, but head office had a strict policy of never listening to their staff, so I was on a non-starter. After all, what would some guy who single-handedly manned a busy cocktail bar know over a bloke in Tarocash who can’t even pour a pint?

Again, I needed the money. It’s a repeating pattern in the hospo industry, the things we tolerate for a steady pay cheque.

So I did what any absolute idiot would do, and I applied for a position in management. 

Graeme enters managementIt was salaried and full-time. I’d have holiday pay (ha, like I could take a holiday), and maybe, just maybe, I could action some changes around the place.

How dumb was I?

My life now consisted of things like trying to find out why a till that had taken $5k that night was $12 down (god forbid a tired uni student made a mistake when handling money in the dark), or helping security wrangle some violent drunks until the cops turned up.

I was given absolute graveyard shifts (read: daytime work) where I was under constant surveillance from the office. But it also gave me a glance at how a big venue is run (they get the occasional thing right).

Pretty soon I was running shifts in a 1200 capacity venue where only 18 months before I’d been clearing tables. I was miserable, and the tone deaf higher ups were a nightmare to work for, but it was steady money, which was good as I had a wedding to pay for.

Remember when I said I had holiday pay? Well, I booked two weeks off to get married, and plan a move closer to the city, where I’d eventually look for work. My boss didn’t like that idea, so on my final shift before going off to get hitched, he sat me down, and told me my two weeks vacation (again, to GET MARRIED) was to be considered my notice. Such a betrayal. I felt like Rob Stark.

But I took the knife out of my back, and got ready to serve one last time. And let me tell you, never before have the punters been so generously served in the history of hospitality. 

I’m not usually one for burning bridges, but they had it coming. It was a one-time lapse in professionalism, and I’m not particularly proud of any of it. But every time I think of how I was treated, I regret nothing.

I got hitched, and moved to the city. But I was without a job. Again.

Deciding I needed a change of pace (and my nights back), I looked around the local cafes for work. Surely a guy who’d overseen 1200 rowdy drunks for a living could be of some service to somebody?

I landed a job in a local cafe. I was going back to the floor because no amount of cocktail making experience can help you make a decent coffee.

Graeme goes back to the floorBut I didn’t mind. I was happy again.

Gone were the demanding requests of a corporate train of thought. The drunken public was something I could now glady participate in, rather than shepherd. I was free of responsibility for the 1st time in years. I could connect with the community again, and on a much more approachable level than corporate hospo ever allowed.

Ah, if only it could’ve stayed that way.

But it didn’t, it seldom does.

As is the recurring theme of my hospo career, I just said yes to everything. Work extra shifts? Yep. Help out in the other stores? Sure. Manage the place? You got it. And that’s how I ended up a venue manager again, this time after only a month, a new personal record. How the hell did that happen?

And everything was great, and Graeme lived happily ever after.

Yeah, okay mate.

I had owners that were so hot & cold, I never knew what version of them was going to turn up that day. I had to quickly grow some thicker skin. Staff turned over quicker than anywhere I’d ever seen. It seemed like every few weeks I was told to fire somebody and hire new people for the tiniest things. I knew I had to keep myself seemingly indispensable if I was to survive such a perilous workplace.

And that got me thinking. Is it really sustainable to keep working in an atmosphere so peppered with the bullets I had dodged? I don’t know about you, but I dreaded going into work each day because I didn’t know if my boss was going to be the friendly guy I had drinks with on Saturday night, or the cold, distant guy who was one lukewarm, anonymous Google review away from firing me.

That feeling of zero job security had been a recurring theme throughout my hospo career, so far. It makes sense when you think about it because, if they do decide to let you go, who are you gonna call? You can’t prove you were an employee there because there’s no record of you being paid. Your boss knows it’s not worth your time, and that’s even if you can afford the legal battle.

But here’s the thing; most places seemed to be like this. They all worked from the same playbook. Hire on the spot, pay cash, and let go on a whim.

So, for every dressing down I received for something minor and out of my control, it fed my desire for not being that guy. I’d daydream about being the kind of boss that takes a beat and takes in the whole picture before reacting. That’s the kind of person I’d want to work for.

I knew what needed to be done. I had to open my own place. I’d been in the game for far too long now, there was nowhere else to go but up, and ownership was the next rung on that ladder. I was in this for life.

And the blame lies solely with that one damned margarita.

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