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The Bittersweet Life of a Bartender

It’s 8:30p.m. at BBC Tavern, and Kendra Haveman Denhardt is behind the bar, solo, trying to serve a slew of customers. There are drinks everywhere, screaming, arrogant drunks, and order tickets spewing out five feet down from the ticket printer. Sighing, Kendra moves from guest to guest, crossing her fingers that it won’t be another complicated, specialty drink order that will take what seems like 5 full minutes to shake up. She wants to scream out for everyone to “shut the fuck up,” – cursing may be the language she has the most practice in – but she remains calm, keeps her cool, and moves on to the next drunk asshole eyeing her down from the other side of the bar

Kendra is all smiles behind the bar

It’s hard to believe that this cool and collected woman was in the hospital nine and a half years ago with her sister beside her warning friends and family to come visit before she passed away. In New York City, Kendra explains, shockingly laughing I have to add, that “some bartender over served me.” After a long night, she fell out of a five-story window. In the accident both of her lungs collapsed, she broke every rib but two, fractured her hip, coccyx, and right hand, and needed chest tubes to pull fluid from her lungs. With the doctors telling her that she was on the road to dying, she put her body into overdrive.

She explained to me, “I had shit to do, a dog and cat waiting at home, and my life was far from being over. I was not going to die in that hospital.” Eleven long days later, Kendra was released from the hospital. And, just two months after a steady recovery, she was back to bartending with the same skills as before, but a hell of a story to go with them.

Needless to say, Kendra decided the day she almost died to live every day like it was going to be her last. She is the polar opposite of soft spoken, has too many tattoos to count, and does whatever she wants without worrying about judgement. Thank God she lived because the world needs people like Kendra around to remind us that are still some genuine and down-to-earth people around. Not to mention, the world would be nothing to many without her sense of humor and genius cocktails.

Despite annoying specialty cocktail orders, drunk customers, and bizarre situations, bartending has value that cannot be replaced by many other jobs. Kendra began working behind the bar at the age of 21, and nearly 22 years later, at the age of 43, she continues to pour excellence behind the bar. Although there may be obstacles to the job, Kendra’s past and present experience with bartending has proven successful, and to this day she shows up to bartend, along with working in a high-end gun store a few doors down, two times a week at a tavern in Greenville, Delaware called Brandywine Brewing Company, or as locals call it, BBC.

Seasonal drafts and bottles © BBC Facebook page

The Tavern doubles as a restaurant, serving lunch, dinner, and Brunch on the weekend. It has an open design, and it is one of the places in Greenville, Delaware where you, without a doubt, will run into someone you know if you choose to walk through the large rustic-style doors. The place is clean cut, has many different types of draft beers, and a large list of seasonal bottles listed high above the bar on a chalkboard so that the costumers sitting at the open-concept bar can all easily choose their poison. The place is welcoming and for many feels like a home away from home. For Kendra, BCC, the other people working there, and her many regulars make it feel like her home away from home, which is one of the many reasons for why Kendra can’t get away from the place.

While two shifts are fewer than the shifts she began with, she remains behind the bar because concocting drinks has become a passion. She explained to me that, “like a cook, once you figure out what ingredients go well together, you can make anything, and that’s what makes the job so fun.” Without having to deal with the burnout qualities of working the bar full-time, Kendra can thrive amongst the coworkers whom she has built lasting relationships with and the many regulars who show up every Tuesday and Wednesday during her shifts.

Kendra off the clock with some of her regulars

During a lunch shift, a man comes through the door, cane in hand, and Kendra spots him and already knows what he wants. She pours the chardonnay and puts it by his regular barstool while he hobbles over to the bar. They don’t chat, the man, she said his name is Bill, is fairly grumpy, quiet, and always alone, but still he comes in every week. Next, Kendra watches as he finishes the chardonnay and, without demand, begins pouring a vodka over ice – his next drink of choice. In between the drinks, she puts in his order of a soup and half sandwich, with a side of mustard that he always wants, despite which sandwich he decides to order. While the man might not be the most pleasant person to serve, he is consistent.

Kendra explains that regulars like these remind her of why the job is worth it, because she always manages to keep them coming back. Once, Bill even left a hundred-dollar tip for Kendra right before she was about to leave to go on vacation. I would not classify the staff uniforms at BBC tavern risqué given they are a simple pair of khaki shorts and a black t-shirt, so I can only conclude that, as Kendra boasts, that it must have been good service.

Good service is one of the things that Kendra’s prides herself most on. Don’t be fooled by the tattoos, tall height, and blunt sense of humor. As someone who has known Kendra for over five years, being that she works for my Dad full-time and two years ago became my neighbor, I can attest that she is the ‘drop everything when someone needs her’ kind of person. Get on her good side, and you are guaranteed lifelong friendship and a few good drinks. Drinks that are not necessarily found on many bar menus.

One of Kendra’s favorite parts of bartending is being able to experiment. Being a lover of challenge, Kendra loves to take a few random ingredients and make them into something amazing. One time she was left to few resources, and desperately needed a drink when she got home, so she found some cherry vodka in the back of her pantry, made a lemon simple syrup, added a little club soda, and viola, she had some spiked cherry lemonade. However, as much as she loves making specialty cocktails on her own time, she warns, “do not order that shit when I’m slammed.”

Kendra’s bar before people start flowing in © BBC Facebook page

Imagine having people screaming orders at you, having drink tickets stacked up like a mountain, and people getting drunker by the minute, and that is what it feels like to be slammed. On a night shift a few years ago, Kendra is behind the bar when there are at least 40 people swarming trying to order their poison. There are four women sitting side by side, gossiping and sipping from their appletinis. “Another round,” they say. Kendra smiles, turns her back towards them, and whispers, “fuck you,” to herself before ringing up the order. She can’t wait to make some time-consuming appletinis in a bar full of thirsty, impatient people.

“It’s people like that who make me feel like I can’t be in this job forever,” she explains. She is fully aware that bartenders do not, and never will, make millions of dollars at the job, but there is something about it that grabs her and always pulls her back. “I’ve made really close friendships, and the good times really do make it worth it. I mean I have a dog, Barry Von Smooch (Barry for short to not sound pretentious), and there is no way I could care for him like I do if I didn’t have the ability to choose my own hours.”

Kendra laughing with one of her coworkers

Don’t be confused and think that working in the service industry guarantees flexible hours because you will be in for a rude awakening. Kendra notes, “I’ve worked at BBC Tavern since their soft opening, 9 years ago. Whenever I go away, I don’t have to worry about having my shift covered because I know there is always going to be someone there to have my back.” Kendra has worked her ass off to get the respect that she has in her workplace, which is something that is not easily done in a job where many of the employees are so flaky and unreliable.

With the many years that she has worked, she has conjured up some really weird stories. On another occasion, Kendra tells me “I was bartending and this couple was there. After I closed their tab and they left, I look in the check book and there was a professional-looking card in it that read, ‘We had a great time. Join us in our hot tub later!’ There wasn’t even a business on the card, just their names and a phone number. I could not stop laughing. I asked her if she went and she quickly responded, “Jesus, no!” She’s single, so I had to ask.

While the drunk patrons, weird customers, and grumpy regulars are all part of the job, Kendra has stuck at it because of her devotion and passion toward the career. She is someone who has broken the stereotype of the typical bartender who shows up late, works only for the pay, and has bad relations with their fellow workers.  Not only is she a woman in a male dominant job, but she is not afraid to speak her mind, ask for what she wants, and at the same time lives by the motto ‘turn that frown upside-down,’ (unless of course you dare to order to 10 lemon drop shots in the middle of the rush). When I asked if she sees herself doing this for more years to come she smiled and told me, “I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow, this weekend, or next month, but I’ll sure as hell be bartending next Tuesday and Wednesday or I’ll give Bill a heart attack.”

All other photos, if not noted, are copyright of Kendra

2 thoughts on “The Bittersweet Life of a Bartender

    1. Barbara,

      I couldn’t agree more. What a fun profile – next time I’m in Delaware, I am definitely making a stop at the BBC. It looks like a great spot!!

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