The ringing of the food-bell, the jingle of the gaming machines, the smell of stale beer and ammonia in the ancient carpet, the foot-sore feeling at the 8th hour. These are the sensations synonymous with working in a Sydney pub.
Like many, I’m a student working in hospitality and, upon reflection, I’ve noticed that when two fellow hospo workers find themselves in conversation, it always leads inexorably to horror stories. There’s a certain catharsis, a validation and sense of comradery that comes from airing each other’s baggage. And it’s generally always the same: mind games and explosive outbursts from customers and management: ripped off, burnt out, jaded, and missing their superannuation.
Earlier this year, hospo dons and owners of the Mary’s Group, Jake Smyth and Kenny Graham copped some flak after labelling the young hospitality industry workers of today as “Self-entitled.” They blamed an “over-correction” for this perceived change in attitude. Smyth went so far as to say, “Work-life balance … is one of the most dangerous terms young people have been introduced to.” Former Mary’s Group staff members kicked back, citing a toxic culture of substance abuse within Mary’s Group venues, as well as some pretty bad behaviour from both Jake and Kenny. Speaking to Triple J’s Hack, they made mention of deteriorating mental health, chairs being thrown, and verbal and physical confrontation sometimes accompanied by an apologetic shot of Jack Daniels. One former worker stated that, “You never knew what mood they were in, if they were high or hungover. If they had been to a bad meeting or they had problems you would know about it.” Another remarked that “(They) don’t think it was ever acknowledged that working gnarly hours, drinking and doing drugs all the time, had any effect on us really.” Like a Gen X comedian faced with the wrath of the youth, Jake and Kenny were quick to blame “cancel culture,” though I’m not so sure that’s the issue here. I’m not here to cancel Jake and Kenny, nor psychoanalyse the millennial man-child. Rather, I found this story to be indicative of a wider collective experience working behind the bar, lobby or on the floor. The stories I’ve heard, as well as my own experience, can attest that this is not just a Mary’s Group Problem, but an industry problem.
I was 18 when I got my first bar job. My starry-eyed innocence was extinguished after being sent into the pokies to spray wipe around a tradie doubled over a machine, crying into his hands. He got a free coke. I’d go 3-4 weeks without pay, with it sometimes coming straight out the till. The general manager would switch between smugness and red-faced rage, and the head-chef employed a miserable cheap sarcasm that was impossible to interpret. The Hotel went into liquidation and the owner, who resembled a Dickensian villain, took off with wages left unpaid. The next place had Live, Laugh, Love-like phrases plastered on the walls. I got a call from their accounting agency claiming they’d overpaid me and wanted the money. I told them I’d spent it all and never worked there again. The third place I worked garnered a local patronage of conservative retirees and broken adults who were all too comfortable airing broken marriages with a 19-year-old.
It became clear to me that a certain kind of apathy is fundamental in facilitating legal vices. I found that a dark sense of humour, tinged with misanthropy was a coping mechanism used by those who had been in the business for a long time. On nights out, hospo veterans tend to push it to the absolute limit with a nihilistic vigour, using multiple substances, often disgracing themselves. They too become the broken adults. Bar work can be a delight sometimes. It feels rare and special that I now work at a venue where the staff are friends, the management is empathetic and understanding, and employment laws are obeyed. It charms me to no end when a local brings in homegrown vegetables and Coles Magazines he’s found on the street. Serving your friends and having staff drinks after a long night is a joy. But this isn’t the case for most.
In the case of Jake and Kenny, neither are naïve. They’ve spent decades working their way up through the industry in an era when Sydney was at its nightlife zenith. They themselves are aware of the existence of such malignance, claiming on their podcast to be of the last generation to experience Gordon Ramsay-like abuse. Obviously, they’ve learnt nothing. This largely non-unionised industry shows young casuals what people are like at their worst. So, if you see a bartender or any other hospitality worker with a grim look on their face, know that a noxious mix of neoliberal hustle-culture work ethic and good old convict alcoholism has generated an environment of misanthropy, mistrust, and exploitation.
This must change, but in the meantime, please be nice to your bartender.