Bartenders more than just drink masters

Bartenders more than just drink masters

April 28th, 2013 by Casey Phillips in Dish2013

Lisa Bennett has been a bartender at Rhythm & Brews for 10 years.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

They'll keep your mugs frosty and serve you an honest pint, but at bars and restaurants around Chattanooga, bartenders' duties run the gamut from friend and tour guide to confidant and matchmaker.

Lisa Bennett has tended bar for 16 years, 10 of them behind the counter at Rhythm & Brews on Market Street. In recent years, bartenders have faced greater pressure and scrutiny for serving -- or overserving -- patrons. Nevertheless, Bennett says, the main attraction of the job is not knowing who's going to belly up to bar each night, whether it's one of her regulars, local CEOs or celebrities such as LL Cool J and Deion Sanders.

"If I was in an office job or something else, I don't think I would have met people from around the world like I have tending bar," she says. "You would think these are just ordinary, average people coming in, but we've met some superstars, too."

Across the river in North Shore, Brewhaus has offered up a wide variety of domestic and imported beers since it opened its doors in September 2011. John Carr took up bartending duties there in 2012 after the doors closed at Table 2, his previous employer.

The job certainly has its tougher moments, he says, such as wrangling 60- to 170-pound kegs up a flight of steps to change out a tap. But Carr agrees that it's the people who make the job worth doing.

Like many bartenders, he's had his share of rough customers who want to start trouble, but on the whole, he says, the wide variety of responsibilities behind the bar keeps things interesting.

"You have regulars who come in by themselves who want someone to talk to," he says. "Then you have people who are new to the city and don't know where to go, so then you play the role of tour guide.

"You just have fun with it. It's my favorite job in the world."

Carr also enjoys learning as much as he can about the beers he has on tap at Brewhaus, which frequently updates its offerings. That requires a lot of outside "research," he says. That work soon will pay off since he is set to leave Brew-haus to bartend and oversee the beer program at Flying Squirrel, a Main Street bar that will open this spring.

Working bar means a lot of late nights, but Carr and Bennett say the job has been a perfect fit for their lives.

Bennett, a mother of two, says she has served for so long largely because her work schedule actually helped keep her family together.

"I got to hang out with my kids at school," she says. "I got to go to their programs and be involved -- be a parent -- and still be able to work.

"I have no regrets. Bartending has been great. It helped me raise my kids."

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfree or 423-757-6205.