There are many challenges to working in the service industry: long hours, low wage, and physically demanding work, to name a few. While we think that current conversation around the state of the industry is a critical piece in addressing these legitimate concerns, we are also drawn with curiosity and respect to the folks who know these issues intimately and still would not want to be in any other line of work. In this interview series, hospitality industry pros talk to us about why they chose the gig they did, and why they stick with it.
Today we hear from Jeff Savage, Lead Bartender at Botanist (and winner of too many bartending awards to list here), about the concept of hospitality near and far, and the ‘why’ of his choice to work in the industry….
Besides your current position, what’s the best job you’ve ever had in the service/hospitality industry, and why?
Of course I love my job here, but I think many of my fondest memories working behind a bar were at Three Boars. I was on the opening team of this Edmonton bar, and it happened to exist at just the right time and space. We created a simple cocktail program for a city that was in dire need of it, and people flocked to us because of it. We ran a basic bar (with no running water behind it, believe it or not), with a single bartender. We had 14 seats at our tightly-crammed bar, plus a patio and an upstairs dining space. The first few years were unbelievably packed, with people sitting on the stairs to enjoy a drink or lining up down the block to get in. The food was amazing, the drinks were simple and fun, and the service was earnest and approachable.
I particularly remember one specific service: We were a space that was only ever open for evenings, but our chef had come from a few very well-known brunch restaurants. People had asked us time and again to do a brunch, so we did – for one service only. Starting at 8am, people were lined up down the block and around the street. What was particularly important to me is that this was the first time I was able to serve my parents. I had come from academia, and I don’t think they really understood why I had left my job at the University to enter into hospitality. I believe they saw it as a step backwards in my professional life. They were living about three hours away, and I asked them to come visit. They came in at about 11am, and saw the madhouse packed around our little bar, and they were able to walk in and sit down on the two stools right in front of me. They saw how much people appreciated and loved what we were doing, and they saw how happy it made me, and how connected to the community I felt. It clicked for them at that moment, and I’ve never had to explain my career moves to them since. They still talk about it, and discuss how proud they are of what I’ve managed to do since then.
What do you most appreciate about your current organization’s work/staff culture?
Particularly since we have returned from the lockdowns, we have been able to create a culture at our bar that really focuses on the ever-important work-life balance. As much as we love our jobs, it’s also so important to remember that we are not living to work – rather, working to live. Particularly in a city where there are so many wonderful things to enjoy, whether it’s out in nature (as is the case for most of my free time), or enjoying the amazing restaurants we have. Of course there are some weeks when we work more days than normal, but our average is currently a three-day weekend for everyone on the team.
Which aspect of your current job are you the proudest of?
It’s easy to say it’s our Michelin award, and to be fair, it’s something we are incredibly proud of. However, I think the thing that makes me the most proud is when we can win over someone who has had a bad day. When we are able to explain how we operate, what our drinks are like, and deliver something to them that goes above and beyond what they thought we could offer, is what makes me feel the most proud.
There’s a moment that exists in any bar interaction that honestly keeps me going. It’s when a guest enjoys that first sip of their cocktail, where you can see a true, unfiltered reaction. A lighting up of the eyes, a raised brow, a smile – a simple indication that you know you’ve done your job right. Where you know you’ve been able to treat them to something special. Those are the moments I am most proud of, and I am happy to say that they happen with some regularity at our bar.
Tell us one common complaint about working in the industry that rings true for you.
The stresses and strains it puts on your body. All that repetitive strain, standing for hours on end, hustling, lifting, shaking, stirring. I put a lot of effort in with my RMT and my regular wellness practices to combat these issues, but they do get to you. I often have a hard time sleeping because of pains in my neck (literal, not just figurative) or shoulders. We make hundreds of cocktails a day – it’s bound to find ways to affect your body.
That being said, I think there have been a lot of pushes recently for bartenders to become more aware of their bodies, and to focus more on their health and wellness. New programs including online learning, bartender-focused workout classes, and employers taking the time to ensure that their teams are getting enough rest, can all factor into combatting this. Plus, at the end of the day, I still relish in the ability to work on my feet, and to be active as opposed to sitting at a desk on a daily basis.
The service/hospitality industry gets a lot of flack for being really challenging in many ways. Let’s turn that assumption up-side-down: please tell us three aspects that make it enjoyable and/or easier for you, personally.
Oh boy, there’s many! I love my job, and can’t see myself doing anything else. That being said, if I’m going to pick three parts I love about it, I would go with the following:
The ability to meet people. I get the opportunity to engage with hundreds of people on a weekly basis, some of which I know and some of which I get the opportunity to meet. There are so few careers that give you this option, and I deeply cherish it. I get to meet people who are travelling from afar, who are yearning for a new experience and are looking for some guidance in getting there. I get to meet people who come to our bar often and become close, dear friends – more than just regulars. I meet fascinating people who travel into Vancouver to speak at TED or are celebrating a big success in their personal or professional lives. I’ve lost count of the amount of celebrities I’ve been able to meet and get to know. I get to meet so many people in this industry, it’s constantly evolving my personal life. I make new, lifelong friends. I get invited to fun events and experiences. I also fully credit my job for the fact that I’ve never had to get on an app to find a date.
Working with my hands and my heart at the same time. It’s something that my father instilled in me. Not only do I cherish the fact that I get to work creatively and actively to build drinks and experiences for people, I also get to connect with people on a meaningful level. As stated above, I get to hear all about things I may have never known about before, and I get to be an active listener to people who often just need someone to vent to. All of this while being able to stay active, to create, and to physically build things. My father spent his life working as a mechanic and business owner, and I have learned to value the aches and pains that come from a long day of work. I would personally be very unhappy being stuck at a desk all day, and this job offers me the opposite of that.
The ability to travel and work on my own schedule. Travel is such an integral part of what I do both personally and professionally, and this job offers me the flexibility to do so. Of course the adage is that we are stuck on evenings and weekends tending the bar – which is true, but we are also encouraged to travel, to explore, and to be inspired. Yes, I am around for evening services, but I am also able to book time away from the bar to explore the world – perhaps a bit more than the standard two weeks’ vacation.
As someone who travels extensively for work – and, we presume, also for pleasure – you must have encountered a lot of different hospitality styles and customs from other cultures. Can you describe a surprising hospitality-related custom that you appreciated (and possibly even integrated into your own service repertoire)?
I am not sure that I am surprised by the hospitality I experience from around the world – but I am certainly encouraged and humbled by it. I do believe that we as Canadians have a strong sense of hospitality (likely stemming from the fact that it’s often cold and miserable here, and we need that sense of community to get us through those days), but seeing just how far other cultures reach to make a guest feel welcomed is incredibly humbling. I believe that hospitality is a universal language that we all share, and that it transcends borders.
A few things do stand out to me though, like the experience of being welcomed into a bar in Mexico, as well as being brought into people’s homes as a traveler in Turkey. In Mexico, the hospitality community is not only excited to share what they have to offer – they’re downright proud of it (as they should be). That pride is so evident in their offerings, they want you to explore not only their drinks or their rationality behind it, but also the spaces they make it in, the ingredients they choose, and the techniques that they employ. Every bar I was in was so eager to show their work and their team to me, that it felt so connective and earnest. One thing that I remember hearing over and over is bartenders telling me, “This is your home.” That felt so sweet and heartwarming to me. I’m definitely working that into my lexicon.
The second experience I can talk about is travelling throughout Turkey. I finished my schooling in Istanbul, and spent a good chunk of time travelling through the entirety of the country. Once I headed east into the Kurdish regions, I was absolutely overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers. They would invite me to have tea, to talk to them, and to share whatever meals they had prepared. I spent Ramadan on the road throughout the country, and people were so eager to share Iftar with me that I would be brought into their houses to join them. They just wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. It felt as if I was connecting to something beyond myself, which truly felt like the core of what we do in the hospitality world.
What are some of the industry practices that you’ve witnessed from your time spent outside of Canada that you think our local hospitality industry can learn from, and why?
Focusing on the guest experience outside of the bar is really critical in a lot of countries. We are so lucky to be able to visit other places, and each time we go somewhere it feels like an absolute treat when a bartender sends you to their favourite bar/restaurant/market, or when they’ve shared a secret location that a tourist would usually never find out about. This is such a common occurrence in my travels, and it’s something that I think we in Canada should absolutely adopt. I believe it stems from viewing our hospitality as extending beyond our bars and restaurants and focusing further afield. We are so lucky to live where we do, and we are just as lucky to invite visitors into our establishments. Combining those things together to share experiences that showcase the beautiful mosaic that is Canada is something I believe our industry should dearly think about.