Liquid Linguistics

What is a barback?

This one's pretty basic. Barbacks set up, close down, replace empty bottles, fill ice baskets and pour an occasional drink.

Well, that's how we'd answer this week's Burning Question if someone hired us to write daily briefings for, oh, a world leader with little tolerance for nonlinear expression who doesn't really care to read much anyway--except the odd children's book, perhaps.

Now, if we filled column space at The Dallas Morning News, we'd crank out vanilla feel-good affirmations such as the story of Jesus Ortiz, a longtime bar grunt who earned a spot serving drinks at Cuba Libre. Or perhaps an uplifting feature on Tito Ramirez, a little guy hobnobbing with pretty people while stocking shelves at Dragonfly. Ooh--imagine us working for D "special advertising section" magazine. We could spend our days entering smug comments for their popular blog, FrontBurner, and never deal with barbacks at all.

Unless there was a Jessica Simpson angle, of course.

Instead, we'd like to answer this week's Burning Question with a question: Who is more valuable to a company, the CEO or the janitorial staff?

Think about it for a moment. If the big guy takes off for a month to cruise the Mediterranean on funds "borrowed" from corporate coffers, nothing changes. Business continues apace. Should the cleaning crew load up and head out for a fun-filled time at Dollywood, however, festering mounds of detritus would quickly overwhelm the place.

Like janitors, barbacks provide a critical service. "This place wouldn't operate with any level of efficiency without him," says Dragonfly's Chris Michael of Ramirez. Once, the diminutive barback took a six-week break and "the place just about collapsed." Bar staff filling his role sometimes fled to the storage room and curled up in a fetal position.

"They do our dirty work," adds Chris Bullard, bartender at The Old Monk. "I really credit them for 60 percent of what we do."

There are only a few top-notch barbacks in Dallas, and bar staff consider newcomers with a critical eye. "You gotta prove how good you are," acknowledges longtime grunt Freddy Zarraga of Seven and The Men's Club. On our visit to The Old Monk, a novice barback forced bartenders to scramble around, slowing drink service. Good ones prepare the space before doors open then anticipate events throughout the night. "He's there before you are, he's there after you leave and when you're there he's right behind you," says Eddie Germann, bartender at Seven and The Men's Club. A skilled bartender/barback team operates like experienced dance partners on a Broadway stage or a pit crew at Daytona.

"The good ones are a lot like a pretty blond girlfriend," Germann continues. "You don't know how much you need them until they're gone."

Actually, when bartenders discover a stellar support person, they hang on tightly. When taking a new job, most even bring their barback along. "You lose one guy, but you're really losing two," explains Ben Caudle of Hibiscus.

It's a symbiotic relationship, really. A strong backup person often expands a bartender's income potential. In turn, drink servers compensate their barbacks well--generally handing over about 25 percent of tips each night, sometimes more. "With a good one, I'll split the money evenly," claims Adam Salazar, bartender at Nikita and Seven. "It's worth it to me not to have to do all that stuff."

Yep, basic grunt work, in this case, pays off. "The bartender has to make good money to tip you," Zarraga says. "Bartenders are pretty fair."

In addition to his behind-the-scenes work, Zarraga serves drinks at both clubs. "It's different at every bar," he says. "Some let us make drinks; some don't think we know how to do it." Ortiz hauled ice and stocked shelves for seven years before accepting a spot at Cuba Libre. "The first place never let me make drinks," he recalls. "Here I did a martini drink and gave out samples." Patrons began clamoring for more and, shortly thereafter, management promoted Ortiz to bartender.

"It all depends on the bar," Salazar adds. "In general, most don't pour drinks."

For many years people learned the bartending trade after years of support work. "It's a great place to start," Caudle points out. "The only way to truly learn what goes on behind a bar is to be behind a bar." Or under it, in the Burning Question crew's case. Nowadays, however, managers prefer to transfer waitstaff to the bar. Or hire directly from bartending schools.

And why not? The barback position, Michael says, "is too important to give to some 18-year-old kid. None of them last a week."

"I see bartenders who go to school," Ortiz counters, "but they don't have a practical side."

That's about it. Incidentally, our CEO/janitor question was a last-minute replacement. We almost started with something about the relative value of editors and writers. But our editor made a very strong point--hence the change.

 
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