On a college campus, few things are as sacred as a Friday night. As the week slips into the weekend, students here in Charlottesville slip out to the Corner, which offers a variety of restaurants and bars to unwind and de-stress at with friends. At 5 p.m. on a Friday, then, the Corner is often bustling — but for student bartenders on the Corner, their work is just beginning.
Bartending shifts that start in the early evening can easily run into mid-morning — leaving the bar at 4 a.m. is not uncommon for these student bartenders. On top of late nights spent at the bar, student bartenders must also balance college classes, assignments, extracurricular activities and other priorities.
Krystian Kinsey, a bartender at The Biltmore and graduate Education student, is also a wrestler on the Virginia wrestling team. He underscored the difficult task of managing a bartending job in addition to other time-consuming commitments.
“You balance it with a lot of caffeine and a lot of grit,” Kinsey said.
The compromise is worth it for these students — the Corner may be their office, but it is also a place where they have found tight-knit communities that have become vital parts of the college experience.
The Corner is home to an eclectic mix of bars and restaurants, each with its own distinct atmosphere. Places such as Boylan Heights cater towards audiences looking to watch Virginia sports games over a pint, while places like Coupe’s are known for their live music from local bands. Despite these differences, Carolyn Grimm, bartender at Boylan and fourth-year Batten student, said that bartenders at these different establishments still share a common bond.
“Being a bartender on the Corner, you kind of get tapped into the network of other bars on the Corner,” Grimm said. “I never really knew a lot of other people who worked at other bars and now I feel like I know a ton, which is kind of cool.”
Apart from offering a community of friends, bartending is often just fun for students. Fourth-year Commerce student Jie Lu, a bartender at The Biltmore, started bartending as a way to explore a fun hobby during her last year at the University while also earning some money.
“It doesn't feel like a job, especially if you're listening to music and vibing and talking to your friends behind the bar,” Lu said. “I think that it's just something fun to do on a weekend…[and] you’re also making money.”
Nights spent at the bar aren’t always so relaxed, however. While weekday shifts are relatively slow, weekends at the bar can be particularly crowded, as University students look to maximize their time off. According to Grimm, this can make what are usually fun shifts somewhat stressful.
“If it's a busy shift...it can be very hectic and be really loud,” Grimm said. “It can be fun. [But] it can be a little overstimulating sometimes, especially when there’s so many people and so many bodies in one space.”
With this dynamic bar environment also comes a creative element of bartending. Ethan Weatherspoon, bartender at The Biltmore and graduate Education student, said that student bartenders sometimes invent drinks on the fly during busy shifts — drinks that may even become popular enough to be added to the menu.
In addition, they also are asked to provide input on ideas to improve the bar from a student’s perspective. The Biltmore’s ongoing revamp, which includes an expansion of their staff, an extended food and drink menu and the promotion of a new general manager, was heavily influenced by suggestions from student bartenders.
To Weatherspoon, the opportunity to provide feedback while bartending is particularly enjoyable.
“It's cool that now we kind of get to be a part of the revamp,” Weatherspoon said. “And also when we leave that's going to be the imprint that's left of us.”
In a bar setting, feeling part of the establishment and its community is especially important. Rowdy or intoxicated customers may threaten their own safety or the bar staff themselves — accordingly, bar staff are trained to recognize and appropriately handle a situation in which a customer is causing or involved in unsafe conditions.
Additionally, Weatherspoon said that the bartenders on shift, along with bouncers and other bar staff, support their fellow employees to keep each other safe.
“If I'm bartending and [my coworkers] feel unsafe…I will stop what I'm doing because obviously my coworkers come first — that's no problem.” Weatherspoon said.
Long nights, noisy customers and sometimes a lack of tips can make bartending difficult for students on the job. However, the community, friendships and fast-paced nature of the position far outweigh the occasional drawbacks for these student bartenders. Grimm says that it’s the unique experience of bartending while being a student that makes the job special.
“Out of all the jobs you could have in college, it has its pros and its cons, but I really love it.” Grimm said.