I'm a Female Bartender in Iowa City

Who has seen you at your worst? Your parents? Hardly. Your best friend? Not quite. Your therapist? Nope. Your bartender, on the other hand, has seen you at your highest highs and your lowest lows. They have seen you after every break-up, promotion, and messy Friday night, and they know more about you than you’d think. And yet, do you treat them the same way you’d treat your parents? Your best friend? Your therapist?

As a female bartender, we experience it all. From creepy customers to fantastic tippers to dads who’ve had a few too many drinks, here’s what it’s like being a female bartender in Iowa City. 

I’m a bartender at Van B’s Bar on Van Buren and Washington Street. I’ve only had the job for six months, yet I’ve already had plenty of interesting experiences. In addition to my own personal experience, I reached out to my coworkers and other female bartenders in the area to compile a collection of our stories.

Harry Potter World Leaky Cauldron Jocelyn Hsu / Spoon

Fast-Paced Environment

Bartending is a fast-paced job, especially in a college town. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights wear holes through your sneakers and cause pit stains on your favorite tops, but it’s all worth it in the end. For many bartenders, the fast-paced atmosphere is the best part of the job. You get to meet hundreds of people in a matter of a few hours, having dozens of micro-conversations in the process. You make a thousand drinks and walk ten thousand steps, but the hours pass by in an instant. 

Leah Mary, a cocktail waitress at Sports Column, agrees that the fast-paced environment is her favorite part of the job. Having experience in the food industry as a waitress, she describes her past employment as nothing compared to working as a waitress in a college town like Iowa City. Being on her feet all day is just a small sacrifice in the greater reward of getting to meet a ton of people.

Jordan Durst, a bartender at Van B's, acknowledges that the job can be stressful when you get certain types of people. Some customers are more difficult than others, but working with rude and offensive people is part of the job. Nevertheless, she agrees with Leah that her favorite part of the job is the amount of people she gets to meet in one night. Even if some of them are not the easiest customers. 

youre not in love youre just drunk Unsplash Creepy Clientele

Perhaps the most prominent issue for female bartenders is the frequency of flirty customers. A shift can fly by when you are enjoying a fun conversation with a customer, but fun can quickly become uncomfortable. Bartenders, in general, are no stranger to unwanted advances, but women in the industry soon learn how often these advances turn into scary situations.        

Rachel Frescoln, who currently works at Van B’s and previously worked at The Airliner, recalls one incident that stands out above the rest. This particular customer was in one of her classes and consistently came to the bar during her shift, refusing to be helped by any other bartender. Not only did he make her so uncomfortable that she refused to lean over the bar to hear his order, he regularly offered to walk her home after her shifts. She would have to sneak out the back door just to avoid him. 

There’s a difference between innocent flirting and creepy leering. Unfortunately, the line between these two actions can blur when there’s drinking involved. Nevertheless, bartenders learn how to deal with these awkward situations soon after they’re hired. Rachel, for instance, explains that bartending definitely made her more cautious, but also more comfortable dealing with uncomfortable situations.

person holding money Sharon McCutcheon

Tippers - The good, the bad, and the sexist

The most common misconception among those new to the drinking game is that it’s optional to tip your bartender. Technically it is optional, but it’s also a common courtesy, just like tipping your waiter or hairstylist. Wages in Iowa City for bartenders range from $2 to $6.50 an hour, which, after taxes, isn’t even close to a livable wage. And so, bartenders rely on tips to pay their bills. Female bartenders do have one advantage over male bartenders: we tend to get tipped more. I was told by one customer when I complained about the frequency of ‘no-tippers’ that all I had to do was wear a low-cut top and some tighter jeans. That way, he explained, the guys would have no choice but to tip. And in a single sentence, I was reduced to the value of my body. 

Every female bartender has been handed a slip with someone’s phone number on it in place of a tip. And, as flattering as that may be, if a ten-digit number can’t connect with my bank account, it can’t pay my bills. I’ve even been offered a kiss in place of a tip. I politely told her thank you, but I’d rather just have the money. 

On the other hand, big tippers can make a shift worth every challenging second. Personally, my favorite parts of the job are the regulars that come back every weekend, get to know me, and tip me well every time. They genuinely appreciate that my job is to make sure they have a good time, and they thank me accordingly. 

Big tippers don’t have to be regulars. In fact, over 'Dads' weekend, I made more money in two days than I would in two weeks. Parents tend to be the best tippers, followed by graduate students and those new to the workforce. All I’m saying is, if you have the money to buy a drink, you have the money to tip the person who made it for you. Woman wearing stockings Photo by Artem Labunsky on Unsplash

"Uniforms"

There is an unspoken pressure for female bartenders to ‘dress the part.’ Oftentimes, I find myself dressing up, putting makeup on, and doing my hair before every shift as if I’m hitting the bars – not to work, but to party. People are not afraid to be brutally honest to female bartenders, telling them that if they were to look sexier, they would be tipped better.

"I'm not going to make tips," said Jordan Durst, a bartender at Van B's, as she explained what would happen if she didn't dress the part. She said that she's curious what the difference in her tips would be on a night where she dressed in a t-shirt and sweats versus a night where she wore 'going-out' clothes.

The urge to impress is also significant. The power of romantic attention is overwhelming; it strengthens your ego and makes your confidence soar. When your coworkers begin to receive more attention than you, oftentimes you find yourself wondering what you did wrong. Is your makeup messy? Is your outfit not provocative enough? Are you just less beautiful? All of these questions seem shallow. They seem insignificant. They seem ridiculous and hyperbolized. And yet, they accurately summarize the thought process of a female bartender working in a college town where the majority of her customers are men. 

Lindsay Thompson-Neon Sign Where You Need To Be Miami Bar Inspiration Lindsay Thompson / Her Campus It's all worth it in the end

No matter how much sh*t female bartenders have to put up with, every woman agrees that it’s worth it in the end. Why else would we still be working in this industry? For every ten rude customers, there’s one great one, and that one makes up for the ten. I love this job for the coworkers, the customers, and the confidence I have when I’m working.