“I firmly believe that everyone should do one year in the service industry,” says Zack Stell. “At least six months.”
It’s a balmy Tuesday afternoon at Congress Street Social Club’s outside bar, and this is Stell’s usual shift. There are just a few people at the bar, but Stell has eyes on all of them.
“It’s just all about paying attention to the customers and trying to stay on top of things,” he says.
Stell has been behind a bar for about six years, a full-blown bartender for two, after starting out as a busboy at Wild Wing Café.
“I barbacked in a restaurant for a while and became a bartender,” he remembers. “I got a job opportunity here, and they said, ‘We need a barback,’ so I was like, ‘All right, run it.’ I got promoted after eight months and went straight to bartending.”
As anyone who has ever been to a bar before can attest, bartenders can be cocky. What’s refreshing about Stell is that he doesn’t have any of that arrogance.
“I don’t really call myself a good bartender. I’m just someone who knows a lot of people,” says Stell. “I would say, at the end of the day, I’m just like everyone else. I like to do this job, and a lot of people like me. That’s really all it is.”
People like Stell so much that he was nominated by his staff simply on the [premise] that he could garner the most votes.
“Everyone just sat downstairs one night after we got off, and my manager Patrick and my general manager Greg pulled me aside and were like, ‘We’re going to nominate you for Best Bartender,’” Stell says. “First of all, why? That can’t be right. And they were like, ‘Nah, we think you can win.’”
That’s really all it is. Being a good bartender isn’t about memorizing what’s in a green tea shot or being the quickest at making a mojito. It’s about having a good attitude, which is even more important at a high-volume bar like Social.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to no matter how you feel walking in the door, try to present yourself in a positive light,” says Stell. “Because when you do that, no matter how busy you get or how pissed off you get or who doesn’t tip you, someone else is going to see that you’re working through it and trying to be better. They’re going to take care of you. I’ve got so many days where this guy stiffed me, but another table said, ‘All right, man, I’m going to give you as much as you give me,’ and then turns around and tips double. It’s a tale as old as time. People see kindness and will give kindness back out.”
One of the toughest parts of working in the service industry is keeping that positivity in the face of bad tippers or annoying customers.
“You’ve got to grind through nights like that,” Stell encourages. “You’re not going to get your $20 tippers every two people; you’re going to get fifty cents here, a dollar there. But if you sit there and start getting mad about it, you’re just going to make this a horrible life. I’ve seen so many people get burned out in bartending and serving because they couldn’t take the good with the bad. For every good night, you have two nights where you only make $50. The reason we do this job is, one, it’s fast cash. Two, it’s good money. Three, you get to hang out. We get to be at a bar with our friends.”
For those hoping to be served by Savannah’s best bartender, see Stell at his regular Tuesday afternoon shift. – Rachael Flora
Runner-up: Matthew Clark