For most New Orleanians, gearing up for Mardi Gras means finishing a costume, hauling a ladder to the neutral ground or making a bottomless pot of red beans for company.
But there’s one group of unsung heroes who aren’t so busy celebrating. Instead, they’re providing an essential service that keeps everything else running smoothly. We’re not talking about police; we’re talking about bartenders.
“Mardi Gras means all hands on deck,” said bar manager Mark Schettler of Purloo, which opened recently at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. “You are going into battle.”
Planning is key. Everyone, not just the management, is involved in scheduling for the week, because it has to be clear to each person what shift they are covering. Nobody wants to miss a special parade or go to work hungover, but if a bartender bails out on a shift, he’s got an unhappy coworker. In fact, someone always gets fired during Mardi Gras.
“Somebody is usually passed out in the liquor room or doesn’t show up,” recalled Carrie Dumaine, who’s worked many places and is now bar manager at the recently reopened Brennan’s.
Planning ahead can also include finding new places to sleep.
“When I worked Uptown at Commander’s Palace, employees who lived on the West Bank or in Lakeview would stay with employees who lived Uptown since getting around town is so hard,” Dumaine said.
Abigail Gullo, bar manager of Sobou, said that when she makes the bar schedule she tries to allow everyone some time off to watch a few of their favorite parades. But generally the only way to get Mardi Gras off is to work every other holiday during the year — and then cross your fingers.
At Twelve Mile Limit, the bar starts prepping a month ahead for Endymion, said bartender Megan Devine. Besides scheduling, that means decorating and ordering supplies. A week ahead of time, bartenders start to prepare big batches of drinks they know will be in high demand.
The Saturday before Mardi Gras, when the superkrewe rolls after a daylong festival, is the bar’s biggest grossing day of the year.
“People use the bar as home base, to meet up with friends, use the bathroom, charge a phone,” Devine said. After Endymion, the bar closes for the rest of Carnival.
Bartenders who work downtown don’t get that kind of time off. When she worked at the Bourbon O on Bourbon Street, Dumaine served crowds that could be seven deep at the bar for days.
When the bar cleared out for a moment, she would take a deep breath, knowing it would hit again. “You’d tag out, taking turns sleeping on the liquor room floor. You do it for days on end,” she said.
Gullo points out one benefit of working in the Quarter: close proximity to the parades.
“I work two blocks from Canal,” Gullo said. “I love that when I am finally able to go on break, I can walk down to catch some throws.”
Every drink is “to go.” As Schettler observed, “During the rest of the year, people come into your bar because they planned to come to your bar and spend night drinking there, but during Carnival, everyone is in transit. Whether they expressly say it or not, you throw their drink in a go cup or into some throw that lights up that they just caught at the parade.”
Most bars switch to plastic through the season. This grab-and-go mentality affects the drinks they serve as well. Even high-end bars aren’t pouring many Ramos Gin Fizzes on the parade route.
You may make bank. You may make nothing. Most people think bartenders earn fabulous money during Carnival, but that can vary. Being near the parade route can hurt business because that whole part of town is shut down to other traffic. When everyone is at the parade, business also slows.
Gullo noted that business comes in waves based on the parades, and the crowd is also determined by the parades.
“If you live Uptown, its hard to get to us,” she said. “If you live downtown, you are stuck with us.”
When Schettler worked at the Swizzle Stick, the bar was busy after the parades rolled since most of them stopped there. That changed when the crowds surged outside to watch the greatest free show on earth.
“It could be a ghost town,” he said.
But there was a nice perk of working Mardi Gras at the Swizzle Stick.
“Some krewes have a tradition of going there at the end of the parade and would save their throws for us,” he said.