Last Call: How This Bartender Counters Death Threats with Dive Bar Diplomacy
"I was passing a security shop and actually considered buying a bulletproof vest. That’s when I decided to quit."
Welcome back to Last Call, where we visit watering holes around the world to collect life advice from their trusty barkeepers, learning everything from how to get over a broken heart to what drink orders will get you laughed out of their bar.
Jan Støving has spent a decade working in some of Copenhagen's grittiest bars in the Nørrebro district. Today he pours drinks at Esrom Kroen, a once down-at-heel bodega (the Danish term for a traditional dive bar) that has been resurrected as a cocktail bar. We talked to him about the objects that customers have thrown at him, why he doesn't drink (much) on the job, and how his career in the Merchant Navy prepared him for bartending.
MUNCHIES: How did you end up working behind the bar? Jan Støving: I stumbled into a bartending job because I didn't have anything to do at the time. It was Monday morning after the Super Bowl. I was sitting in a bar quite inebriated. I hadn't gone home yet, and was having the last one before going to bed. The bartender mentioned they were looking for a bartender, so I gave her my number. And I got hired because I was a former sailor. The two other full-time employees were both former sailors, and one of the owners' best friends was still in the Merchant Navy at that point, so he had a high opinion of sailors.
How long did you work at that bar? About two and a half years. I quit in 2007. On Friday nights, I was as much a bouncer as a bartender. I got tired of being threatened with knives and guns.
That sounds a little grim. With the exception of the tables, I had every single piece of furniture thrown at me at some point. I had people tossing bottles, glasses, ashtrays, and chairs. One guy threw his girlfriend at me. Big dumb guy who was probably 50 percent hormones by volume. He decided his girlfriend was looking at me a bit too fondly, so he threw her at me. Lucky for her, I'm a good catch.
Did you end up with her? Oh no. Any girl who wants to be with a guy like that isn't a girl for me.
What did you learn working there? Back then, we were working solo. We had just one bartender, even on a Friday night, when we'd have 75, 80 people in. So it taught me how to run a busy bar without getting stressed. It wasn't all bad.
Any tips for running a busy bar? Stay five minutes ahead, all the time. If you pass an ashtray that you'll have to empty in five minutes and you have a free hand, empty it now, because you never know when you'll run into a situation that'll eat up those five minutes. If you see the draught beer starting to run low, that it's starting to foam a bit but isn't completely empty, change it now.
What's your strategy for dealing with difficult customers? Diplomacy, mainly. When people don't get the concept of a rum and Coke and think it's rum and cocaine, they aren't very easy to deal with. Some of the guys who came in there were on a different planet because we were open till five—six in the morning. When you reach that level of drunkenness and drugs, you're very hard to reach. I actually had to tell people that if they didn't stop doing lines on the table, they'd be thrown out. That's beyond dumb.
Was there a particular moment when you said, "OK, I have had enough"? Yep. The time when I shut down the bar and was starting to clean up and a guy knocked on the door. I told him we were closed, and he pulled out a gun, knocked on the window with it, and then pointed it at me. Well, I just pushed the alarm button. The police were there in a minute and a half. A couple of days later I was passing a security shop and actually considered buying a bulletproof vest. That's when I decided to quit. No job is worth having to wear a bulletproof vest. Period. I quit and got a job across the street at a bar where the manager had been trying to headhunt me for over a year.
So your reputation as a cool-headed character had spread? I don't drink when I work, which is sort of rare in this business. In Danish bodegas, it's quite rare to come in just before the staff change and see a sober bartender. Quite a few people are in this business because, well, it's the only business where they're allowed to drink. It's the only job they can hold. And even though I went bankrupt [in the construction industry], when I'm doing the bookkeeping, it's always correct. I know how to add two and two, which is more than you can say about a few people in this business.
How long were you at this second bar? For a year. It was OK. I didn't have to fight my way out of it, but it was a bit boring—the same customers coming in every day with the same stories. A few of the regulars weren't exactly the brightest bulbs in the collection. And I had a few guests who you had to keep an eye on all the time because they can get extremely pissed off over somebody wearing the wrong fucking T-shirt. It takes a lot of energy because you have to watch them all the time.
To use poker lingo, what are the tells? One is macho posturing and not breaking eye contact—trying to stare people down. And instead of standing relaxed, standing with pumped arms and shoulders forward. Then you have the cokeheads or speeders. You can see they're twitchy, they're fiddling, their eyes are all over the place. And then you have the ones who aren't troublemakers, but who are so drunk that trouble will find them. You have to keep an eye on them to make sure they survive the night.
Has your previous career in the Merchant Navy helped at all? You learn quite a bit of diplomacy when you're stuck on a ship with 15 other guys because, well, you can't really leave and slam the door. Well, you can, you have to be one hell of a swimmer.
What was Esrom Kroen like when you started here five years ago? Very different. First of all, there was next-to-no ventilation. You had to carve your way in because there were a lot of heavy smokers. The average age? Mid-50s. The average blood-alcohol content? High. It opened at seven in the morning, and was very much a working-class bar. But it was rundown and nobody bothered to fix things. A lot of things were semi-broken—seats on the benches were filled with tears and burn holes. And there were plastic flowers on the table. It was actually rather dreadful. But I liked quite a few of the regulars who came in here, which is one of the reasons I stayed on.
In 2015 the bar got new owners, new décor, new drinks, new opening hours, and new clientele. What's been the biggest change? The biggest difference for me as a bartender has been the mood. A lot of the old-timers were very demanding. They wanted things exactly their way. They were almost insulted and very particular about very stupid things: "I don't want this ashtray, I want that ashtray." And all the ashtrays were the same model. Now our customers say "please" and "thank you," and they are pleasant to be around.
Any words of wisdom for someone thinking of becoming a bartender? First of all, you're not going to become a millionaire. Second, don't drink at work. I've seen promising young bartenders who have had to quit because they were becoming alcoholics. And I've seen old bartenders show up to work with trembling hands, grab a pint glass and fill it with whiskey or Gammel Dansk because they couldn't function without it. Set some limits.
What are yours? Two cocktails during an eight-hour shift.
What do you drink when you're working? A Negroni because it's a heavy, very bitter cocktail that you can load with ice and just sip. It lasts a long time and, if it gets busy, it doesn't get too watery because there's a lot of flavor in a Negroni.
Finally, what makes a good bartender? You have to be able to talk to people — you have to be a diplomat. I'm usually hands-off. I try to talk people out of the bar. If it's someone who's just had a few too many and usually isn't an idiot, if I talk them out of the bar, they'll probably come back. If I throw them out, they probably won't.
This first appeared on MUNCHIES in October 2016.