Bartender Q+A: Steve Debaugh from Fleet Street Tavern

by Matthew Ferguson on Jun 24, 2014 in Culture

Steve Debaugh tends bar at Canton’s newest hangout, the Fleet Street Tavern. While he’s held his title of bartender for about two and a half years, he’s been in the food and beverage industry for more than eight. He recently took a break from pouring pints to share some insights into the business of getting Baltimore its drinks.

What made you want to be a bartender?

I don’t think anyone really grows up as a kid hoping to be a bartender. It’s just something I stumbled into. I don’t think I want to do this for the rest of my life, but I really like what it is for me right now.

What do you like the most about your job?

The money. No, not really. You don’t get into this business for the money. I do enjoy the freedom my schedule gives me. I work four or five nights a week. That means that when I need to run errands, I walk in and out of the grocery store on a Wednesday afternoon with no line. I also get to have conversations with a few hundred people a week. I get to meet some of the most interesting (along with some of the worst) people in our city.

What makes a good customer?

Everyone expects the answer to be tipping well. And that is important, because that’s how I pay my rent. But honestly, whether your bill comes to $7 or $700, the best customers are the ones who come in and — if they’re having a bad day — they tell you about it. Whatever’s wrong, they don’t take it on you, but they tell you about it. And even if they’re having the worst day of their lives, they still ask you how your day is going.

And a bad customer?

Being rude. Don’t get huffy if I don’t bring you your iced tea refill right away. You’re dealing with one person: the bartender. I’m dealing with 20 or 30 people, and I’m trying to keep everyone satisfied at once. Just be mindful of the way you ask for things. Really, only about one or two in a hundred are actually bad customers.

Who was the worst customer you ever served?

One Saturday night, this guy comes in. I’d seen him in the bar two or three times before. I think he was trying to become a regular, which is honestly the best way to guarantee good service. Every bartender has a drink they just hate making for some reason, and he orders mine. (Who orders a mojito in November?) I walk to the other end of the bar, and I hear him loudly chatting up other regulars. One of our most important jobs is to make sure our customers are comfortable, so when this guy starts walking around to tables and bothering them, too, it’s not okay. We politely ask him to quiet down, and he cops an attitude. He orders one more mojito, and as he closes his tab, I hear him loudly bragging about how he never tips. Game over.

What’s the worst thing you’ve seen another bartender do?

Overserve. I’d rather have a customer leave sober and angry than completely obliterated and happy. We have a responsibility to make sure our customers are safe and not putting others in danger. And I hate when bartenders get annoyed with someone nursing a beer. You’re really going to get annoyed at someone for trying to drink responsibly?

What trends bother you the most?

First of all, I am not a mixologist. If you’re actually inventing cocktails and scientifically deciding what’s the best twist to put on a classic, fine, call yourself a mixologist. But if you’re just a bartender, stop being pretentious and just call it what it is. There’s no shame in that. But I hate being asked: “What’s your signature cocktail?” Between how exact the measurements are, whether there’s a small dent in the barware, the temperature of the room… there’s too many variables to making this perfect cocktail. The best, most consistent drink I prepare is when I pop the cap off a bottle of beer. That’s true for everyone.

If you had to pick between a dead night and being deep in the weeds, which would you choose?

As a bartender, definitely being in the weeds. Even if I’m not enjoying how busy it is, I’m still making money. But when I was a server, I’d rather have it dead. It’s easy to see how busy a bartender is, but you only see the servers when they’re on the floor — not when they’re rushing around the kitchen trying to get your food and running back and forth between the bar and every table in your section. It’s nice when people can see how hard you’re working.

How have your opinions about bartending changed since you started?

Watching shows like Cheers and movies like Cocktail always gave me this impression of the bartender as this guy with the friendly ear. They don’t show any of the stress that goes into bartending. I got my degree in electronic media and film, but I’ve never had a stress dream about school, filmmaking, or acting. I’ve definitely had stress dreams about the food and beverage industry. But really, it’s not all about being that perfect Sam Malone listener. You have to read your room. Some customers want to talk, but some just want to have a quiet drink to themselves. You have to predict how they want their bar experience to go, and it’s always a gamble.

What’s your poison?

Maker’s Mark neat. Or a Hendrick’s and tonic.

Where could we find you enjoying that poison?

My favorite bar is my house. When I get off work, all of the other bars are closed. It’s nice to just go home and relax, anyway. As for an actual bar, you can find me every now and then at the Kent in Towson.

Have you ever served anyone famous?

Not behind the bar, but when I was a teen working concessions at the movie theater, I served Method Man. He’s really chill. He ordered something we were out of, and he just joked about how annoyed he was with me. He gets it: we’re not out of something just because we don’t like you.


Tags: Beer, Cocktails, Education, Spirits, Wine
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