Dear Salty: What advice do you have for running into regular customers outside of work? I work at a popular restaurant/bar that also hosts concerts and events in a small town. I often will get recognized outside of work because of my job. I’m comfortable with the whole “hi/bye” routine, but it’s not uncommon that people will try to ask me about my job: menu suggestions, complaints on pricing, random ideas for events they think we should throw, or just gossip and rumors they’ve heard.
Given that in a town this small we depend on repeat business, I try to be gracious when I can. There are times though when I just want to enjoy a beer in peace. I truly love my job but in a way it feels like I never get to fully clock out. What can I do?
This Bartender Is On Break
Dear Bartender On Break,
I feel your pain. Remember the horror of running into your teacher or priest at the grocery store? I feel that way when a chatty customer spots me in the wild. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s just that I’m trying to buy pantyhose or take my vomiting cat to the vet or whatever—I don’t really want to stop and chit-chat when I’m trying to get other shit accomplished.
If the issue is that you don’t want to talk shop with customers when you’re off, then that’s not too difficult: just try to steer the topic away from work. Ask them about their weekend, or their holiday plans, or bitch about the weather. After a couple minutes, you’ve done your small talk duty, and hopefully the other person will move on. If they keep bringing it back to work, you can make a little remark, like: “I spend way too much time inside the walls of XYZ Bar—mind if we talk about your work for a bit?” or “I don’t have our concert listings/menu/inventory list in front of me, so it’s hard for me to answer that question. Check back with me when I’m behind the bar.” Or, use my eternally polite blow-off: “Oh, you must be busy. I’ll let you get back to your night out!”
Hopefully, these friendly small-town folks can take the hint.
If the issue is that you don’t really want to talk to these people period, then that’s a bit tougher. In small towns, it feels like everyone wants to talk. You’re pretty recognizable because of your job, but I’m sure the same goes for the high-school football coach, the mayor, the local weather gal, etc. Unfortunately, it kind of comes with the territory. Your options are pretty much the same as anyone else trying to get out of a bar conversation with a stranger: Fake a phone call and step outside, or enlist the bartender on duty to interrupt the conversation.
While we’re at it, though, let’s take this opportunity to offer another Salty PSA for bar patrons: Bartenders are paid to be nice to you. They’re not automatically your best friends, and they probably would rather talk about anything other than work when they’re off the clock. (Just like you!) So while you might be real tempted to yak to your favorite bartender about the great new cocktail trick you whipped up at home, keep it short, Flanagan. They’re human, too, and no one likes taking their work home with them.