It’s been a long time since I worked in the service industry. During college, I was both a line-cook and a waiter, sometimes at the same time. That was the 1980s, but what about today?
We just got through a pandemic (I think). How did our local service industry workers survive? Is it safe to go out again? Is it still fun? On a Friday night, I wanted to find out. I went down to Farren’s in Downtown Champaign, made myself comfortable on a bar stool, ordered a few drinks, and had a nice conversation with Terry Boyer, a seasoned bartender. Here’s what we talked about.
Smile Politely: Why did you decide to become a bartender?
Terry Boyer: Well, it wasn’t a decision to become a bartender but more like, I fell into it. When I first moved to Champaign in 2003, I went to a bar called Boltini with my friends to celebrate my 21st birthday. I met a man there who happened to be the general manager of Guido’s at the time, and I got hired the next day as a barback. I worked there for about four or five months when one night, a bartender pulled me aside and told me, “The force was strong with me.” His words not mine. A few days later, I started training as a bartender, and the rest is history.
SP: Where did you work before Farren’s?
Boyer: While bartending at Guido’s, I also did Monday nights at KoFusion when it first opened up Downtown Champaign. I would later go on to work at Chester Street for five years but would spend a bulk of my bartending time at Quality Beer Inc.
I was the first employee hired at Quality when it first opened in 2011 and continued there until September of 2019. I put about two years into a bar called Redstar in Urbana, formerly the Embassy. I also was part of the original staff of Big Grove Tavern for about four years. I held most of these jobs simultaneously; I’ve never had just one job at a time.
SP: It’s Friday night. If I were to ask you to make me something refreshing to wind down after work, what would you make?
Boyer: So if you were to come into Farren’s on a Friday, the sun is warm on the patio, and you are just parched beyond belief, I would make you a cucumber gimlet. It’s a delicious combination of Ketel One cucumber mint vodka, simple syrup, and fresh lime juice shaken and then poured over ice in a Collins glass and topped off with sparkling water. It’s a refreshing drink that you can sip on or enjoy if you are having some snacks. It also complements a meal nicely.
I personally like simple drinks like Tito’s vodka with sparkling water and a splash of grapefruit juice. Some people may disagree, but a Negroni (gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari) after a long day can ease the stress and fatigue from the day.
SP: What is the most popular cocktail at Farren’s?
Boyer: That would be the orange blossom cosmo, a variation on the traditional cosmopolitan. Take Ketel One peach and orange blossom vodka, triple sec, simple syrup, fresh lime juice, and a splash of cranberry juice, then shake it until it makes your shaker frosty on the outside; strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with an orange.
Some bartenders will make a cosmo that looks like a Cape Cod in a cocktail glass because there is too much cranberry. A good cosmo should have just a splash of cranberry juice. Once shaken and strained into your glass, it should be a beautiful blush pink color and have a citrusy scent. It’s funny because it just so happens that a cosmopolitan is definitely the drink I make the best. I’ve watched every single episode of Sex and the City many, many, many times over the years — and we all know what the girls like to drink.
SP: What is it like being a bartender during a pandemic?
Boyer: I’ve been bartending a long time, and I would have to say these have been the worst years for many reasons. First, we were shut down for a while. You need to have customers in your bar to make drinks for. Even after things were opening back up with restrictions, it just wasn’t enough business. Lots of bars and restaurants tried to do curbside pickup for beer, wine, and mixed drinks to go. Again that helped, but it wasn’t anything like before the pandemic.
SP: But things are better now?
Boyer: The worst part about bartending during a pandemic is how people’s attitudes changed. Lots of people lost their jobs, had to collect unemployment or find new jobs, and really struggled. Lots of these people found the pandemic to be an inconvenience or worse.
Yes, it’s very frustrating being inconvenienced, but that is no excuse to take it out on a host, server, or bartender. When people are used to doing things one way and now they have to wear a mask, that’s when the shit tends to hit the fan. I couldn’t tell you how many times I was told to fuck off for asking people to wear masks to and from their tables. People would argue that it was un-American, that I was infringing on their rights — when in reality, it was a mandate by the government.
SP: So you got to see the ugly side of people?
Boyer: You really got to see another side of these people, and it wasn’t pretty. The lack of patience and compassion made it very hard to go to work everyday. It’s not all bad though — I was lucky to be working at Farren’s during the pandemic because Carolyn Farren really stuck her neck out for all of us and continues to do so. She’s had so many supportive loyal customers over the 22 years she’s been in business, and we were able to keep the doors open.
We would have long days of running curbside or waiting tables and be exhausted, and Carolyn would come in with food from Jupiter’s or Golden Harbor. She made sure that there were bowls of chocolate bars and snacks for us to munch on when we could take a short break from answering phone orders for six hours straight. If ever a customer was rude or angry about the mask policy, she trusted us and took our word over the customer. Despite the old saying, the customer is rarely right. But the community really came out to support their favorite places with large orders — and even larger tips — until we were able to completely reopen the doors to indoor and outdoor seating again.
SP: What has changed about being in the service industry since the pandemic?
Boyer: The biggest change I can see since the start of the pandemic is lack of manpower. Everywhere you turn, bars and restaurants are short-staffed and have a hard time staffing properly. This trickles down since you can’t serve as many customers as efficiently as you could before. The frustrating part is people think that bartenders and servers were being lazy by staying at home collecting unemployment. The reality is that the customers got so abusive that many service industry people got fed up and left it. It’s amazing how ugly people can become. People in the industry have always joked that every person should have to wait tables for a few years to really know how to be a decent human being. The last two years have made that joke into a sad reality.
SP: What about inflation and rising costs?
Boyer: The other big change to the service industry is cost: everything is more expensive now. You want fries, chicken wings, lemons, limes, draft beer kegs, napkins, straws — it doesn’t matter, the cost has gone up. So now we get to hear customers complaining about how prices on menus have changed. Your taxes go up every year, correct? The price of college, insurance all go up, so why wouldn’t people think that food and liquor prices would increase? If you don’t want to pay the prices, then cook for yourself at home, pour your own wine at home, drench those fries with all of the Hidden Valley ranch you want at home.
SP: You have a “day job,” so why do you still bartend in the evenings?
Boyer: I work full time during the day at Living Legacy Pilates in the Lincoln building as an instructor. This May will be nine years since I’ve been certified. I still bartend at night because it’s expensive to live. I like to eat a pretty healthy organic diet, and that costs money. I work at two small owner-operated businesses that don’t provide insurance, so I have to pay for my own. As we all know, our government doesn’t provide healthcare, it only offers really expensive health insurance that may not cover you when you need it.
Cost of living is constantly going up, so it is very hard for me to live off of just one income. Besides, I find that working in the service industry provides a social outlet, so this way I get to see people who I might not get to see on a regular basis. Honestly, I’ve been bartending for so long, it’s really hard to give it up. The hours are long and odd at times; most service jobs don’t provide insurance or vacation. People look down on you like you are beneath them, but I have no regrets for the many years I’ve been doing it. I honestly wouldn’t be where I am in my life if it wasn’t for the service industry!
SP: Who are your favorite regulars here at Farren’s?
Boyer: My favorite regulars at Farren’s are my coworkers. I love the people that show up despite the harassment for the masks, the ones whose feet are tired and their backs are sore. I love the people who make me laugh when we all want to cry, the ones you can have a drink with after the floors are mopped and the lights are off. Don’t get me wrong: we do have a fantastic following of customers at Farren’s, but it’s my coworkers that keep me coming back.
I’ll look back 30 years from now and think of all the conversations I’ve had in any server alley, and be grateful that I had the opportunity to be there to hear them. They are precious memories and secrets that only a person in the service industry can experience.
SP: Tell me about the best night you ever had as a bartender.
Boyer: That is a very difficult question to answer. I have had many great nights in the years that I’ve been working in the industry. First I would have to define a great night. A shift can be ruined by so many things like a bad tipper, someone vomits, there’s a fight, someone runs out on their tab. The list can go on and on.
A truly great night means that when the lights come on and people work their way to the doors, tabs are closed, bathrooms aren’t destroyed, and you get to sit with your coworkers reflecting on all of the great things that happened that night — that is all I really want. Oh yes, and a pocket full of money. That’s a good sign of a great night.
I do have one memory that pops up, and it truly made my night. I had been working at Quality, and one of my friends came in on a Friday night for a drink or two with her husband. I had been certified in pilates only a year or so, but she noticed the way it helped me move behind the bar. As she closed her tab, she mentioned to me that I move like a cat behind the bar, and I was thrilled. I’ll never forget that.
SP: What about the worst?
Boyer: I think the worst night I have ever had was when I worked at Chester Street. It was a Sunday, and we always had drag shows on Sundays. The crowd could be very young, immature, and aggressive at times. Well that particular Sunday, a young girl paid her cover, went to the beer garden and pulled a hammer out of her pants and started beating another woman in the head. I was bartending in the sidebar at the time and oblivious to what was happening. The next thing I knew, my eyes started to burn and water; my nose was on fire. The cops had apparently been called, and when they entered the front door, they just started gassing the place. We obviously shut down early that night, and eventually we were informed about the fight and where the gas had come from. That night was definitely the worst.
SP: How have the recent shootings in Downtown Champaign affected our nightlife?
Boyer: The downtown businesses have no doubt been affected by the shootings. Certain bars have limited their outdoor seating hours as well as their closing time to avoid violent fights. Regulars are scared to go out to certain areas of downtown in fear of a stray bullet or fist. Some businesses have to hire doormen now which adds to their labor costs despite no increase in business.
Naturally, everyone has their own opinion of who’s doing the shooting and how to stop it. I don’t think the shootings are a direct result of anything specific to Champaign County but a small example of what happens everywhere in the U.S. We are only two years out from what I personally feel was a dark four years in our country. Poverty and unemployment still exists. Housing and cost of living continue to go up, and these problems build and build until it erupts. Social, economic, and educational differences in communities can cause tension. If the problems are not addressed, then violence erupts. Lots of people like to point the blame, but the blame lies in many hands. We need to stop pointing fingers and start trying to find solutions. It’s a joke to think these problems will be fixed on a national level. If we are to make changes, it needs to start within our communities. It seems impossible to think we can change a whole nation, but we can start within our communities, that’s more manageable.
SP: When you go out for drinks, where do you like to go?
Boyer: I definitely love the downtown scene and try to make it to all of the cool spots and support the people who have supported me over the years. If I want to feel fancy, I go to Punch! Bar. If I need a tall PBR can, Rumplemintz, and a jukebox, then the Brass Rail it is.
There are a million smiling faces, great services, and delicious food at The Esquire. If I’m looking for well-lit dart boards and Rumplemintz, then I head to my old stomping grounds of Quality Beer. If I’m looking to be surrounded by good friends, coffee tequila, touch tunes, and of course darts, then I head to Bentley’s. I try to give all of the spots downtown a try here and there.
SP: Can you tell when someone needs to be cut off?
Boyer: Oh God, yes! When they think they know the job better than me, that’s when I feel they need to close out and leave. Some people show it in their speech whether it is slurred, loud, or aggressive. Eyes are a good indicator. If someone is looking three feet to your left or right but not at you when they order, that is a good sign they need to be cut off. If they fall asleep at the bar or fall out of their chair completely, you gotta go. I love the ones who throw up in the beer gardens and then come in trying to get served.
SP: How about some tips for customers like me? What are some things we should or shouldn’t do when we go out?
Boyer: You should never ask a server or bartender what their real job is. That’s so frustrating. I know people with double master’s degrees who can’t get jobs in their fields, so they wait tables. I have real bills, and my real tips pay those bills. This is a real job.
I hate it when people ask me, “What’s your favorite thing to make?” I’d like to make you a glass of water, you leave $20, and we call it a day. Sure, we have a lot of knowledge, but your lack of what you like to drink doesn’t help us pick the right thing for you. Know some basics about what you like to eat or drink.
Do not clap your hands, snap your fingers, wave money or your hand in the air to get a server’s attention. That will quickly put you at the end of the line. It is also frustrating when people aren’t tippers and lie and say, “I’ll get you next time.” Just be honest: we know you are a shitty tipper, and that won’t change.
Things that will get you far in a bar include a smile, “please” and “thank you,” having your order ready when it’s your turn, and being nice! Just be nice.
117 N Walnut St
T-Th 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Fr+Sa 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
When he is not watching films, Paul Young likes to travel the world seeking good things to eat. So far, he has eaten his way through 22 countries, and he loves to share his culinary discoveries with cooking classes.