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January 28, 2021
Setting The Bar: Robert Björn Taylor
A conversation on sobriety, BIPOC representation, and systemic issues in the hospitality industry with the Austin-based bartender.
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As is often the case, Robert Björn Taylor fell into bartending. Having dabbled in graphic design, he was working as a barback in his native Houston when Hurricane Ike hit, resulting in widespread power outages. The place where Robert was working managed to keep its lights on, and as customers kept coming, he started making drinks to help meet the demand.

Fast forward 15 years, and Robert’s resume reads like a survey of the high-end Austin cocktail scene. One of his first big gigs was at the absinthe bar Péché - although his youth and drinking cut that stint short. Robert will tell you the same, but in slightly less charitable terms. (“I was pretty rowdy and still in party mode.“) He also worked at Qui, but that flameout wasn’t on him. The restaurant collapsed on its own, after the owner faced allegations of domestic violence. Substance abuse also played a role, which is an unfortunate trend in the hospitality industry.

Robert experienced this trend first-hand, having grappled with his own addiction issues that nearly sidetracked his career in hospitality. And that’s a big part of why he doesn’t drink anymore. To learn more about Robert’s decision to work as a sober bartender, his thoughts on unhealthy practices within the industry, and the work he’s done with organizations like the BIPOC-focused Ideal Bartender Collective, we invited him to sit down and talk it out, bartender to bartender.

You’ve been a sober bartender since 2019. How has that changed your perspective on the industry?

Obviously, [sobriety] does a lot of things to you, and I’m very happy I’m sober. It actually makes me better at my job. The industry itself suffers from a don’t-ask-don’t-tell kind of thing.

In what way?

In a lot of restaurants and bars, no one really talks about mental health or bingeing. These are things that we should talk about more, and it would make our industry stronger and better if we were to bring them out into the open. And, you know, I was able to get away with [bingeing] for a long time. People in the back of house and bartenders experience this hardcore because we work longer hours.

In my experience, bartenders and back of house are the last ones there. Except for the night porter.

You know, these guys don’t get a chance to really engage with [co-workers], so it happens at a bar afterward. And I would never tell anyone, “You don’t deserve to go out for a drink,” but it’s a matter of how many drinks. It became a habitual thing for me. After closing down, I went to a bar, and I was there until 2am. Every night.

It became a cycle that had me locked in, and it got to the point where I would get really, really, fucked up. My personal experience is not unique to me. There’s a good percentage of hospitality bartenders that lived the life I did or still do. It’s normalized, and I don’t think it should be.

Yeah, I’ve been there. I’ve had lots of drinks at work, Robert.

I’ve been pretty inebriated at work and thought I could still handle myself. Even if I could handle myself, is it fair to my patrons? To me? To my coworkers?

You said this affects your relationship with your patrons and, at the same time, patrons encourage it. Patrons buy bartenders drinks and expect bartenders to be happy, having fun, and drinking, so I think that’s an attitude that needs to change as well.

That needs to change. I always mention to new coworkers, whether server or bartender, that we curate the experience of the bar or restaurant. We guide the experience, and the guests are there for that experience. We have to be present for them and provide the best environment. If a patron says, “Hey, let me get you a shot,” be like, “I love that. Thank you so much. I know we’re having fun. I’m good. Can’t take a shot with you, but I’ll definitely buy you one.” Or something like that.

And honestly, with the shift drink thing, instead of encouraging a person with a drink, how about extra money? Something that’s not “Let me inebriate you as a point of reward.” It’s feeding into habits, and, in my experience, this led to a hardcore life. I did a lot of drugs as well. I became very addicted and it was scary. I wasn’t aware that I was an addict and I was very much always a functioning alcoholic. And here’s the fallacy: There ain’t no functionality in alcoholism. No controlling shit.

It sets the time you wake up and the way you feel at work. It sets the tone of how everything’s going. And this is not me picking on anyone. If you’re the kind of chef or bartender who can go after work, have one beer, and go home, I’m not talking to that person. I’m talking to the person who parties like I did, which again, is like a lot of my peers who would drink three beers and three shots within an hour. That’s just not normal.

But also the way that bartending is set up right now is just not normal. No employees should be plied with liquor or any kind of drug. It shouldn’t be part of the job, and it’s just kind of a fucked up system.

Yeah. I’m not going to name any names, but I’ve had things happen to me in the past where people would make fun of me because they knew I used to do coke, and I would have people above me asking about it at work. And I’m like, what the fuck, man? It sucked being that person. I didn’t want to be the butt of someone’s joke. It’s hard for me to admit that and say that out loud, but it took away from everything I really wanted to do, which was to be great at my career in hospitality. It put the shame factor on me.

But now I’m not ashamed of shit. I was able to break my habit, and I’ve been able to see the goodness that’s happening in the hospitality community. I’m a part of a recovery group that’s actually based in a whole bunch of cities called Ben’s Friends. Here in Austin, there’s a run club called Comedore Run Club. Anyone in the service industry can join. Even if you’re drinking, it doesn’t matter. They run, they have a yoga session on Thursdays, and it’s a way to encourage people in the industry to bond in a way other than going out and drinking.

I’ve heard you say, “No one teaches you how to drink.” And that’s something I’ve thought about a lot. But how do we change that? Where does the education start?

Yeah. No one taught me how to drink. I just started drinking and thought bingeing was normal. I thought that’s how you partake.

I think cocktails need to be looked at with more of this culinary aspect. I’m not saying let’s cut off people at the bar, but let’s look at it in this way of [slower] pacing. I know it might fuck with people’s money, but honestly, there are ways to approach this. We should be watching out not just for people in the industry, but our patrons as well.

Over serving just to get a tip ain’t fuckin’ right. We’re the ones who set standards for drinking, and then it trickles down to patrons - how they treat a bar or how they feel when they’re in a bar.

You’ve done some work with the Ideal Bartender Collective, right? Are you still working with them?

I am. They’re a great group of people and some great mentors within that group. I met Kigan [Joseph of Ideal Bartender Collective], and I admired the way he was talking about how the BIPOC community is represented, why we don’t see too many of our faces on a regular basis in brand work, and the hierarchy of the hospitality community. I was like, “Why don’t we see that? And why don’t we hear stories about Black and Hispanic communities told by them and not just by some White person?”

For some context, do you mind if I read a mission statement I found on Ideal Bartender Collective’s website?

For sure.

White supremacy, Patriarchy and Classism in the Spirits Industry have allowed a white-washing of its history, limiting knowledge and reframing education through the white gaze. The lack of diversity within beverage education needs to be addressed in order to facilitate a more diverse, inclusive, and culturally fluent industry. You on board with that statement in general?

One hundred percent. Blacks were in the system. We were hospitality, technically, through slavery. If you went to some of the finer hotel bars - some of the ones where classic cocktails were written about - your bartender was Black. We know nothing of these people. There was nothing documented or if it was, it was hidden or overlooked. We don’t talk about the slave trade and the Caribbean as it relates to the story of rum.

When it comes to agave spirits and the drinking culture of Latin America, we don’t talk about [these things] unless it’s through a White lens. We want more stories told from the people who run the palenques. There’s an opening now as we’re drinking more agave. We should hear the story.

I feel like lately, the food world has seen a reckoning of sorts, in terms of how restaurants operate and how people talk about food - but I haven’t seen the same sort of attention given to cocktails and beverage history.

The [cocktail] renaissance came in the late 20th century into the early 2000s, and it’s still developing. We’re still exploring the rich history of cocktails and spirits. There’s molecular bartending and all these weird things happening that I’m not even involved in. But I find it really fascinating how it’s evolved within the last like 15 years, and I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of that.

Want to try one of Robert Björn Taylor’s signature drinks? Check out his Guest Bartender tutorial for The Re-Animator, a zero-proof take on a classic gin-and-absinthe cocktail.

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