Hospitality and Charity Are Holiday Bar Traditions

By Clair McLafferty

Photo by Whitney ott

Photo by Whitney ott


The last six weeks of the year are hectic. In the retail and service industries, long hours and impatient customers are often the name of the game.

Nowhere is this truer than behind the bar. Once everyone else gets finished with crazy workloads, errands, and shopping, many people hit the bar for a drink or few. For bartenders like me, holiday shifts last even later, and can be even more strenuous than the typical eight- to 12-hour nights. With holiday party season in full swing, many people have already imbibed more than usual before they come to the bar.

It is the season to make money, but more intoxicated guests bring some not-so-cheery aspects of the season with them. Lowered inhibitions are typically accompanied by more lewd comments toward women bartenders and servers. Tipsiness (or outright drunkenness) brings out generosity in some and clumsiness in all. For others, it’s the inspiration to steal shit like glassware or decorations off the table.

With all those things in play, it can also be difficult to keep employees’ morale high. But bar owners and bartenders do find ways to combat this holiday fatigue. In addition to employer-sponsored Christmas parties, many bars focus on giving back to the community and strengthening bonds among local bartenders.

This year, the staff at my home bar in Birmingham has had the chance to take ownership of our bar space. One coworker, JoJo, decorated our fireplaces with wreaths, stockings, tinsel garlands on the day after Thanksgiving. Now, the bar is also outfitted with a T-rex menorah and hot chocolate and marshmallows for the bar staff.

While we’re making sure that our own staff is taken care of, we’re also looking outward. One of the most common misconceptions that people hold about the bar industry is that people who work in it are out for themselves and no one else. Although that may be the case for some, the bartenders I know work through their own bars and through the U.S. Bartenders Guild to support charities that are near and dear to their hearts.

And as bartenders, we make raising money fun by throwing amazing parties or traveling to friends’ bars in other cities to bartend pop-ups. Fortunately for us (and our customers) giving back actually has both physical and mental benefits for the givers. That’s not the end goal in our giving, but it does help with the late, late nights.

At my bar, we’re collecting toys for Toys For Tots and donating a portion of proceeds to that essential organization this month. We’re far from alone: Many bars donate money, gift cards, space, and a portion of proceeds to charities around the holidays.

In New Orleans, 12 Mile Limit opens its space to charitable events, typically for organizations special to regular customers or to owner T. Cole Newton himself. Already this December, Newton says, 12 Mile Limit “hosted events for Emerging Philanthropists of New Orleans, Home By Hand, and the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal, to name a few. We do [charity events] year-round, but there's a spike in December, as a host of groups try to do end-of-year pushes.” Although the bar donates a portion of drink sales, Newton encourages the charities to host raffles, sell merchandise, or host other activities to raise still more money.

But they also invite bartenders and regular customers to their annual Deck The Bar party. During this event, people can stop by for a seasonal drink, make decorations, and get to help put them up inside the bar.

“It’s a lot of pipe cleaners and hot glue,” says Newton. “People treat this space as an extension of their homes, and we seek out opportunities to let them do that.”

At The Standard Pour in Dallas, the holiday season looks slightly different. Bartenders here work hard with other locals to raise money for one particular charity, Trigger’s Toys, year-round. Since Trigger’s Toys is most active during the holidays, they get to see more of the fruits of their labors during this time. This effort culminates annually in a themed, six-bar pop-up called The Ultimate Bar Experience. This year, the event raised more than $250,000 for the organization.

“We all work very hard to show our guests a good time,” says Brian McCullough, partner at The Standard Pour. “But it’s healthy to give back to the community in a positive way.” McCullough also encourages his staff to give back to the community through participation and volunteering.

McCullough practices what he preaches. He has been involved in Trigger’s Toys, an organization that assists families with medical costs and provides toys and therapy equipment (not to mention animal therapy) to kids in hospitals around the Dallas area, almost since its beginning.

And every year, area bartenders get to see the results of their efforts, at least for Trigger’s Toys. McCullough will travel with a group of area bartenders in December to “give presents, hugs and smiles to some very special kids and their families,” he says. “There is no better feeling than that.”