A bartender at JeanRo Bistro for six years before settling in behind the bar at Jean-Robert’s Table in 2010, Jeannie is one of the most popular bartenders in the city, a vivacious redhead quick to a laugh and with a heavy pouring hand. As one of six children, she believes growing up in a large family prepared her for the world of restaurant service, giving her an ability to adapt to people easily.
The very first restaurant I worked at was The Echo in Hyde Park. I was in high school and the youngest one there. The food was good home-cooked food, but I never really gave it much thought—the customers motivated me. The Echo was such a family place. Customers socialized with each other, ordered the same thing, sat in the same places. As a server, you became part of their lives.
Service is about the people. It’s why I like the bar—you’re more hands on and closer to the people. I like entertaining. I like getting to know the customers. I like bringing strangers together. As much as a good bartender can make a customer’s day, a customer can really make a bartender’s day.
Teller’s introduced me to new world wine. I started serving tables at Teller’s when they first opened, then moved to bartending. They were always slammed and there was always a lot of drinking going on— the food seemed to take a back seat. But the wine selection was awesome.
I moved to the Virgin Islands. I had been at Teller’s four or five years and was ready to experience something different. I was 27 with no job. I just bought a plane ticket and went. But serving is international, so it was easy to find a job bartending. I made a lot of rum drinks. It’s a very slow way of life. Island time—everyone is always 15 minutes late. No one was in a hurry to serve or be served.
I met a gentleman who led white water rafting tours in Oregon. I came home with the plan to meet him out there. The first week I was back my mom suddenly passed away. I ended up staying in Cincinnati.
I knew Jean-Robert [de Cavel] was planning to open JeanRo Bistro. I had eaten at Pigall’s a couple of times. I loved his food. I wanted to work for him. I was so determined to get a job at his bistro.
JeanRo Bistro was the place that kicked me into old world wine. We were thirsty for wine knowledge. Justin Dean did most of the ordering; Andy Sheffield, Michael Washburn, and I soaked up everything we could. We cooked dinners together on off nights and learned about wines by pairing it with our meal.
There was some “time off” between the closing of JeanRo Bistro and the opening of Jean-Robert’s Table, so I tended bar at The Comet. The Comet’s pace and atmosphere is closer to my personal lifestyle: good whiskey drinking, good food, good people, and good music.
Jean-Robert is so French. His knowledge of food is unbelievable; his passion for his work is insane. I believe in his food. I believe in him. I don’t want to work anywhere that I don’t.
At Table, wine and food knowledge is important. We don’t really do craft-style cocktails with homemade syrups and the like, the relationship of wine and beer to food is my thing.
Not everybody knows how to describe what they like until they taste it. I like to let customers taste wine they may be unfamiliar with, or if they’re having a difficult time making a choice. I think it drives Jean-Robert crazy. But it’s a little thing that makes a customer feel special and may turn them on to something new.
Is the customer always right? To a certain degree, yes. Hmmm…maybe not. I try to never get to the point of having an unhappy customer, but if I do, I try to handle it calmly.
I cut overly intoxicated customers off. I’ve called a lot of cabs over the years. But my Irish side comes out if they are belligerent or out of control. I ask them to leave—after they’ve paid for their check of course. Fortunately, we don’t have to deal with overly intoxicated customers very often at Table. Our version is when there’s a room full of customers who all believe they are VIPs.
Even if we are slammed, I’m big on acknowledging the customer. “Hello” goes a long way. Most customers are very forgiving of waiting for a drink if they’ve at least been greeted.
When I’m training a bartender, I stress the importance of eye contact and active listening. You can learn a lot about a customer’s likes and dislikes and deliver the best service accordingly. That’s the advantage of a bar—we’re in close proximity to each other. There’s no excuse not to listen.
I hold a lot of customer’s secrets. Sometimes I’m hearing something I shouldn’t be hearing, or don’t want to be hearing. I have customers who pour their heart out, who reveal very intimate details about their life. It can be very intense.
When someone chooses to go out to eat or drink, they are there to enjoy a ride. As a bartender, you need to read them. Do they want a quiet moment or do they want to absorb the atmosphere? They could have gone most anywhere for a beer or a cocktail—they choose your bar for the atmosphere, or the bartender, or both. The customer has chosen your world. It’s your obligation to thank them.
Good people and a big strong drink—that’s what makes a great bar. I love Northside Tavern (especially live band karaoke night), Milton’s, The Comet. I love The Lackman for a great beer, and Neon’s during the warm weather.
If I weren’t a bartender, I would travel the world and work for National Geographic. One day. One day.
A shortened version of this interview originally appeared in the March 2013 issue.
Photograph by Annette Navarro