No, Really: It Takes a Village
A veteran bartender navigates this industry’s toughest balancing act—parenting.
August 16, 2018 ● 6 min read
By Dan Q. Dao | Photos courtesy of Eric Medsker and Natasha David; art by Cassandra Landry
“I had this idea that if I had a baby, he’d just play at the bar and I’d have a crib and he’d sleep while I was working,” recalls Natasha David, bartender-owner of New York City’s Nitecap. “The reality is that I had to change everything—it’s very different from this fantasy that you have in your head."
Parenthood is a massive life change no matter who you are. But bartenders, both men and women, face even more difficulty when it comes to balancing work—not to mention meaningful professional growth—with a newborn child, what with the odd hours, late nights, and an on-call schedule. And after all, bartending was not always the respected craft it has become today; these days, more and more people are making successful, lifelong careers of it, all while having kids and raising families. For David and her husband, bartender Jeremy Oertel, the arrival of their son, Elliott, would be both a blessing and a wake-up call.
“The reality of having a baby is that, on Friday night, when shit is hitting the fan, the bar is full, and there’s a line at the door, I gotta go pump for 30 minutes and that’s that,” she laughs. Anyone who’s been to Nitecap knows this is no easy task: the cozy, dimly-lit LES charmer is typically packed to the seams with cocktail geeks and revelers. Regulars are likely to see her helming the flower-festooned bar, moving with a lively intention that’s mirrored in her inventive cocktails—think a cheeky Tartan Swizzle that uses Scotch in a tiki format with house passion mix (passionfruit, ginger, cinnamon, peche de vigne) and fresh pineapple and lime juices.
Born in Germany to musician parents, David got her first taste of bartending working at an Irish pub while studying theater at New York University. Cocktails came soon after—she was part of the opening staff at the now-shuttered Woodford & Sons, alongside fellow star-tenders Lynnette Marrero and Jim Kearns. Going on to work behind the stick at some of the top restaurants and bars in New York City including Maialino, Maison Premiere, Mayahuel, and Donna, she eventually partnered with proprietors David Kaplan and Alex Day to open Nitecap in 2014. But despite the success of her career, David always wanted to be a mother as well, strategically moving into bar ownership as part of that plan for the future.
“Having kids and a family has always been a goal of mine,” David says. “A big motivation for me to own a bar was to have a family—if I had been a bartender at the time, I probably wouldn’t have had paid leave. I don’t know what I would have done.” There’s not yet a perfect answer for most bartenders, she admits. “My advice is to work for someone like Danny Meyer [of Union Square Hospitality Group] if you want to have a family. Or find a way to take on brand ambassadorships and other side jobs that allow you to make money while having more flexibility.”
Parental leave is an ongoing hot-button issue in the hospitality community—many large restaurant groups with human resource departments offer some form of paid leave in addition to the legally-mandated amount. Notably, as David mentions, Danny Meyer’s USHG made headlines when they offered 100-percent paid leave to new fathers, mothers, and domestic partners for the first four weeks after the birth or adoption of a child. But this kind of policy is far from universal: a recent Eater investigation discovered that, at the state level, many of New York's restaurant staffers would earn less than minimum wage during their eight weeks of paid leave.
At left, mid-shift realness. At right, a baby in a bar!
After the birth of her son, Elliott, David struggled to decide how much time to take off herself—and what kind of precedent to set for her team. “I ended up giving myself a month, but was back working two weeks in,” she says. So, it’s a work in progress: by common standards in most of the developed world, it’s insanity. A month isn’t terribly a generous recovery after childbirth, let alone a mere two weeks.
As a small business owner, David tries to leads by example in a community that is still very green to nuanced discourse on labor and gender equality. And the need within the industry is becoming increasingly immediate: Even within the tight-knit New York cocktail scene, more and more bartending notables who came up during the city’s early-aughts cocktail revolution—including Kenta Goto of Bar Goto, Jeff Bell of PDT, and Lucinda Sterling of Middle Branch—have become parents.
“There’s a few of us now,” David says. “I think it’s wonderful, but it’s also kind of silly statement to make because that’s just our little cocktail world. There are thousands of waiters and bartenders who have children, who we’re not talking to.”
Bars, she adds, are particularly behind in the conversation. As part of this ongoing search for a solution, the Nitecap staff pools together every month to set aside some money so that “if someone else were to need family leave, we could do it a little easier,” says David.
While there is an industry-wide discussion to be had, ambitious young bartenders might learn a thing or two from David’s journey, which by her admission, started a little rocky. “As much as I tried to plan ahead to give myself opportunities to not work, Elliott did come to work with me a lot at the beginning—there’s quite a photo series of him sleeping at the bar.”
The first, and most obvious, piece of advice David imparts is to build a strong network of support within your own staff. For her, that was Nitecap’s head bartender Lauren Corriveau, who stepped up to the plate in David’s absence at the bar, running day-to-day operations and managing staff. She also cites her business partners, Alex Day and Dave Kaplan, who are based remotely. “They live on the other side of the country, but supported as much as they could from afar with email duties and orders.”
But even with help, something had to give. David’s eagerness to dive back into work stood directly at odds with her personal recovery—with severe consequences. “Something important to be open about is that I fell really deep into postpartum depression because I didn’t take time to become a mom while trying to balance it all,” she says. “That’s such an unnatural thing to do, but that’s kind of the way America works. Women just can’t afford to take time off.”
The struggle was compounded by the fact that David wanted to move her family out of the city. “I knew I wanted Elliott to have a backyard, so we moved upstate to Red Hook, New York,” she explains. “Trying to run a bar from two hours away requires constant adjustment. Some days you feel like you’re kicking ass at work but being a terrible mom.” Now, she’s grateful for having made this decision, however, saying that she would rather take the train to work than try to raise a toddler in New York City.
Today, David and Oertel, who met while working together at Corner Shop Cafe a decade ago, run a consulting agency called You and Me Cocktails—together, they’re responsible for bar programs at NYC nightlife mainstays like Paul’s Baby Grand and the Soho Grand Hotel. While running their own business has allowed them increased freedom in their schedules, the couple has also recently taken on the help of part-time childcare for Elliott, who is now 20 months old. “Jeremy and I were kind of being insane—trading schedules and doing our work at incredibly odd hours in the night,” says David. “Whenever I was spending time with Elliott, I was always so distracted catching up on emails that I was never really present.”
In spite of the new challenges, David says being a mom has helped her be a better business owner, boss, and bartender. “The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that when I think there’s a huge crisis at work, it’s just not that big of a deal,” she says. “The things that used to eat me up—they just don’t anymore. I’ve really learned to have more patience.”
“I used to have grand goals for my career that now seem selfish, and I’m ok with them not happening,” she adds. “I used to say no to things I thought were ‘beneath me,’ but now I think ‘What if do this one little gig and get to spend more time with my kid?’ I don’t take myself quite as seriously anymore.”