Top Shelf Business
Blue Book Barkeeps is a unique business that’s proving to be a win-win for party patrons and local bartenders alike.
Blue Book Barkeeps Bluebookbarkeeps.com
Mobile bartending has risen in popularity across the country in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.
“As demand for private events services increases, cocktail catering has become a growing business,” explained a February 2022 article by MarketWatchMag.com, “especially during the Covid-19 pandemic when consumers looked for new ways to enjoy social experiences outside of traditional bars and restaurants.”
Businesses from New York City, Washington, D.C., and now New Orleans have popped up, featuring mobile bar setups, classic cocktails and specialty drinks for both outdoor and indoor events.
Blue Book Barkeeps was launched in New Orleans in 2020 by partners Emily Starr (president) and Nate Usrey (executive director) as a means of survival.
“When the pandemic hit, I had been bartending for 15 years, and Emily was working as a visiting assistant professor of sociology at Tulane,” said Usrey. “We have two kids who were 3 years old and 4 months old at the time. I lost my employment overnight, and Emily became the primary breadwinner for the family.”
The couple were able to take advantage of unemployment but, like so many people —especially service and hospitality people — they said aid was hard to get and the uncertainty was extraordinarily stressful.
“Bluebook Barkeeps was born during this time from long conversations on our porch after the kids were asleep, planning our future, feeling the harsh precarity of service work, and talking with our friends who had also suddenly lost their livelihoods with no end in sight,” said Usrey.
Instead of maintaining a permanent staff, Blue Book Barkeeps matches experienced bartenders with special event opportunities, and in the process, helps some who may not have been able to continue to work due to everyday life constraints.
“It’s more a network than a staff,” Usrey said. “We have dozens of experienced bartenders that we draw from all over the city.
Most are already employed at many of the finest establishments in the city and enjoy the change of scenery and the extra money. Some have moved on from the profession. They still love bartending, but the physicality of the job four or five nights a week is no longer desirable. Some are busy raising kids and the flexibility of taking a gig on their time and terms is ideal.”
Usrey said the company plans to employ full-time bartenders with full benefits as a core staff once it has grown in scale.
Offering more than just drink service, the company prides itself on its work to educate patrons on cocktail history and provide how-to lessons, as well as bespoke cocktails.
Everything is different about this cocktail experience, including the way the bartenders dress.
“We don’t wear all-black bistro wear or tuxedo shirts with a bow tie,” said Usrey. “This simple attire is meant for service staff to blend into the background. We dress sharp, with that nod to the classic age of New Orleans cocktails … We hark back to Storyville and the golden age of New Orleans cocktails in everything we do.”
The custom experience is proving popular.
“Each weekend we are doing three to four events, ranging in size from a 20-person in-home dinner to an 800-person charity gala,” Usrey said. “We’re introducing ourselves to the city event by event.”
While the company is seeing growth and success, Usrey and Starr keep in mind the needs of their pool of bartenders, and as such have also created the Bartender’s Emergency Fund, a 501 (c) 3 entity.
“We always knew there would be a social-aid component to the business. We are just wired that way,” Usrey said… “You can work for fickle and petty managers, deal with erratic scheduling, seasonal lows of tip-based income, workplace harassment, no medical benefits or parental leave, and on and on. Not to mention the incredible physical and emotional toll that the job can take on you day in and day out… And these issues were all rampant before the industry was ravaged by the pandemic closures.”
To help others in their field, the Bartender’s Emergency Fund provides timely, low-barrier aid to those in need. Donations to the fund are accepted at BlueBookBarkeeps.com, as are applications for assistance.
Usrey said the secret to the company’s success lies in its priorities.
“We are bartender-centric,” he said. “All of our focus is on the people who make it happen. That brings a level of knowledge and skill into your home — or wherever you care to hold an event — that is lacking in this city outside of commercial bars and restaurants.”
“Rent and cost-of-living increases have far outpaced wage increases — much of the service industry still earns $2.13(per) hour before tips. Many people, especially service industry people who make up such a huge demographic of New Orleanians, are still in recovery mode on many levels – financially, emotionally, professionally. We not only lost our livelihoods, we lost our identities and sense of community in the pandemic.” — Nate Usrey, co-owner of Blue Book Barkeeps, on the reason behind starting the Bartender’s Emergency Fund.
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