Joel Kollinger is gearing up to drive to Oakland and along the way he is going to stop by a few bars. He may sample some drinks, but he is more keen on getting behind the bar at happening establishments and showcasing his cocktails. Kollinger recently resigned from The Ice Plant in St. Augustine, where he worked as assistant bar manager. He is finalizing details of his trip, reaching out to friends and acquaintances and securing dates to work his way out to west.
Guest shifts, also referred to as “gypsy shifts,” have become a common, worldwide practice in the bartending industry. According to Greg Goldstein, bar manager at St. Augustine’s Catch 27, picking up gypsy shifts stems from staging (pronounced with the circumflex ô, as in jaw, derived from stagier, a French term for trainee). A stage is an unpaid tryout to see if the potential employee really has the skills for the position.
But the gypsy shift is more of a recognition of skill or acclaim attained. Regarded barkeeps from around the world, building their brand via social media and word of mouth, are either invited, or, as is Kollinger’s case, reach out to request a pickup shift to showcase their talents and make some coin.
“What we are seeing a lot more is bartenders picking up gypsy shifts and tying their tips or honorariums to a local charity,” says Goldstein. “It’s a good way to both highlight your skills and give back to a local community you are visiting.”
Goldstein recently returned from a month-long gypsy shift jaunt in New York City. “In many cases, the (gypsy) shift is a way into a new community and a resume builder for a bartender,” says Goldstein.
Kollinger agrees, but also sees it as an opportunity to learn from other folks in the business. “I’m looking to perhaps launch my own venture one day and what better way to learn about new drinks and techniques than to get out there and see what’s going on in other cities,” Kollinger says.
Along with the chance to take in best practices and new concoctions, gypsy shifts can offer a decent financial reward. Kollinger explains that every deal is unique and that depending on the night of the week and the market, pay can go from a simple share of the tips to a guaranteed fee, meals and even hotels arranged by the host bar. “I have friends that have been bartending for a decade and have been working gypsy shifts the whole time,” Kollinger says.
The gypsy shift is not only good for the wayfaring bartender, but also good for the host bars. Matt Carson, one of the managing partners of Flask & Cannon in Jacksonville Beach, champions gypsy shifts for his own team of bartenders. “It’s not only good for them to gain experience, but it also promotes our establishment,” says Carson.
Carson refers to the churn and burn mentality of many establishments, where bartenders are used, abused and discarded with the belief that there is a line of replacements waiting for shifts. “We want to get our team out there to learn and recharge their bartending batteries,” Carson says referring to keeping up the wellness and morale of his staff.
Flask & Cannon will sometimes trade bartenders for a shift or two with other local and regional bars, akin to a student exchange program. Carson says that bartenders on a gypsy shift are usually known for making one or two great drinks and they come in solely focused on making those drinks for their shift.
“Our community is so collaborative and helpful, as opposed to some larger cities out there where bartending can be really cutthroat,” Carson says. “Jacksonville is becoming a go-to destination for great gypsy shifts. We recently hosted a great bartender from Puerto Rico and it was a great success.”
Kollinger has already scheduled 10 stops on his way to Oakland. He will zig-zag his way showcasing six or seven marquis cocktails from his arsenal of over 40 original drinks. His previous experience with gypsy shifts has been in Florida and he is looking forward to seeing what is on offer at bars in other states. “If other folks like my cocktails and what I am doing, it also raises the awareness of bartenders coming from Florida doing cool things,” Kollinger says.
“Taking on gypsy shifts can be taxing on the body and taxing on the bank account, but at the end of the day you get to meet great bartenders and great people,” says Kollinger. “I’m leaving Florida at the end of September and I hope to live out a Kerouac novel for a few months.”
This feature originally appeared in Void Magazine Vol. 9, Issue 3, The Drink Issue.