Bartending is not an easy gig. To do it well, you have to be part therapist, part best friend, part scholar and part enabler. But some people seem like they’re made for the job, easily swinging between server and confidant while tapping into knowledge about hundreds of beers and thousands of spirit combinations.
In this installment of Billy Penn’s “Who’s Next” series presented by the Knight Foundation, which introduces readers to the most dedicated young people working to shape our city every day, we’ve highlighted 15 dynamic drink whizzes under the age of 40.
Even if you’re in the biz yourself, these are people you might not have heard of yet — the Philly bar scene is super crowded, after all (and we mean that in the best way possible). But we’re confident these are names you’ll want to remember.
Honorees’ hair and makeup by House of Clarity
He's a part-time DJ (you might have caught him at the Trestle Inn) and he painted the Mexico City-inspired artwork on the sign for Cafe Ynez, but Bustamante’s main vocation is mixing drinks. And creating them — of the nine bars and restaurants he’s taken jobs with, all have been to help with openings. It started in Orlando, where he’d moved with family after a childhood in Queens, with a bartender position at a tourist-magnet called Latin Quarter. He came to Philly to get a degree from PAFA, and also continued his cocktail career, first for Jose Garces (Chifa, Tinto, Village Whiskey) and then for Kevin Sbraga. Left hanging when Juniper Commons closed, he connected with the folks at SouthGate and helped introduce Rittenhouse to the concept of a neighborhood bar serving Korean fare. Neighborhood bars in general might become more popular because of the current political climate, Bustamante believes, because people are looking for comfort — although he clarifies that doesn’t mean boring. The only downside to bartending? The late and unpredictable hours, which makes downtime with his schoolteacher wife hard to come by.
This Juniata Park native calls himself “a workaholic, and proud” — in addition to his full-time gig making drinks, he flips Philly real estate — but he’s also a proud dad, taking care of two sons while his wife works days at a law firm. Bartending was a calling, he says, something he fell into when a friend’s dad needed a pinch hitter in a hurry at Finnegan’s Wake on St. Patrick’s Day 1997. Since then, he’s put in time at more than half a dozen other spots, taking on everything from fine wines at Smith & Wollensky’s to chillax beach beers at Echo’s in North Wildwood, where he still works in the summer. He loves his current job — Hugo’s is “the best kept secret in Philadelphia,” he says — especially relishing the chance to meet new people every day. But don’t ask him for a frozen drink. Unless you’re on a Caribbean island or relaxing by the pool, he thinks they’re just plain “dumb.”
Deegan has pretty much always known she was destined to be a bartender. A native of Northeast Philly, she started in the biz working summers down the shore, and then dove in headfirst. A stint attending NYU confirmed for Deegan that behind the bar was where she wanted to be, and after working at several NYC hotspots, she opened her own in Brooklyn in 2008. One Last Shag, as the gay bar was called, was a huge success — it hosted several of New York’s first gay weddings — but eventually it became draining. She and her partner sold the spot last year, and Deegan returned to Philly to be with family and reassess her options. She fangirls out about all the sakes and sochus on the menu at Royal, where she puts all her effort into getting customers to branch out from the same-old, same-old and try something new: “Everyone in Philly defaults to the Old Fashioned — it feels like it’s only drink they know.”
Washing dishes at Memphis Taproom wasn’t this Glenside native's favorite job ever (surprise, surprise), but it was a way into an industry that had always interested him. And the gambit worked: Evans scored a position at Stateside on East Passyunk right after George and Jennifer Sabatino left, and was given the responsibility of creating the entire cocktail list. He turned that into a career, putting in time at Fork and other well-respected bars before ending up slinging drinks behind the intimate, six-person table at Serpico. What Evans refers to as “the beautiful open kitchen” at the South Street spot serves as daily inspiration for his cocktails, which he tries to bring up to the same exquisite level of chef Peter Serpico’s food. His goal is to provide liquid excellence without pretension — “I don’t like that whole suspender and bowtie image” — and is thrilled about the variety of local spirits that are now readily available.
After starting as a diner waitress at age 19, Healy transitioned into bartending at Iron Hill Media, the local brewpub chain’s outpost in the town where she grew up. She worked there 11 years, but, having since moved to the city, she got tired of reverse commuting. Nearly three years ago, she got the job at Prohibition Taproom, and has gained the owners’ trust to the point where she’s now one of the people holding a key to the joint. The urban clientele is somewhat different from the suburbs’, but Healy’s pet peeve remains the same: Amateurs, she calls them — the folks who get angry about being carded or fight against being cut off when she perceives they’re too drunk. Positives far outweigh the negatives, though, from getting to converse with different people every day to constantly trying new beers and spirits and getting customers excited about them. “It doesn’t feel like work,” she says. “It feels like I’m getting paid to hang out with friends and family.”
Bartending always seemed like the coolest job to this Center City native (she grew up at 16th and Walnut) so after realizing a career in film was more about politics than creativity, Hobson gravitated toward drink-making as a way to support herself while also making art. As it turned out, she was very good at the job — adept at creating recipes, sure, but also at dealing with people. She got her start in Brooklyn, but returned to Philly after a year. Here, she opened Cheu Noodle Bar with Shawn Darragh and Ben Puchowitz and has worked with the duo ever since — her collection of gold chains adorned with food-related bling (a basket of fries, a Chinese takeout container) fits right in with their eclectic vibe. Hobson is currently excited by the craft distillery boom, and hopes that the recent revival of drinks with blue curacao dies a speedy death.
Growing up at the Jersey Shore, Juner never thought she would end up in the bar biz — her first gig at a seaside taco restaurant didn’t paint an especially rosy picture of the industry. But once she found her place at Jet Wine Bar, where she’s worked for six years, she realized she was made for the job. She loves all facets of it, from creating tinctures, bitters and infusions to crafting recipes to actually seeing customers enjoy the first sip. (Don’t ask her for a slushy frozen drink, though, it’s her least favorite thing.) Watch for vermouth to become more and more popular as a stand-alone order, she says — instead of just being an ingredient, the fortified wine is now being recognized in its own right. Her fiance is a cook at Monk’s Cafe, so it wouldn’t be out of line to expect the couple to eventually open a place of their own.
As soon as Kusma turned 18, NJ’s legal age for bartending, managers at the North Jersey restaurant where she was waitressing began training her to mix drinks. She relied on bartending to get through college — “It let me earn a degree without any student loans!” — and still enjoys the monetary rewards that come from doling out booze in a friendly manner. After all, Kusma points out, bartending is basically being paid to network with people, and she eventually hopes to open her own business. At party favorite Bru, where she landed after time at Lucy’s Hat Shop and Drinker’s Tavern, she has her finger on the pulse of the hottest drink trends. In: Classics like Manhattans and Moscow Mules, except made with alternative spirits like tequilas. Out: Cinnamon-flavored whiskey — “People are over it.”
If there’s anything Long dislikes about the bartending industry, it’s the whole trend of gimmicky bars. “I'm over passwords and secret entrances,” says the Lehigh Valley native. After graduating from Temple, she didn’t feel ready for a 9-to-5 lifestyle — she was making more money than friends who went that route, anyway — and she still isn’t, although the late hours are getting tougher as the years go by. Also annoying: Having to repeatedly justify what she does as a legitimate job. Still, sharing stories and “shooting the shit” with customers while providing kind, helpful, non-pretentious service is too much fun to give up. She foresees simpler drinks with a few fresh ingredients as taking over from the complicated cocktail trend, as well as a turn away from overly sweet recipes with a focus on local spirits.
Working as a teen at the Olive Garden near his South Jersey hometown was McLean’s first foray into the hospitality scene, and even though he doesn’t pretend the menu was innovative, he credits that corporate gig with teaching him a ton about how the business works. He translated that by-the-book knowledge into a successful stint behind the stick at Xfinity Live, where the crowds and the craziness honed his skills even further. After a brief period working as a special ed teacher — he has a teaching degree from Rutgers — McLean jumped back into the game, only this time somewhere small and independent. Happy hour at IndeBlue still gets super busy, he says, but he’s grateful for the daily rush, since it keeps him active and quick on his feet. One thing he does wish would stop is the absurd proliferation of IPAs: “Every day we’re tapping into some new twist on the style.”
Count time at a handful of the area’s top restaurants — including Sbraga, Lo Spiedo, La Fia and Avance — among the reasons Ortega was hired to run the beverage program at Maison 208, the forthcoming French restaurant from Top Chef contestant Sylva Senat. Though he’s new to the bar side of things, having started as a busser at Uno’s near his native Levittown and working his way up as a server from there, Ortega has a natural interest in concocting drinks. His hobby is growing food at home, and he is on a mission to spread the word about how easy it is. “I would never call myself a barman or mixologist because I make my own syrups,” he says, “because you can do it too!” Even if customers are buried in their phones, he’ll try to engage them, because learning from people is his favorite part of the job. Least favorite? The state’s byzantine wine and spirit laws, which make some prime booze especially hard to get.
A Philadelphia native who attended an elite boarding school in Massachusetts and earned a political science degree, Palubinsky surprised himself and his family by finding he had a knack for hospitality. He got into the biz as concierge at some of Philly best hotels, and then acted as concierge at Penn Health’s high-end Pavilion unit. It all got to be a bit much, so he decided to take his talents to the kind of spot where he personally likes to hang out. At Rembrandt’s, he started a hugely popular Quizzo night and became an instant favorite among the customers, probably thanks to his philosophy that great cocktails don’t need to come with a “speakeasy” affectation. His favorite part of the job? Watching people on first dates: “It’s so good.” He predicts a coming surge in St. Germain drinks, along with a renaissance of single malt Scotch. And don’t be surprised if you catch him next time you call a Lyft — he does that job, too.
Powanda comes from a restaurant family. Growing up in Chambersburg, his father cooked professionally on weekends, and it rubbed off. His sister is now sous chef at La Colombe Fishtown, his brother is a bartender at Bistrot La Minette, and Rick himself works four or five nights a week at The Good King Tavern, impressing Bella Vista clientele with his cocktail proficiency. Bartending wasn’t his first career choice — he has a degree in Classics from Temple — but it’s what he calls a perfect fit. “I’m a social butterfly,” he says, “and bartending is like an excuse to socialize. It’s your job to talk to people.” Considering that assessment, it’s no wonder his pet peeve is cell phones, which he terms “the bane of the industry.” On the plus side, he loves being able to introduce customers to new experiences, like pisco, the Peruvian brandy he’s intent on popularizing in Philly.
South Philly native Rando has worked in some of the most respected cocktail bars on the East Coast, including the Clover Club in NYC and Philly’s Apothecary and Franklin Bar, but she loves her current position at Mission — especially because it lets her spread the good word about agave spirits. They often get a bad rep, she says, because “people have had terrible experiences with poorly-produced tequila in the past and that’s all they remember.” She uses her conversations with patrons — her favorite thing about the job — to win drinkers back to the agave fold, and her tactics seem to work, since many end up becoming regulars and returning again and again. The downside? Dealing with folks who have over-imbibed, which she notes can be tricky, and “sometimes downright uncomfortable.”
Human nature is Stuber’s favorite thing about being behind the bar — from meeting interesting people from around the world to making incredible “friends for life” — but also her least favorite, especially seeing people retreat into their cell phones instead of interacting with one another. The Bucks County native got her start in the industry at age 19 at the Lobster House in Cape May, but her real behind-the-bar education came when she returned to Philly and picked up a gig at busy Old City tavern Plough and the Stars. A customer she met there took her to Thailand in 2011, where minor tragedy struck: On the second day of vacation, Stuber was hit by a car while riding a motorcycle and nearly lost her leg. After she got pregnant, however, it healed surprisingly well — “Stem cells!” — and she regained ability to walk. In addition to her two current jobs, she and her hairdresser husband are planning to open a second barbershop in Pennsport, which will also serve beer.