It was January in my second year of varsity, and I had just woken up drunk from the night before and still in utter heartbreak. At that moment, it was clear to me that my inner self was slowly sinking like the titanic. Every day I’d wake up, try to be productive as possible, before quickly escaping into my early afternoon joint and eventually levelling up on a few beers. I’d then join a group of friends on our endless spiral of benders. My bad lifestyle choices were quickly depleting my money, and each month I’d find myself removing more flesh of my savings account.
But despite this low point in my life, I was still curious. Like most people in my social scene, I wanted to know what it would be like to end the month with a bit of money left over. I wanted to be able to save money so that I could travel and see the world. And most importantly, I was adamant about substituting my usual 6pm joint for a task a bit more productive.
So, on that morning in January 2017, I printed out a few empty CVs, and I embarked on the unfamiliar job searching adventure.
Prior to this day, I had completed a one-month bartending course at Shaker Bar school. My best mate at the time, Nevada, also agreed with why I was so ambitious to get a job. And like a good friend, he jumped with me into the fire. And so, Nevada and I set out across the small town of Stellenbosch, handing out CVs at every bar we walked past.
Over the next three years, I would go on to work at four different bars, before eventually fuelling one of my own.
“It all started at Tigers Milk” would soon become the catchphrase of Nevada and me as the years would go by. Tigers Milk is a restaurant, and like any restaurant, it has a bar. But their definition of a bartender did not align with what I had perceived. Instead of making cocktails and getting vast tips, our job description was more along the lines of “Clean the bar, polish glasses, be the last to leave, and pour a few drinks along the way”. The head bartender, Petrus, taught me everything I needed to know about the hardship of a job in the service industry. A shift at Tigers Milk quickly became a chore which hardly funded my uber ride there. After 3 months, I decided to look for employment elsewhere. And Nevada promptly followed.
A few months later, on a rainy day in June, Nevada and I arrived outside Autograph distillery. Autograph, at the time, was a micro gin distillery, which had a small bar to showcase their delicious gin and extravagant cocktails. As we walked into the bar 30-year-old looking man sat at the bar, smoking a camel blue while sipping on a murky red cocktail. I would soon find out that this stranger was in fact 21 years old, and the master distiller of the gin. “Good evening you groovy humans and welcome to Autograph, I am Matty” the bartending veteran said. Little did I know, Matty and I would quickly become the best of friends.
As Autograph Gin grew, the bar began to take the back seat. And Nevada and I knew that we’d soon have to start working elsewhere. And in September I arrived at the steps of Hanks Whiskey Bar, an abode that would become my playground over the years to come. A middle-aged man sat at the beautiful marble bar, drinking a Guinness as I walked into the upmarket Irish-styled whisky bar. The man introduced himself as Rob, and within a few days, I began my first shift at Hanks. It was a matter of weeks until Nevada and another one of my best mates, Seb, who would later become a trusted business partner of mine, joined the bandwagon. Hanks quickly became a hangout for my friends. The vibe Rob created there was accommodating, and there was never a dull chat. Although we served delicious cocktails and the finest whiskey, a shift at Hanks rarely got much more interesting than a full box of cigarettes and an enriching yet pointless chat to the regulars. It wasn’t before long that Hanks had to shut its doors, and once again, I was job searching.
The next bar I worked at was a dream that I had longed for since my first year of varsity. It was a top-end, over 23 bar called Balboa. Although I was now working intense shifts for high pay, I was never quite getting along with management or other staff members. It was a cold day in May when I got a call from Petrus (the old head bartender at Tigers Milk and Hanks). “Faure, we’re starting a bar. Meet us at the old Hanks building”.
The Loft is one of my proudest achievements at university. Petrus, Seb and I – all three of us under 20 years old – were tasked with rebranding Hanks into a student-friendly destination, just so that the owners could pay the remaining rent of their 5-year lease. In the startup phase, there was no pay, plenty of empty nights and no certainty that we’d still be open at the beginning of the following month. But together, driven by our youth and free beer, we managed to turn a destined to fail whiskey bar into a classy student location. There were countless times when we’d have to close the doors due to lack of funds. But somehow this beast we created would revive itself, and we’d continue to operate. And eventually, in the November of my third year, a trusted entrepreneur and nephew of the owners, Mario, came into management with Seb and me. And that’s when we modelled to winning formula. We’d throw events to bring in customers, the owners would take the proceeds from the bar, and we’d make money from the entrance fee. It was a win-win, and I was finally earning good money while having a free jol every Wednesday and Friday.
Eventually, our successes at The Loft lead to the sale of the business. And in March 2020 (just before bars closed for the COVID-19 pandemic), the owners got what they’d wanted for the past 3 years, and the bar changed ownership.
Although my time at each place was never more than a few months, the diversity of the places I worked at all taught me valuable lessons. Upon reflection, here are the 10 lessons I learnt from my work experience during university.
Lesson 1: A space that creates mature thinking
Each bar I worked at introduced a new mentor and friend into my life. Petrus at Tigers Milk, Matty and Autograph, Rob at Hanks and Mario during The Loft. All of these characters were older than me and hence more mature. I’d spend most of my hours away from class learning and discovering the war stories of these men. And after a certain amount of time, I’d start thinking like them. I’d start planning for my future, saving money, reading self-development books and ultimately, making business-related decisions. Most notably, my friendship with Matty was one that benefited me the most. Matty taught me how to drink for appreciation instead of “to just get fucked”. He also taught me how to speak with enthusiasm so that my listener is encapsulated in the conversation.
Lesson 2: Time Management
Now, one has to remember that bartending was a part-time job for me. My main objective was to graduate in 2020 with an Engineering degree. Many people, including my parents, would always remind me of this and tell me that I should make my sole focus on my degree. But I was learning too much. I knew that being in these working environments was essentially giving me a practical degree to supplement the problem-solving thinking of engineering. So, I taught myself the art of Getting Things Done (David Allen – author of the book). Anything that had to be done was organized and prioritized into categorical lists at the beginning of each week. Each day, I’d approach the highest priority items and squeeze them in between classes and my shifts. My productivity went through the roof, and to my greatest surprise, I actually ended up having more free time to enjoy the enriched student life of never saying no to “just one beer”. And this time I had more money to spend.
Lesson 3: Business Lessons
During the three years I spent in the service industry, I saw businesses thrive. And I saw businesses fail. And ultimately, in the end, I managed to practice what I had learnt in my own hustle. Balboa was a bar that was exceptionally well run and targeted a particular part of the Stellenbosch market. Balboa was a place where only over 23s could enter, and hence this gave it the credibility that it deserved. After closing, stock counts and cash ups would go on for hours while the bartenders cleaned the area spotless.
On the other hand, I was a witness to the failure of Hanks. The bar survived almost a year of trading before the doors were closed. We tried everything to revive the Irish bar, but unfortunately, we couldn’t find a market of whiskey appreciators in Stellenbosch.
Lesson 4: The power of networking
The saying “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” comes to mind when the term “networking” is explained. I learnt the power of this when I got my job at Autograph. A mutual friend of Nevada and I introduced us to Matty, which resulted in our employment at Autograph. Now, making a connection is one thing, but taking the opportunity is a whole different aspect. During my time at Autograph, I’d often end up spending the night conversing with a customer across the bar as I make lavish cocktails. My side hustle at the time was a startup called Bespoke Wines, which personalized and labelled wines for events or organizations. One evening I began talking to a customer, who turned out to be an unlabeled wine supplier which happened to be precisely what I was looking for. This is just two of many networking situations that resulted in the most significant opportunities.
Lesson 5: New skills
The service industry taught me many different skills. Some being tangible. And some coming from within me. On the physical side of things, I learnt how to perfect cocktailing, stock counting, cash ups and cleaning. I had great cocktailing mentors, such as Matty and Petrus. Matty gave me an artistic edge to thinking out the box, whereas Petrus knew the classics to perfection. By putting the two together, I was able to do wonders. On the intangible side, my self-confidence and interpersonal skills developed to new levels. It was easy to practice these by interacting with customers and fellow employees daily.
Lesson 6: Influencing people
Before opening The Loft, I read an inspiring book called “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek. The book teaches one the power of inspiring people to follow you towards your higher purpose. When we were starting The Loft, there was no pay, late nights, and obstacles around every corner. But we were driven by something far more significant than ourselves, and hence we inspired people to join us on our journey. Employees and customers were interested and encouraged to be a part of the development of The Loft. Through this, I learnt the power of “Starting with why”.
Lesson 7: Practical degree
Although I was getting a prestigious degree in Industrial Engineering, nothing beat the practical lessons I learnt in the service industry. Many of these lessons evolved from The Loft, where we were challenged with writing up budgets and contracts. Or developing a marketing strategy. Or negotiating the best deal with a supplier. By practising in a volatile environment, I could see how these details fit together in the bigger picture.
Lesson 8: Getting lucky
“Diligence is the mother of good luck” – Benjamin Franklin. Sometimes you just have to take the risk and persist, and luck will come your way. I had the ambition to get a job. I wanted it. One day my dad sent me a Facebook link to the opening of Hanks in Stellenbosch. The whiskey bar appealed to me, so I applied for a job. By being in that environment, I was able to take certain risks that resulted in me co-founding The Loft. Which was one of my greatest achievements at varsity. The more risks you take, the luckier you will be.
Lesson 9: Hardship of the service industry
The late nights and hard work of the service industry can take their toll on the body. Sometimes cash up at The Loft would only end at 5 am. Three hours later I’d be woken by a deathly alarm because I’d have to go open for the cleaners. Personally, I have served my time in the service industry. The experiences and lessons have shown extreme value. But on the other hand, late nights, chain-smoking, drinking, and the use of stimulants to stay productive are tolling on the body.
Lesson 10: The importance of rest
Rest is important. It gives us a platform to recharge our batteries and come backfiring for the next round. Within the busyness of my years at university, having a time demanding job has made me appreciate any breaks that I’d get. Whether it be a simple sleep in or a long holiday where I can “sharpen the saw”.
As you may have gathered throughout the previous 10 lessons, working in the service industry and starting a business have been challenging. And on top of this, I have managed to get myself to a position where I’ll be completing my engineering degree within the four allocated years. I have had many sleepless nights where the pay just hasn’t been worth it. But ultimately, I have profited by accelerating my personal development before I have even entered the real world.
Now, you might say that you’ve been working in the service industry for years and you “didn’t learn what I’ve learnt” or that you “didn’t get as lucky as I did”. On top of these previous 10 lessons, the single most crucial piece of advice I have to get the most out of any situation is:
Take every opportunity that comes your way, challenge yourself beyond your comfort zone, never stop networking, and at the end of the day, be sure to satisfy your happiness. The is no point in living an unhappy life.