Is “dive” a complimentary term for a bar? Or is it a wretched place that swims so far below decency you’d never admit to working at one?

Playboy defines “dive” with a touch of elegance:

A church for down-and-outers and those who romanticize them. A rare place where high and low rub elbows — bums and poets, thieves and slumming celebrities. It’s a place that wears its history proudly.

Dive bars come in two styles. Some are comfortable, anti-fancy, non-pretentious, come-as-you-are joints you can slip into like your favorite slippers. Others are dirty, dingy, uncared for, dilapidated holes that smell like, well, old footwear.

Even the saddest ones have regulars who love them. The best dives give you all of what you want and none of what you don’t: a relaxed atmosphere, cheap drinks, graffiti on the walls and a bartender who knows your name. Throw peanut shells on the floor. Show up with your dirty work shirt untucked and your hair rumpled. A dive bar doesn’t judge.

But what’s it like to work at one? Can you find a good career at a dive?

Dive versus Non-Dive

How does working at a humble dive compare to working at a restaurant bar, a hotel bar or any higher class drinking establishment?

  1. Your checks will definitely be lower. The same pint will be cheaper at a dive then at a swankier place. The 15 to 20% you earn is obviously more on a bigger check.
  2. You’ll probably work later, but this can be an advantage if it fits in your lifestyle. Depending on your state laws, you may work with gambling games such as pull tabs. These may turn you off, but it’s another source of income.
  3. It may change the perception of your resume: How does Fizzy McDrinksalot look on your resume? Maybe local employers recognize it, but it means little if you are job hunting around the country. A big name chain may catch more eyes.

Furthermore, are you looking to move up in your career? Working for a bigger organization may teach you more and provide more upward mobility. At a stand-alone bar with a dozen employees, there’s not far to go.

Working at a dive is not for everyone. You’ll have a rougher crowd, but at the end of the day why do we do this? To have fun and earn money, right?

So… is Fancier Better?

I’ve been guilty many, many times of judging a job by its facade. I bring my resume only to the places with quality names, desirable locations, high prices and cache. I want people to say: “Ooh, you work at the Maison D’ivresse*? How chic.”

I’ve been turned off by places with low-end wells that pump out vast quantities of domestic yellow beer. If I looked in the window and saw (yuck) pull tabs, I was probably never walking in.

And I’ve been wrong. Trust me, there’s money to be made in a humble local tavern. In the right one, you’ll find steady work, loyal regulars, freedom to be yourself and room to grow.

Big name restaurants, hotels and bars have a strong idea of how things should be done. They have rigid management structures. They have corporate standards. They’re not very forgiving and it’s hard to be an individual working there.

And at the end of the day, will you make more money at a fancy place? It’s hard to say. The check averages may be higher but you may be one cog on a large team and once everything is split up, you could find yourself disappointed in how much you fold into your own pocket.

Scouting Potential Employers

When deciding if a particular dive bar will be a good employer, first determine which of the styles I mentioned in the intro your target lands in: Is it a comfortable, humble place or is it just a dump?

Go there and hang out on the sly. Use the bathroom. (It probably looks just like the kitchen.) You likely won’t find marble but you shouldn’t find neglect and filth. You don’t have to be a swanky saloon to scrub the toilet.

Talk to the guests. Do they hang out there often? What good and bad things do they say? Do they live or work nearby?

Making money on Thanksgiving or Mother’s Day isn’t hard. Making it on an ordinary Tuesday can be, and you have a lot more Tuesdays. What you need is a core group of neighbors that drops by for no reason at all.

So walk the neighborhood. Note the proximity of homes and businesses. Who is only a stroll or short drive away?

The Hospitality Crew

You know who the best bar patron is? You are, and workhorses like you. Restaurant and bar people who just busted their butts and have a pocket full of tips are great customers.

You understand them. You’re one of them. They’re patient and cool because they’ve been in your shoes. They tip well, maybe better than fancier diners. They just want to chill.

You might find the best chefs in your town slumped in your stools. After sculpting delicate plates all night, they crave the rumpled simplicity of a good dive.

Being in the midst of restaurant row is a very good thing, especially if you’re the last place open.

Stay Open Late

I used to think that being the last bar open meant you’d see everyone’s worst behavior. This can be true, but being open as late as the law allows is a competitive advantage.

At 5:00 every place in town is open. That list shrinks by 10:00. After midnight, even fewer places have the lights on.

As legal last call approaches, finding a drink can be hard. When they see you’re still open (and cheerful to be open) they’ll be grateful. And you can’t spell gratuity without grateful, (err, sort of.)

You can make your whole night in the last hour. But look out for folks who’ve been to every other bar in town.

I like to ask “What have you been up to tonight?” while checking their ID or dropping a coaster. If they say they’ve been working, they ain’t been drinking (probably) and you have a conversation starter.

If they say they’ve been here and there and then there and then over there, maybe they’ve had enough. May your ax be sharp and swift.

Pull Tabs

I admit I was once prejudiced against pull tabs. I thought they brought in the wrong type of customer. I was incorrect.

You know how to never lose at pull tabs? Never play. Just deal them out. Winners usually tip but losers never charge.

(When you’re scouting the bar, watch to see if winners are leaving 5-10% for the bartender.)

You sell food and drinks, but pull tabs give you another product. If your players get on a lucky streak, you might make half of tonight’s tips from the tabs.

One dude pulling a $500 winner and leaving you $50 at the end of the night will change your shift.

My Dive

My current job I took reluctantly. It didn’t seem to be my type of place. Every table needed a belt sander. It wasn’t in the good part of town. It had those pull tab thingies.

But what sold me were two points: I’d be working mostly by myself and I’d get the late night restaurant crowd.

Let’s do it.

The worn out decor of the place means I’m never worried about polishing. They ain’t here for the furniture.

  • I can make half my tips pulling tabs.
  • I can have one good basket save my night.
  • I now treat counting tabs like the speed well.
  • I take pride in being swift and accurate while keeping my head on a swivel.

And the restaurant folks are the best part. I’ve always had an after work spot, and now I’m that spot. I still have fun and they all tip over 20%. Well, almost all but the fifty-percenters make up for everything.

While I don’t make as many craft drinks as I used to, I’ve convinced some people to let me wing it. They all know I can do it, even if they have a shot and a beer tonight.

I guess it’s a romantic church for the high and low.

In short, it’s the simplest, lowest stress job I’ve had in a long time. A bad night still pays well and the income ceiling is high. The biggest challenge I face is simply volume. Working mostly alone, sometime I have to put on my track shoes.

But we’re built for that, right?



*Maison D’ivresse = House of Drunkenness

Eighty Six

Eighty Six, also known as David Klenda, has worked the front of the house since George Bush's dad was president and OJ was famous for being a football player. He's been writing poetry and fiction longer than that. He'll write freelance about anything for a buck, but is so glad to be writing about something he knows and loves. Currently he is making a Spokane neighborhood dive a little more crafty.
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About Eighty Six

Eighty Six, also known as David Klenda, has worked the front of the house since George Bush's dad was president and OJ was famous for being a football player. He's been writing poetry and fiction longer than that. He'll write freelance about anything for a buck, but is so glad to be writing about something he knows and loves. Currently he is making a Spokane neighborhood dive a little more crafty.