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What It’s Really Like to Work a Bar on New Year’s Eve

Lugging ice buckets and stacking Red Bulls on the busiest, booziest night of the year

On first thought, working behind a bar and playing soccer have nothing in common. But for one restaurant worker in Chicago, both showcase two important skills — athleticism and composure. Ivan Galicia, a bartender’s assistant at Untitled Supper Club in Chicago, instinctively leans out the way when a bartender turns around swiftly or makes sudden moves. After all, Galicia’s job as a barback is to predict his bartender’s actions and needs — and to respond accordingly.

Some say barbacking is the toughest job in a bar. While the bartender focuses on creating and serving drinks, the barback is organizing the bottles, stocking shelves, wiping down the bar top, washing glasses, and lugging pounds of ice from the stock rooms, not to mention staying out of the bartender’s way with the finesse and agility of an athlete. According to Galicia, he picked up the skills he uses behind the bars of the speakeasy-inspired Untitled from playing soccer, so much so that he thinks of them as training grounds for one another.

“What I do here helps me with soccer. Soccer helps me with my activity here,” Galicia said. But in a dark, bustling atmosphere where the posh clientele is mostly there to drink, party, and have a good time, he needs more than athletic intuition to get through long, stressful shifts. Galicia said that adding meditation and relaxation techniques to his list of work skills is key. “I always try to be aware and meditate every step I do. If I get to be disconnected or distracted from some kind of distractions, I always try to remember my breathing.”

The breathing comes in handy in a place like Untitled, one of Chicago’s most popular lounges. The space has five bars and spans 18,000 square feet. And if there’s a World Cup for Galicia’s nights at Untitled, it’s New Year’s Eve, one of the bar’s busiest nights: This year, with live performances and drinks, the bar promised a lavish and intense affair, with upwards of 800 guests attending. Galicia worked as a barback for the 2015 and 2014 events, and predicted things could get a bit hectic. ”I feel like I will be running all around,” he said the night before the shift.

The task sounded daunting, but Galicia didn’t seem to mind. Instead, the ruminative 24-year-old put his meditative philosophies to the test. “I expect it to be busy. I expect it to be fun, but I also expect it to be peaceful and lovely,” Galicia said. “I expect everyone to be connected somehow in that day. Expansion of mind has to happen, no question, it has to arrive now, so I'm really excited about it.”

Eater wanted to see exactly how much running around Galicia would be doing while performing his barback duties on New Year’s Eve, and just how much his breathing and meditation practices would help. Equipped with a Microsoft Band fitness tracker, Galicia allowed Eater to track his heart rate, steps, calories, and stress levels throughout the night. Here are the results:

The bar Ivan worked at on New Year’s Eve.

Working nights, Galicia doesn’t usually wake up until late in the day. On New Year’s Eve, he got up and began wearing the band around 12:30 in the afternoon. He spent a few hours running errands until it was time to head to Untitled Supper Club that evening.

Galicia started his shift at 7 p.m., two hours before the ticketed celebration was to officially begin. The night was still a bit quiet: Organizers weren’t expecting the place to fill up until about 10 p.m. Still, the fitness tracker shows a noticeable uptick in activity as Galicia got to work. Galicia usually starts his shift figuring out what’s missing behind the bar to which he’s assigned, and re-stocking it. His average heart rate grew from 70 beats per minute when he was at home to 77 b.p.m. during his first hour on the job. During this time he’s typically making trips from the bar to Untitled’s three stock rooms. In one of the rooms, where the liquors are kept, Galicia has to crouch down to avoid the low ceiling and pipes. He said he usually tries to get everything he needs for the entire evening during this first run, otherwise, he risks having to make more trips there during the night. In just this first hour of work, the number of steps Galicia took increased 161 percent, compared to the hour before.

“You're in a rush and you need something, but you need to leave the bar to grab it, that means you're going to get behind on things that you're doing behind the bar,” Galicia said. “For me, my only purpose of getting out of the bar is just grabbing ice and restocking my shelves, like beer or any bottles that I need.”

Galicia got through the first hour and a half of his shift, when suddenly he was asked to open up another bar, making him repeat the routine. He said he was not expecting this, but according to the data, he remained calm. At this time his heart rate actually decreased, even though his walking and movement increased.

But the real test begins once the bulk of the guests start to arrive at 10 p.m. As the place fills up, Galicia had to make sure his bartenders had everything they needed and that the guests weren’t leaving a mess. In an environment like a bar, where things can be boisterous and rowdy, remaining cool can be a challenge. Galicia said that one of the more stressful things about working as a barback is having to interact with clients who may sometimes be snippy or inebriated.

“It's funny, those are the little things that you need to be aware of, because if you don't know how to control yourself, you can get into some trouble,” Galicia said. “Meditation helps me a lot in those situations.”

The Microsoft Band measures its wearer’s stress level using Galvanic Skin Response, or the amount of moisture people produce in response to any kind of stimuli. The measurement picks up on the body’s response to stress, whether the stressor is good or bad. During the 10 p.m. hour, when the party starts to ramp up, the Band shows that Galicia’s stress levels start to increase.

But the meditation appears to have to worked. While the GSR data showed an increase in stimuli from the environment around 10 p.m. (at the same time, the number of steps Galicia took reached its highest amount during the night), Galicia’s heart rate indicated some calmness. His heart rate actually decreased to 73 beats per minute, according to the Band.

Eventually, the new year approached, and the party went on until about 2 a.m.. But as revelers headed out into the city to enjoy the first day of 2017, Galicia and the Untitled staff’s work was only increasing, as they had to clean up and close. This is where the bulk of Galicia’s physical work occurred. His average heart rate was 78 beats per minute at 3 a.m., the highest hourly average of the night. His peak heart rate during this hour was 107 beats per minute, the second-highest rate of the night.

By the end of Galicia’s shift, he walked the equivalent of 11 miles and burned 1005 calories. At the end of the night (early morning for the rest of the city), Galicia spent some time with his co-workers, before heading home to meditate and sleep at about 9 a.m., he said.

Just a few days later, he’d have had to repeat everything over again, albeit during a less-busy service. But Galicia plans to get through it with a sense of tranquility, and like many barbacks, he sees the hard work as a stepping stone, not a grind.

“Everyone has purposes in life, but sometimes once you achieve those purposes, you don't really know what to do anymore. I was thinking okay, my purpose was to get work behind the bar, not exactly to be a barback,” Galicia said. “That was the first step to be behind the bar, and I really loved it. My real purpose is still being a bartender, but there's things that, once you're behind the bar, you realize. Not all of those things you're going to like.”

Ivan Galicia, barback at Untitled.

Vince Dixon is Eater's data visualization reporter. Mike Fan is a photographer based in Chicago.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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