Life behind Bars

Conversations with KC's top bartenders

Rikki Duncan, Nick and Jake's Overland Park

Years in the business?

20-plus; at Nick and Jake’s, about 13.


What’s special about Nick and Jake's?

You become part of the family. I’m not just a number, I’m actually Rikki. They take care of us as far as being there. We’re all family. We’re all friends. And it’s not just with the employees. It’s also with our guests. It’s a unique place.


Tell me about your regulars.

We see some people for lunch and dinner. Our regulars are creatures of habit. They like what they like, and it’s hard to change their minds. We usually know what they’d like to drink when they walk in the door. 


Do you have a signature drink?

One of our signature drinks is our mango martini. 


Where do you like to go have a drink?

You know what? I like to come here. It’s home, so it makes a difference.


When you have to cut someone off, how do you go about doing that?

It’s hard. I ask management first if they have my back because that’s very important. You have to say it in the nicest of ways, and they’ll try to argue with you for a while. But once you make that call, you have to stick to it. You can’t go back on it.


What’s a common misconception people have about service industry professionals?

That we’re not loyal as far as a dating situation, which is unfortunate. 

Sam Gianchino Green Lady Lounge Kansas City

Sam Gianchino, Green Lady Lounge

Years in the business?

On and off for seven years; a year and a half at Green Lady Lounge.


Signature drink?

I like to make a Hemingway cocktail. It’s rum-based with lime and grapefruit and maraschino. And I’ll put a little absinthe in it too.


What’s your opinion on bar etiquette?

Treat it like you’re at your house or somebody else’s house, because that’s exactly what it is. I’m at work as much as I am at home, if not more. So that’s my second home. I take pride in where I live…just as much as I take pride in where I work.


How do you feel about tipping?

Always tip what you feel is deserved. Tipping a dollar a drink is fine. If you’re getting excellent service, maybe tip a little bit more. If you don’t feel like tipping, it really doesn’t bother me. I might not go to you first now. I’m not going to totally ignore anyone, but if somebody isn’t taking care of me…it’s a two-way street. You take care of me. I take care of you.


What’s the best part of your job?

I like being in the social scenes. I like meeting people every day. Mondays are a big travel day, and I have met so many people who were international. I even got a job offer in China! Apparently, it's cheaper to pay an American bartender to practice English with you than it is to hire a language coach.


How do you adjust to the bartender lifestyle of long, late nights?

It’s difficult. This industry is very hard on relationships, whether it’s with your family, if you have a pet, your spouse or SO [significant other]. You just make those sacrifices because you either hate it or you love it. And I love it. 

Caitlin Corcoran Ca Va Kansas City

Caitlin Corcoran, Ça Va

Years in the business?

16 years in service industry; five years bartending


Best thing about your job?

All the people we get to meet that we would otherwise not cross paths besides the fact that they like to come into my bar.


Signature cocktail?

We have the County Cork, which is the only seasonal cocktail that’s never left. It’s Jameson, yellow chartreuse, lemon juice and honey syrup. It’s funny because I tried to make that cocktail work for Paris of the Plains competition a couple years ago, and I couldn’t figure out how to get whiskey and bubbles to work together in a tasty way. So I ended up going a different route, and I ended up winning that competition with the other cocktail. A couple months later, I took over Ça Va, and I had to make a menu really quickly, so I just tried it again and tried some different applications, and it worked. People seem to really like it. It’s kind of a classic Ça Va cocktail, I guess you could say. 


Common misconception about bartenders?

Some people think that I wake up at 3 p.m. every day, and that’s not the case. I’m usually up by 9, and I work until 3 a.m. It’s a pretty long day.


Any pet peeves when it comes to bar etiquette?

People that aren’t showing my staff respect. I think that’s the big one… I don’t have a lot of tolerance for people who objectify my serving staff.


How do you unwind after a long day at work?

I take Epsom salt baths because they’re good for your muscles. I get a massage once a week, and the chiropractor that I use is upstairs [above Ça Va]. I’m pretty vigilant about that sort of body maintenance. It is really hard on your feet and body to be on them all the time.

J.T. Koenig-Riley Tom's Town Distilling Co. Kansas City

J.T. Koenig-Riley, Tom's Town Distilling Co.

Years in the business?

I started bartending in 2013, right after I turned 21.


What’s the best thing about your job? 

It’s really great when you make a cocktail and it’s your creation and you see someone’s face light up because they truly enjoy it.


Ever served a famous person?

I’ve served Travis Kelce. He drank what we called the Travis 86, which was essentially a cocktail we had already put on our menu called the Pinky Blitz. It’s a funny name. It’s a riff on a Moscow mule: vodka, blood orange and ginger. Simple and delicious.


In your opinion, how should tipping work at a bar?

I feel like the finer the quality, the better you tip. When we’re crafting something for you, that’s when the $1 per drink starts to…I don’t want to say annoys me…but I just spent two minutes making you a cocktail, and you’re giving me $1. 


What happens when a customer doesn’t like his or her cocktail?

If you bring your drink to me within the first half of the drink and say that you don’t like it, I’ll make you a new one. 


On a busy night, how do you prioritize the order in which customers are served?

I call it the typewriter effect. You start on your left or you start on your right, whatever makes sense, and just go down the line and start over. Cha-ching! Just like a typewriter.


Do you think people in the service industry have substance abuse problems?

I would say bartending breeds alcoholics. The drawback of trying to learn craft is you have to develop a palate for anything and everything that can create a cocktail…and the only way to get knowledge of it is to drink it. I wouldn’t say there are more people dependent on alcohol in this industry than outside it. Throughout the course of working here, I’ve definitely learned to appreciate bartending sober.

Charissa Harris, Kanza Hall and Fuel

Charissa Harris, Kanza Hall and Fuel

Years in the industry?

17 years in industry; 10 years at One Block South


Best thing about your job?

I think pleasing people, seeing them happy, I think that’s the most rewarding part. Also, I’m working with such great people. We’ve always got each other’s backs. 


Signature drink?

I make one called Queen of Hearts. It’s dragonberry rum, Malibu, pineapple, a little bit of grenadine, and then we shake whipped cream in it, and then we drizzle grenadine on top to make a heart.


Are Kansas Citians good tippers?

I think we’re very lucky, that in this area, most people understand that we make $2.13 an hour, and our income is based on our tips. I’ve been doing this for so long, and paying my bills, and I credit that to the area and the venue.


How do you adjust to a bartender’s schedule and lifestyle of long, late hours on your feet?

Your sleep schedule is a little bit different. Sometimes you have a little bit of trouble getting to sleep on your days off, but one advantage is I have the day to enjoy. I have plenty of time to run errands or go to lunch with a friend and enjoy the sunshine before I go to work at night. 

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