Badass Women in the Detroit Beer (and Cocktail) Industry: Aleahia Thompson
by Courtney Burk of Batch Brewing
Jennifer Austin (from Badass Women article number one) and myself sat down on the beach of Belle Isle with Aleahia Thompson, cracked open cans of Empire Pale Ale, and talked a day in the life of a badass female craft cocktail bartender in Detroit.
How did you get started in the industry?
I worked a lot of odd jobs before I started in the industry. I washed windows, worked in a sex toy warehouse, and a lot of other retail and factory jobs. I got my start in the industry at Detroit City Distillery and have since moved to bartending at Standby and Deluxx Fluxx.
Actually, my first day at Detroit City Distillery and in the industry ended up being one of the busiest nights of the year for them. It was their anniversary and I was thrown right into the mix – and loved every minute of it!
Tell us a little bit about the atmosphere of Standby.
Standby is a craft cocktail bar in Downtown Detroit that focuses on really good vibes, I would say. The appearance of the space, the feeling of the space, and the general energy is a high priority. The music, artwork, and lighting create a mood. We try to provide the most comfortable and welcoming atmosphere for a person to walk into and be intimidated by such a giant menu of original craft cocktails.
As a live music venue, what’s it like bartending at Deluxx Fluxx?
When I started at Standby I had only ever done craft bartending. I was curious about venue bartending and I love that it’s a completely different style of service. At Deluxx Fluxx you have to be short, the most welcoming, the most hospitable, the most informative – and execute everything within ten seconds over really loud music. Interactions are quick and you see so many different personalities within the night. Working two days at Standby and two days at Deluxx Fluxx is a great change of scenery and a great way to experience something new every day.
What’s a day in the life at Standby look like for you?
I wake up, as of late around 2pm because I have to be to the bar by 3pm. I try to push that alarm back as far as possible – like full outfit set out the night before so I don’t have to think about it and can get ready and two the bar within ten minutes. The most efficient I can be while maximizing the most amount of sleep, basically.
I get to the bar around 3pm and we have two hours of setup. Typically, my job is dealing with the greens. I wash the mustard greens for one of our cocktails and pick mint, while the other bartender cuts all the fruit. We’re usually rocking some really shitty music, telling jokes, and the servers are folding menus. I grab the drawer and help the barback if they need it.
I feel like everyone that works in the industry is constantly trying to figure out what they want to eat, but at that point none of us have eaten prior to coming to work – because we’ve just woken up. So, we usually get something delivered.
We turn the lights down and then turn on some Chill Lofi Hip Hop Beats to Study and Relax To and then we have lineup at 4:30pm.
Lineup is basically where we talk through what meats and cheese we have for the day, any specials, how many people we have on the books, who has reservations, events happening downtown – because that really affects service and how many people we’re getting and the type of crowd we can try to expect for the night. It’s really interesting figuring out what kind of events are going on because depending on who’s performing for what, we take guesses on who’s going to show up and eat and drink.
And then doors open at 5pm.
I tend to focus on the music because that can make or break someone’s experience; I know it certainly affects mine as I’m working. The music changes as the general tone of service shifts and as hours go on.
From 5pm until 8pm it’s a lot of business crowd and young professionals, so the music is light indie tracks that typically play and it’s the time where we test out some new artists and playlists. Around 8pm it gets a little dancier but it’s still dinner time so nothing too crazy. As the night goes on and as the sun goes down, the lights go down and the music gets louder and more up-tempo. And depending on how many people come in dictates how ratchet the music gets which is so fun. It’s usually around 10 or 11pm when you ease into some trap music – granted, it doesn’t need to be a party when it’s not a party.
Kitchen closes at 12am so we take all the dishes down and at 2am we close. And then comes the half hour of me overthinking the best way to ask the lingerers how to leave, because it’s a huge liability for an establishment to have guests in it after 2am (fun fact for those of you that don’t know!). I have this joke that when I’m closing is when the worst things happen and we have guests that linger the longest. They must think I’m generally fun loving and nice or have it out to ruin my day and make me sad and mean.
And then we clean and depending on how busy it was dictates how much we have to clean. My favorite is that people outside of the industry always think clean up doesn’t take a long time. Have you seen you when you’re drunk?
Following cleaning comes counting out banks. And let me tell you something, after a crazy shift, sometimes the money just doesn’t add up and it takes forever. Literally, forever. And I have to sternly talk to the server and make sure they have all of their receipts. Literally, all of them. Every single one.
We usually leave around 3:30am or 4am and I get home and look at my phone, or I hang out with friends and we talk about things we couldn’t talk about because we were busy or because people were directly in our faces and we didn’t feel comfortable at that time. Basically we decompress from our high-energy shift and come down from our adrenaline rush.
What’s the hardest part of a 3pm to 3am shift?
A bar shift is a big chunk of a day and there’s zero downtime. Even when you get that moment to go downstairs and eat that super cold McDouble you ordered before service, you’ll still feel guilty about it for the three minutes that you get to stuff your face. And for those three minutes, on top of the guilt, you’re worried about your customers, worried something going wrong, or worries a big group is walking in during those exact three minutes. The emotional toll this industry takes and what we as the industry put into it – I don’t think most people appreciate it.
How do you get through those really crazy shifts?
We had line up a couple years ago and the topic of discussion was how we deal with stress in our lives and in the workplace. There were some ideas thrown out in the roundtable discussion and I had just recently started there or recent enough where I wasn’t comfortable with everyone just yet. I raised my hand and I was like “I think about the fragility of life” and everyone just stared at me so I had to explain, every single time I’m really stressed out and everything is high strung – I remember, this will all be over soon.
When things get really crazy at the end of the day, there is more than this. This experience is just food and drink and there are so many more important things that you have to worry about in your life. It’s really nihilistic but soothing at the same time.
The art of service, has it shaped you as a person?
Oh absolutely. When I was younger I used to have terrible self-esteem. I was always the butt of the joke in my friend group and all of that picking on me, built me into the person I am now. But the whole art of talking to people for me, was shaped by service. I didn’t really talk a lot when I was younger and I wasn’t super social, and when I was it was super awkward. Service has been a great tool for me to put myself out there and become more sure of who I am. It’s hard to unlearn some childhood traits, but this girl aims to be present in conversations and make herself known.
Have you faced any challenges being a woman in the industry?
Oh goodness. Should I do this in chronological order? There was once a coworker at another bar job I worked. He finished his back of house shift and had gotten wasted after. It was myself and another woman that were bartending at the time. He needed help with something from his truck so because I was nice and I went to help him. We were in the back alley and it’s the first time I’ve ever had someone tell me they quite literally wanted to kiss my ass.
I just remember pure shock. He was married and I didn’t even really know him that well, we had never really spoken before, never had any sort of flirty exchange. It quite literally came out of nowhere. I extracted myself from that situation and we were at the point of service where things were winding down and we were closing up – when he started banging on the back door and shouting that he needed to talk to me.
After the whole exchange it was never brought up again. I think maybe management talked and lightly scolded him so it wasn’t completely ignored but it was definitely one of those things that was more laid back than it should have been. But I remember at the time not wanting to talk about it, internalizing it, and being almost relieved that it was never brought up. But thinking back on it, it’s still not okay and I should have brought it up. I should have made things just as uncomfortable as he made them for me. He put me in a situation and made me feel uncomfortable in a way that I didn’t deserve.
On a better note, I also remember the first time I stood up for myself. I had a gentleman at the bar ask me if I could make an old fashioned but in that condescending way of oh can you? Like, I sure hope so because it’s my job. I was working with Justice at the time and the gentleman then proceeded to ask me if I could make it as good at him, and pointed at Justice. And my response was a simple; I don’t see why I wouldn’t be able to. And the victory dance I did in my head was such a good one. It’s an art to have that quick comeback and to execute it with a smile on your face. It’s something the best female bartenders in our industry can execute it without batting an eye.
Have you faced challenges as a woman of color in the industry?
I had my hair out and it was curly wavy frizzy, wonderful in all its glory. I remember exactly where we were standing. All the way at the end of the bar by bar seat 9, by the front door, and he wanted a Moscow Mule and he was with two other people. He was just looking at me and I was like that’s $13 please, here you go, cheers. And he asked can I grab your hair? And grab is a certain choice. It’s loaded. But I told him no – and that was such a proud moment for me, that I said no.
Who’s your favorite female bartender?
Kaytee Querro from Kiesling. She is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. She’s incredible and I feel like her presence behind the bar is so comforting even if she has that dry sense of humor. And that’s the best part of the industry too – different bars require different personalities.
Where do you like to hang out on your days off?
The Painted Lady in Hamtramck. Hands down.