Badass Women of Detroit's Hospitality Industry: Melanie Mack
by Courtney Burk of Batch Brewing
I met Melanie Mack for a sparkling water and good conversation on the patio of Menjos Entertainment Complex, where she bartends during the week. We discussed the highs and lows of being a late night venue bartender in the city and the different demands between her weeknight shifts at Menjos and the weekend shifts at Tangent Gallery.
Your origin story. How did you begin your career in the industry?
My first industry job was an independent Coney Island right out of high school. It was really nice because the dad in the family was Irish and the mom was Greek, and they came together and decided to open a Coney. They had beer and wine at the time, so I was introduced to serving alcohol early on, even though they didn’t have any liquor or cocktails. When I moved to Ferndale shortly after, I began working at the Emory, and that’s really where it all began for me. I had the opportunity to sink my teeth into a world of craft beer and cocktails – a world that I loved.
What’s a day in the life look like for a bartender that works the later shift?
So, I usually get up around noon. I get ready and hang out with my three cats for a little while and get some cuddle time before work. During the week I work at Menjos, so I get ready and head to work around 8pm. We count our money down for our drawers and do a chore or two and shift switch happens around 9pm.
From then on. it’s kind of waiting for people to filter in. We have the shift change – so people that were here for happy hour linger for a couple hours and then it switches to the late night crowd. Around 11pm is the bulk and when we get busy. From then on, we’re playing good music, getting people into it, and starting to tell stories. By 1:45am, we’re starting to do last call and winding things down. 2am, we’re closing the doors and people are having their last sips. We kick them out at 2:20am, we start cleaning for the night, and I’m usually out of here by 3/3:30am.
On the weekends I’m at Tangent Gallery, and I roll in around 6:30/7pm. Most of our events are on weekends only, so we’re not open as a regular bar space. By the time I get there, people are usually already setting up for the event, so I get in and cut a bunch of fruit, stock a bunch of beer, count that drawer down, and we get ready for a banging shift because Tangent is always crazy. Doors typically open around 8/9pm, depending on what the event is.
There are no two shifts that are ever the same, and our busiest times of the year are Halloween and Movement. There’s a ton of Movement after parties, and we just finished up all the festival events, so that was basically a four-day-stretch of being awake. Coffee, getting to pee (if you’re lucky), and counting the money at the end of the weekend are the highlights of those four stress induced, lack of sleep shifts. if you’re good, you make bank, but it comes at a cost. We refer to it as Movement Sickness because everyone gets sick before, during, or after those four days of Movement. The exhaustion and lack of hydration always take a toll.
What is your favorite part about Detroit’s bartending community?
I love bartending in the city. Everyone has their dreams and their goals, and they bartend with a gig on the side. Every bartender in the city has about three different things going on at once – it’s such an accepting and creative industry to be a part of. It’s so amazing.
Have you had any amazing customers that have gone above and beyond for you? Ones that really appreciated and respected your position?
This story is from when I worked at Rodin (RIP), back when that was in the Park Shelton. All the residents at that time would come down and use the bar as their living room, because there was nothing else in that area. A lot of my regulars would come down and we would have movie nights, art novae nights, we would make fun cocktails and do a Chopped feature. They would bring me an ingredient and I would make something fun from that ingredient – it was fun.
One of my favorite regular couples would come down, and they were a really nice match of engineer verse artistic energy. He would always be like “make me a vesper, make me a Manhattan,” whereas she would always say “anything you make is going to be good.” So, one weekend they told me they were going to be gone the following weekend and that they were going to their little cabin in Maine.
When I mentioned I wanted to go to Maine, they did the classic “if you ever want to go let us know and we’ll take care of you.” A few months go by and I told them I really wanted to take them up on the cabin offer, to which they were thrilled. The only catch was that their dad really loved dirty martinis and their parents had a cabin right next to theirs in Bar Harbor. All I had to do was make him one or two dirty martinis and I could stay there for free.
So, I drive in with my partner and when we arrive, it’s so dark and so narrow. We almost drove into the Atlantic Ocean because we had trouble navigating our way to the cabin. I kid you not, at some point we both screamed because we almost ran into the guardrail.
We get settled in and check in with the parents next door, who are thrilled to have us and greet us with such a warm welcome. After a few pleasantries, my regulars’ dad pulled out the can of blue cheese stuffed olives and I made him a dirty martini – and he was so happy. And that was the cost for a fantastic trip to Maine. The parents made us a huge lobster dinner on our last night and we were in the harbor across from where E B White wrote Charlotte’s Web – it was just so romantic and beautiful.
With the good, always comes the bad. Have you ever had any customers that made you question everything you were doing? Pushed you to a point you didn’t know you could get to?
One time I was working in Ferndale— this was the first spot where I was able to learn how to bartend (thank you, Dustin Leslie for giving me a chance!) It was such a fun experience because it was a sushi restaurant, and we had Saki to learn about, an assortment of flavored spirits, and it was the first time I made my own ginger syrup.
One time had had this festival in Ferndale the same weekend we were open called Pig and Whiskey. People were drinking, imbibing, and eating pork all day long. I had this guy walk in off the street and he was pretty intoxicated. It was my first time cutting someone off.
He was talking and gesturing, and I can tell he had had too much, and I didn’t feel comfortable serving him. I told him I couldn’t serve him a cocktail and he proceeded to call me the nastiest word in the human language. I was completely taken aback and in that split second I remember thinking, “this cannot be my life right now. I’ve never heard this word spoken out loud and it was directed at me.”
I went over to my manager on duty at the time and relayed what he said and was not responding well to me refusing to serve him. The manager went over and completely cussed him out to which he responded that he was going to write a nasty Yelp review. My manager ended up having him to physically remove him from the building.
That incident completely changed my perspective on how I address people who are intoxicated and handle cutting them off. It was a learning curve for me because I had never done that before. My approach is now way more delicate. Putting the water in front of them, making a deal sometimes, and playing the game. “Here, you drink two waters you can have another cocktail.”
It’s super interesting how we learn to interact with people, because as a bartender you’re a storyteller, matchmaker, and therapist. Dealing with people can be so draining sometimes, and I think that’s why a lot of bartenders self-medicate.
We give and give and give of ourselves all the time, but we don’t replenish that well and people don’t seem to understand this. I want there to be a bartender movement in Detroit of us doing yoga or us getting juices together, really taking care of each other and our wellbeing.
Speaking of relaxing, your favorite place in the city to wind down?
I really love Kiesling right now. It’s my favorite neighborhood bar. They have really awesome bartenders and their atmosphere is retro art deco and rustic, just very open and warm. I love it there.
I also love sitting at the bar at Takoi. One of my favorite female bartenders in the city, Kamalani Ingersoll, bartends there and gives such thoughtful service. She usually asks if you’re thirsty this evening, how you would like to start the evening, do you have any dietary restrictions. Her charm is warm and inviting and not overdone. I appreciate it so much.
If you could magically change one thing in the industry, maybe one customer thing and one fellow bartender thing, what would it be?
It’s such a small thing, but it’s a big thing for me— “please” and “thank you” need to come back into style. A lot of people will saddle up at the bar and be like “get me a this,” and I always correct them with “you would like a this “ and for the most part it goes over very well. I’ve had a few customers “oh I’m sorry. My mom would be so disappointed I didn’t use my manners with you.” It’s such a small thing, but it really makes or breaks your entire shift/night.
I do have a shout out for the men bartenders in the city. I’ve worked with many a bull in a china shop. One thing I’ve talked about with other female bartenders is that it can be really hard working with men behind the bar because they tend to be more messy, and in high volume situations, they tend to plow through you.
Now, I love bartending because when you’re doing it right, it’s like a ballet. It’s such a dance and a beautiful thing. So, my shout out to male bartenders is to use a soft hand, and use your voice when you’re saying “behind” instead of the hard-poke-finger. I’ve gotten that in my day, and all it does is rile me up. It’s so funny going to big box stores and going “Ope! Behind you on your left, sharp coming down right!”