“I’m not playing any of this, ‘The customer is always right’”

Losing his job during Covid gave bartender José Cardenas the confidence to redirect his career—including how and where he works.

Like many of us, 30-year-old José Cardenas thought that Covid-19 would bring a brief pause, not a pandemic. He welcomed the break, since he’d been going nonstop in the hospitality industry since he was 18, going to culinary school and serving as a cook in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska.

Then he packed up and moved to New York, where he worked at a Brooklyn speakeasy, Diamond Reef, until February. He’s had time to think about his future, continuing spiritual contemplation and a career trajectory that began years ago in a Nebraska bar. 

When I was cooking from ages 18 to 22, I didn’t sleep. I was taking way too many things to keep me awake. The substance abuse is pretty much gifted to you when you join a kitchen. It’s almost encouraged. 

When I was 22, I remember being at this cigar bar in Nebraska ordering a Red Bull, Southern Comfort, and Rose’s lime juice. Terrible, terrible shit. This oldhead saw me order that, and he told me, ‘Nah, Youngblood, we don’t do that.’

He told the bartender to pour me a whiskey, and I was like, ‘What is this?’ He said, ‘This is how an adult drinks. Take a sip of this.’

This man blessed me. I was there at the bar with him for two hours. He talked to me about life, put me on game. He told me about all the spirits and how to drink. That’s what gave me the idea about getting into bartending. That bartending could be more than a beer and a shot, or Red Bull and vodka. 

We got a call from management telling us not to come in to work. They said, ‘We’ll be back in two weeks.’ Two weeks off sounded lovely to me. Then Cuomo made his announcement shutting indoor dining, and it was done. No one could go to work.

I Googled bartending with craft cocktails, ordered every book I could find, read it all and then put myself out there. I bartended in Omaha for four years, and then I had this feeling that there’s got to be more. I’m reading all these books that come out of New York. Why not go there? I said to myself, ‘I’m going to move, and I’m going to work at Diamond Reef.’ And that’s what I did. 

I look back at it now, like ‘Man, I can see that was a young person’s dream.’ I sold everything, packed up nine boxes, and dipped. I slept on my homie’s kitchen floor until I found an apartment and a job. Now that scares me. I’m 30. But in bartender years, that’s like 72. 

I went to visit my family in Jalisco, Mexico, in late winter of 2020 and then came back. And a week later, New York was shut down. We got a call from management telling us not to come in to work. They said, ‘We’ll be back in two weeks.’ Two weeks off sounded lovely to me. Then Cuomo made his announcement shutting indoor dining, and it was done. No one could go to work. 

José Cardenas headshot on pink wall. August 2021

The pandemic shutdown made José Cardenas think more about himself, his purpose, and how he wants to present himself in the hospitality industry.

Courtesy of José Cardenas

I don’t have a salary. If I don’t work, I don’t make money. There was this stress of: What do we do now? 

I never get to sleep. So [the first month of lockdown], I just slept. But after that first month … I don’t like to have idle time. So I dove deep into yoga, astrology, and meditation. Meditation was great for my busy mind. 

I stayed in Brooklyn the whole shutdown, and it was rough, for sure. I envy everyone that left. New York is wonderful. But I describe New York like that toxic ex you can’t quit. You have a great time at night and then they give you this really intense romance, but they don’t call you for 10 days. Just long enough where you say, ‘I’m over this person.’ Then, New York calls you like, ‘Hey, how you been? Sorry, I’ve been busy.’ And you fall back in love again. When you take away the constant busyness and creative aspect of New York, it’s not fun. 

June [of 2020] hit, and Diamond Reef reopened at 25 percent indoor capacity and outdoor seating with tables spaced 6 feet apart. But in November, we closed for the winter because it was very cold. In February, my boss hit us up on WhatsApp asking us to do a Zoom meeting on the 5th. That’s when we got hit with the news that our block was bought by a real estate company and our lease had been bought out. Diamond Reef was gone. 

I totally fell into depression. My whole identity when I moved here was to work at this place. That was me, José in New York WAS Diamond Reef. 

It’s a connection with the Earth and Mother Nature. It’s like saying thank you so much for giving this to us. And we’re going to use every bit of it and give back to you—we took one plant, we’re going to plant three.

The fact that it shut down, it just made me think more about myself and what I was doing here. It made me think about my purpose. 

Before Covid, I went to Oaxaca a lot, where they produce mezcal. One day, some people asked if I wanted to help them make it. That was the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life. The agave, they call it piña, you use the root. But you also have to replant it once you dig it up.

Each mezcalero has their own expression of what they do. Some put a cross on top of the pile that’s getting cooked, or some take some of the mezcal they made before and pour it on top—a little bit for the Devil so he doesn’t ruin the batch. Seeing [the production process] and being a part of it was the most spiritual awakening I’ve ever had. 

Most spirits are that way. You’re buying rum, but think about what they do for that sugar cane, how they harvest it, and what they do to make it. All that provides for their families. With mezcal, for example, they use the leaves to make brooms, they use it to make roofs, the leftover pulp from the mezcal they use that to make bricks and to build houses. 

I learned that I don’t want to work for white people anymore. That I have to interact with my bosses before I take on a job to understand their energy, to make sure it’s beneficial for me and also the staff.

It’s a connection with the Earth and Mother Nature. It’s like saying thank you so much for giving this to us. And we’re going to use every bit of it and give back to you—we took one plant, we’re going to plant three. 

It gives me chills thinking about going through it again: how much heart and soul and love goes into making spirits. 

And all this stuff was and is made by people of color. That for me, that’s everything. I was having a hard time, wondering why I’m still in this industry. Even though I’m just making a drink, it’s an experience. And I want to make sure you feel good. 

After my experience during the pandemic, I feel more in [the] driver’s seat. I know exactly how I want to move, who I am, and how I want to present myself in this industry and in my everyday life. I’ve been very honest with every person who I’ve interviewed with. I’m not playing any of this, ‘The customer is always right.’ Through exhaustion and desperation, Covid gave me the confidence and the tenacity I needed to move forward.

I learned that I don’t want to work for white people anymore. That I have to interact with my bosses before I take on a job to understand their energy, to make sure it’s beneficial for me and also the staff. 

Why am I loyal to someone who just sees me as a number so they can hit theirs? I’m the one who’s living off nothing and then going to work in this stressful environment where some of the owners don’t think about what I’m going through as a person. I’m treading water, and I’m tired. That’s what it was like working during Covid.

The service industry has this kind of manipulative, toxic trait. Are you loyal? Are you ‘Team whatever this bar’s name is’? And if you are, what will you do for it? Fuck that. Why am I loyal to someone who just sees me as a number so they can hit theirs? I’m the one who’s living off nothing and then going to work in this stressful environment where some of the owners don’t think about what I’m going through as a person. I’m treading water, and I’m tired. That’s what it was like working during Covid.

The code-switching I used to do for customers, I’m done. You’re going to get who I am, and if you violate and you say something out of pocket, racist, or misogynist, transphobic—you’re fucking done. I’m not playing this game anymore. You’re gone. Don’t come back. We don’t need your money. We don’t want your energy. Covid gave me that. I’m moving intentionally. I’ll only work with people I trust.

During Covid, I walked around my neighborhood a lot, and there was this new spot, For All Things Good. It’s a molino. They ship the corn in from Mexico and make their tortillas from scratch. I smelled it one day. It smelled like my grandma’s house. I walked in and started speaking Spanish with the people, and we became friends. When they got their liquor license, they asked me to work for them.  

I work about five to six days a week depending on the week, between the café and a neighborhood joint in Crown Heights called the Branch Office. It’s an oldhead bar. I love it. All these oldheads come through, they want their shot of Jack or Henny, talk about their day. That spot is fun, and it’s good to have a balance of both. 

I’m moving intentionally. I’ll only work with people I trust.

When Covid restrictions were lifted and people started feeling more comfortable, me and my homie would meet somewhere outside, get a bottle and some cigars. A lot of my friends who aren’t white told me that they didn’t know much about spirits and felt like it was kind of pretentious to ask questions. Also, the people who would usually sell them the spirits are white, and they don’t feel comfortable to talk with them about it. I understood that. 

So what I’ve been doing now is getting a few friends together, we get some cigars that I think will pair well with the spirit and chop it up. I explain the process of how it’s made. From there, we just keep drinking and smoking cigars. We play a card game or some dominoes. I’m a very good enabler. I’m really good at encouraging people to have another one or try something unfamiliar. 

I don’t do it for money. I love my people. Let’s get together and talk about how we’re feeling in this world right now. Let’s share this. 

This piece was edited for length.

José Cardenas grew up on the south side in Omaha, Nebraska. Since 2007, he has done just about every job in the food and beverage industry. After being burnt out in the kitchen, he found his way into the bar industry making craft drinks and eventually moved to New York City in 2016. The pandemic and shutdown of businesses has given him time to understand himself and what he values.

Safiya Charles is The Counter's future of farming fellow, covering the movement around justice for Black farmers and the pioneering agriculture work being done in communities of color nationwide. She previously worked at the Montgomery Advertiser, the Alabama capital's daily newspaper. Her work has appeared in The Nation and The New Republic.