Keeping the ship (and the rind) afloat with Amanda DeJarnett

2022-08-13 09:09:47 By : Mr. Sumter Lo

Amanda DeJarnett. // Photo by Katie Rich

Jay Sanders and I raced to J. Rieger Distillery’s The Hey! Hey! Club to catch the last hour of Hey Gurl Hey—a one-night celebration of women bartenders benefitting the Rose Brooks Center. We descended into the dark lounge off Guinotte Ave.

The sharp gleam of Mad Men-replica desk lamps reflected on rich leather couches and faux marble. Behind the bar, backlit bottles bathed the team in a halo. The crowd was familiar. Hospitality pros turned up for a showcase of bartenders representing the future of Kansas City cocktail culture: Swordfish Tom’s Bar Lead Simone Mele, Crossroads Hotel Bar Manager Liz Ramirez, Corvino Head Bartender Hannah Jones, and—at the center of it all—Amanda DeJarnett, current supervisor at The Hey! Hey! Club.

Her steel cocktail shaker staccatoed from across the room and through the din as she commanded the well. She spotted us, grinned, and held up a finger. Amid the posh sofas and portraits of serious men, we waited. In a moment, she appeared—a corndog in one hand, and a bottle of mezcal in the other. She proceeded to place the corndog on Jay’s lips and pour mezcal down it.

DeJarnett laughed and rushed back to her station.

As last head bartender of Manifesto, opening member of Drastic Measures, and supervisor of The Hey! Hey! Club, DeJarnett has amassed an impressive resume. She’s become the kind of bartender patrons follow. Even in the grips of grueling services, broken equipment, and flooded floors, she’s sure to be there cracking jokes and having a good time.

Amanda DeJarnett. // Photo by Katie Rich

But it hasn’t always been so glamorous. DeJarnett started out behind a reception desk in Westport. “You could not have a worse bartending shift than one of my best days managing a Westport hotel. I had machetes pulled on me. It seemed like there was blood and shit everywhere, all the time,” she says with a laugh.

She was eventually on a first name basis with emergency dispatch workers, became a near-expert in elevator maintenance, and even got her first taste of mixology. One fateful day, the hotel’s bartender was a no-show, so DeJarnett stepped up. “I was like, ‘This is way better. People tip me in twenties and I don’t have to clean anybody’s shit. I just make a margarita and they think that’s extra,’” she says.

Her stint at The Doughnut Lounge wasn’t much less taxing. There may have been fewer biohazards, but she’d often find herself closing the bar at 3 a.m. just to return red-eyed (and hungover) at 6 a.m. to sling fresh coffee for fresh faces on their way to work.

After months watching and waiting for a post, it came—good timing and a job DeJarnett could possibly love. Manifesto needed a bartender. Despite feeling unqualified for a James Beard Award-nominated cocktail program, she emailed General Manager Jay Sanders.

“I sent Jay a piece of literature—a plea to work there, and he pulls it out to blackmail me at any chance given,” she says. “And when I interviewed, he said, ‘It’s shitty. You’re gonna get paid no more than what you already make. You will work way more than you already do. It’s 100 degrees down here. It’s in a 100-year-old basement, so it’s really fucking gross. And we’re gonna put you on the floor for months, and when you’re good enough, we’ll maybe let you behind this bar.’ And I was like, ‘Absolutely.’”

Service at Manifesto was a knuckle-busting 14-hour shift, entertaining patrons and selling thousands of dollars in premium cocktails at wrist-breaking speed while keeping track of tickets, special orders, and guest preferences.

But she loved it and thrived in the freedom this required dedication afforded. Now sturdy on her bar legs, DeJarnett began dissecting the ways different cocktails are created. “That’s when I started trying to think outside the box like, ‘OK, this isn’t how you make drinks, so that’s how I’m going to make drinks. I’m going to try to reverse-engineer feelings, and emotions, and vibes,’” she says.

DeJarnett’s curiosity stemmed from her time studying biochemistry at UMKC. Her skepticism of traditional processes combined with her creativity lend to her innovation as a mixologist.

Cocktail menus are typically built from classic templates. For example, an old fashioned contains 2 ounces of whiskey, .5 ounces of simple syrup, and two dashes of Angostura bitters. Exchange the whiskey for tequila or mezcal, the simple syrup for agave, and—tah-dah, it becomes a Oaxaca old fashioned.

So, when DeJarnett was promoted to head bartender, she eschewed this method. Instead, she shared photos with her staff and asked that they build drinks to represent the feelings those images evoked.

Her approach as a bar artist is whimsical, but her long history of charity work lends to her current work ethic at the helm. DeJarnett attended high school in St. Charles, Missouri where she spent her days volunteering at an animal shelter. Since then, she’s given her time to community gardens and community kitchens, often working at a nonprofit by day and running the bar by night.

Amanda DeJarnett. // Photo by Katie Rich

Most visible was her work during the shutdown phase of the pandemic. When both Manifesto and The Rieger Hotel closed, the staff found themselves with stocks of food they couldn’t sell, along with access to a commercial kitchen they couldn’t use. So, outside in the parking lot, they opened the Crossroads Kitchen—a place where anyone could come for a free meal. They served hundreds of people every day.

This essential work made DeJarnett question her role in Kansas City. “I was going from serving people their only meal of the day—in a dignified way that maybe they hadn’t experienced before—then going to paint the walls of a bar that charges $12 per drink,” she says.

While working at the Crossroads Kitchen as well as Drastic Measures, she says she felt tension between these two facets of her life: One served a population in need, and the other served a population with disposable income.

Like everything else, this was exasperated by the political divides over public safety. “I started to feel resentful of people who wouldn’t take the small step of wearing a mask,” she continues.

Throughout DeJarnett’s years behind the bar, she’s been aggravated by the chronic undervaluation of labor. She offers a well-known secret of the hospitality industry: It survives on the backs of strong workers who overperform, adding value far beyond their compensation.

Here is a term DeJarnett shares from the hospitality industry itself: Nails.

According to DeJarnett: Nails is the person who eats the most shit. Nails is the person who works harder than you. Nails is the person who treats you like you are a guest but also their boss. Nails is the person who anticipates your needs and works harder than you to fulfill them. Nails is the person who works when they have a 102 degree fever. 

DeJarnett knows that Nails is the staff member who keeps a bar or restaurant afloat.

She sees an industry of capable and skilled workers who overextend themselves to make a few more dollars in tips, because their hourly wages are too small to make ends meet. And she sees bar and restaurant owners who exploit this by cutting labor when they see a Nails employee.

“Businesses have allowed themselves to run on these thin ass margins to where labor is the one thing they’ll cut. And when labor is the thing you find dispensable and replaceable, you need those people to overperform, otherwise the structure of your business fails,” she says.

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