The idea behind pretty much every bar is essentially the same: Create an enjoyable environment for people to come have drinks or food. This is our business. Maybe some bars don’t play the music you like, some bars don’t serve the food you like, some bars don’t play the sports games you like, it’s impossible to please everyone all the time, of course, but the idea is still pretty much the same.
Unfortunately, sometimes guests have a different idea of what the bar is supposed to be. Some people go to bars to start fights and act out their aggression, some people go to bars to coerce women and men into having sex with them and some people use our bars as a platform to push their political agenda. This is an unfortunate reality that bartenders sometimes have to deal with, and in certain certain markets like Uptown Oakland, Calif., violence is commonplace.
My guest today is Nate Olson. He’s worked behind the bar for two decades all across the country: in Minneapolis, Miami, New Orleans and the San Francisco Bay Area. Nate currently manages a lovely Italian restaurant in Oakland called Lungomare. Nate has seen some shit during his tenure, he’s had to deal with violence towards himself, his coworkers and between customers. He was managing Oakland’s Make Westing bar during the incident last July that involved death threats, Proud Boys, riot police and protesters. We will dive more into this incident and other violent situations after the break.
It is unfortunate and sad that acts of violence sometimes happen at our bars, and it’s extremely hard to know what to do. Every situation is different, but hopefully if we hear more about what others have done in the past, we will be able to handle these situations better in the future. Nate had a lot of great advice about what worked for him and what he would do differently. Check out my interview with Nate in the player below, on this page or wherever podcasts are found.
Honestly, I’m not an expert on violent situations and I’ve been fortunate myself to not be involved in very many. Every situation is totally different, which makes it so hard to know what to do. Experience helps, of course, but if the situation turns violent, it could be your last experience. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 138 fatalities in our industry in 2017. Many of those were the result of violence. Just a few weeks ago, four people were shot inside of the Halftime Sports Bar in downtown Oakland. My hope is that by learning from the experience of others we can better handle these situations ourselves, or even prevent them from happening altogether. Nate shared his experiences with some pretty traumatic violence. I want to get into these specific events a little bit more here.
Date rape drugs and how to spot the signs
Alcohol is the most common date rape drug. It lowers inhibitions, reduces coordination and makes people do stupid things. Alcohol is our business though, and most of us are pretty well aware of its affects and how to be safe about serving it. We know what to look out for when it comes to alcohol, but when alcohol is mixed with other drugs, things can get dangerous.
A variety of different drugs are used in these situations and they come in different forms. Zolpidem, the sleep aid drug known as Ambien is the most common, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration. Other drugs, including various benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanex, Rohypnol, and GHB and its derivatives have also been well documented. All of these drugs cause severe reactions when mixed with alcohol, including severe loss of coordination, inhibition, short term memory loss and in high enough doses, heart and respiratory failure. Nate spoke about a situation involving date rape drugs that he experienced while managing Make Westing.
“A woman was totally fine, talking with me, laughing. She was with her guest and they were having a great time,” Nate said, “and then ten minutes later, she couldn’t walk, she couldn’t talk, she couldn’t open up her screen on her phone.” The woman had come to the bar with a male coworker she didn’t know very well. Nate said they had only served them one drink, certainly not enough cause this kind of response, and the man she was with seemed totally sober. At first, Nate and his staff thought the woman was really drunk, but quickly realized something else was going on. Fortunately, Nate and his staff were able to take care of her and keep her safe so that nothing worse happened to her. Their biggest priority was her safety and not letting her leave with the man that likely drugged her.
“We would not let him take her, no matter what was going to happen,” Nate said, “We actually had to use her thumbprint to open up her cellphone, go through her Uber and figure out where her home was and have somebody escort her back to her place.” Nate talked with the women the following day and kept in touch to make sure she was ok and try to support her. She told him she had, in fact only had one drink and didn’t know the man she was with very well. She went to the hospital, but was unable to get a tested for drugs. The woman also did not want to get police involved because of this and because of her position at her job. “At that point, she just felt lost and that she had no support,” Nate said.
It seems obvious what happened, but unfortunately Nate and his staff were’t able to collect any hard evidence, despite their efforts to go through security footage. Bars are dark, loud and full of activity and bartenders are often helping dozens of guests at a time. It’s hard to spot someone slipping a tiny crushed pill or liquid drop into someone’s drink. We can only do our best to be aware of these situations, try and stop them before they happen and act quickly as soon as we see something wrong. Safety is the main concern and there is support out there for victims. The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline is a wonderful 24/7 resource for this type of situation. That number is 1-800-656-HOPE(4673).
Protecting your community when accusations are made
Nate was working at another bar on a busy Sunday night when a woman stood at the door and started screaming and accusing another customer, who had been seen previously leaving with the victim, that she was raped and the bar served rapists. Nate and his staff didn’t know what to do, they were completely blindsided.
“We did not know what the situation was, really at all,” Nate Said, “All my staff behind the bar had their mouths open, agape. At that point our security got involved with it and we didn’t know what to do.” Nate ended up closing down the bar that night and sending everybody home. This diffused the immediate situation, but didn’t really solve the problem. Nate told the accused man he wasn’t welcome back in the bar anymore, but felt the whole situation was just bad for the victim, the bar and everyone involved.
“As a bar and a business, we are not judge and jury,” Nate said, “And that is really what became the whole conversation among the whole staff. How do we proceed moving forward and help everybody out.” Bars are supposed to be safe, fun environments for everyone there, so if a customer is making anyone feel uncomfortable, they should not be served and asked to leave. These kinds of situations are very challenging to deal with, and usually nobody wins. If a situation like this happens at your bar, the number one priority should be safety, and then I recommend calling the above mentioned number and talking to a trained expert.
When violence erupts at your bar
Nate was managing Oakland’s Make Westing bar last July when a perfect storm of racially charged anger and violence descended on him and his staff. The news media has already covered the incident at length and Nate describes the story in the interview, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Basically, it was believed that a group of Proud Boys intended to meet at the bar the same day as a vigil for the Nia Wilson, an Oakland woman who was recently murdered, was to be held at the transit station up the street. The bar responded by hosting a fundraiser for Black Lives Matter and other local charities. more than a thousand people marched on the bar which was surrounded by riot police. The situation was very confusing and many people were hurt on the streets around the bar. Nate, his staff and the police handled it as well as they could have, but Nate would have handled the situation differently knowing what he knows now.
“I would not have done the fundraiser,” Nate said, “I probably would’ve tried to calm the situation down a little bit more rather than ramping it up. It affected too many people, and I feel that everybody that got hurt outside was because of our choices to run the fundraiser.”
Violence is perhaps the most challenging thing we have to deal with at our bars, and the only thing we can really do is try our best to be more prepared. The most important resource we have is each other. We need to keep talking about these difficult situations so we can all learn from the experience of others and make our industry safer. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast and check out our weekly conversations with bartenders about all kinds of different topics. We will definitely be talking more about violence in the future. Stay safe out there.