There are few bars in the world more recognizable than the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans. For over 65 years, this 25-seat, revolving bar resembling a 19th-century merry-go-round has played host to authors, luminaries and thousands of guests who come to sip cocktails here while they slowly spin around their bartenders. A full revolution takes 15 minutes — hardly enough centripetal force to give anyone motion sickness. The allure of cocktails at the Carousel is fairly obvious: you’re drinking on a carousel that actually rotates while sipping Sazeracs and Vieux Carres, taking in the elaborate decor of the swanky, historic Hotel Monteleone and engaging in some stellar people-watching. You’re surrounded by French Quarter charm in a bar which oozes history bordering on legend.
But what about working behind this world-famous revolving bar? It comes with a unique set of challenges. We sat down with two veterans, head bartender Marvin Allen (14 years) and Eddie Muller (23 years), and the “new guy”, Neil Racoma (4 years), to see just what it takes to make it as a bartender at the Carousel Bar. Think you could rise to the challenge(s)?
With no dedicated entry point, how do you get behind the bar?
MA: There used to be an entry point, but not any more. You’d have to crawl on the floor through muck and God knows what else on your hands and knees. That’s worse than what we have to do now, which is hop over the bar by any means necessary: sliding, running start, stepping on chairs without hitting a guest, falling or knocking over drinks!
EM: There are a couple of sweet spots around the bar that are good for hopping over. I only need one guest’s chair and a little momentum to get over. After you do it a few times, it’s not that hard. Once I’m behind the bar, I don’t want to leave because getting back out can be difficult.
NR: Hopping over the bar is just part of working here. You don’t really think about it.
Do you find that, as you’ve gotten older, it’s more challenging getting behind the bar?
MA: I much prefer hopping over than crawling under, as crawling at my age means I might not get back up! But I’ve told myself and my staff that when you finally can’t make it over, it’s time to retire. So far no one’s taken me up on that, including myself.
EM: My dismount may be a little different than it was 20 years ago, but I think I still qualify for the job. I’m not going to get the gold medal for hurdling anymore — maybe the bronze. But, it’s challenging getting over the bar even when you’re a young guy. You’d be surprised how many of them try and hurdle the ice machine because they think they can do it. Sometimes they fail. We don’t need folks on the injured reserved list.
How do you ask guests to move, and how do they react when you slide across the bar?
MA: Guests are aware of how we have to get in and out. If someone happens to be in the place we need to be, we ask them to move politely. Once we hop over, they usually return to their seat as if nothing has happened. Many times this is done to thunderous applause. It’s all part of the show at Carousel. For those who haven’t seen it before, their eyes get really big as we slide over, but then they too return to their seats as if nothing has happened.
EM: I’ll make deals with guests who happen to be in the seat I need. If they move for just a minute, I’ll make their drink first. I’ve never had anyone say no. We get regular applause for our efforts. You’re on parade the moment you walk in the door. I’ve had guests order drinks with me as I’m hopping over to start my shift!
NR: Oh yes, there’s definitely applause for when we slide over the bar. It’s funny, really. It puts you in a good mood almost instantly.
Have you ever knocked anything over, hit a guest or fallen?
MA: I’ve knocked a few glasses over in my time, mostly because I’d moved it and a guest (unaware of what is about to happen) moves it back. There’s not much you can do except apologize, laugh it off and make them another drink.
EM: It’s been a while for me since anything like that has happened. Now that you’ve asked me, I’m going to go on shift tonight and knock a drink or fall!
NR: I’m so careful, but never say never! Accidents happen, but we are trained to be extremely careful getting on top of the bar.
What if you need to refresh supplies or go to the restroom?
MA: Many times you let the barback do the supply run. When you return, there’s a hand-off before the hop-over. Once you’re behind the rotating bar, you rarely leave until your shift ends. That can be anywhere from eight to ten hours on your feet and without a change of scenery.
NR: The restroom is downstairs. So, like for my Tuesday day shift, it’s just me and the barback. With the volume we do, you have to be really fast.
How do you keep track of guest orders as the bar rotates?
MA: This does take practice and patience. I have a system and have trained every bartender who’s been hired after me on that system. With 25 seats, the math is pretty easy. Take five orders, make the drinks, put the tickets in front of each person as you set the drink down, move on to the next five. When you’ve completed the rotation, you go back.
We’ve had a few bartenders who can’t hack the rotating bar and keeping up with guests. The Carousel isn’t for every bartender.
EM: I don’t really have a system other than take a few orders at a time, make the drinks, put their tickets down. If a glass is empty, that’s a pretty good indication I need to do something about it.
I don’t notice the bar moving. It’s so slow, unless you’re standing still, you aren’t going to notice until a few minutes later when the person who was in front of you is now 5 seats down. We are moving so much behind the bar, you just don’t notice it.
NR: Since many of our drinks are classics like the Sazerac and Vieux Carre, you can make those with your eyes closed. Some of the senior guys have taught me the five drink system. It works really well and you are able to keep track of guest orders efficiently. I’ve found guests are aware of the high volume and unique aspects of working at this bar, so I don’t run into unhappy people often.
What’s the biggest challenge of working at the Carousel Bar?
MA: There are very few days the bar isn’t busy. We’re a world-renowned bar and a high-volume bar. The fact that the bar rotates is not a big factor. The real challenge comes from the high volume behind the rotating bar, there is nowhere to hide when you’re frustrated or having a bad day. You’re constantly facing people. Unlike a traditional bar where you can walk to the back for 30 seconds and regroup, you can’t do that here. You have to brush off your troubles quickly or you’re in for a long shift.
EM: For me the biggest challenge is the volume. Not because I can’t hack it (23 years here proves that I can) but because I’m not able to sit and chat with guests easily. We have a lot of really interesting people who come in and because we are so busy, you can’t really slow down and chat.
NR: Honestly, the biggest challenge isn’t the rotation of the bar but the volume. It just doesn’t slow down. You have to be on your game 100 percent of the time.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of working at the Carousel Bar?
MA: The Carousel is more than an iconic bar with wild architecture; this bar and the hotel are like a big family. The Monteleone’s take very good care of us. Working in a hotel bar with so much lore and rich history is incredible, too.
EM: I’ve made a lot of friends over the 20 years I’ve worked here who started out as guests. But, I think one of the biggest gifts of working here is the way the staff is treated. The Monteleone family takes care of us.
I lost everything including my home in Katrina. It was devastating. When the hotel found out I was homeless, they put me up here. I lived here for nearly two years while I rebuilt my life. They even helped with bonuses. That’s going above and beyond.
NR: I’m working at one of the best bars in the country and with some of the best bartenders in the country. When I moved here four years ago, they gave me a job when I had no bar experience. I meet people from all over the world working here and have made so many friends. This is a dream job.