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NORTH COUNTRY AT WORK: Adirondack resort bartending with Colleen Smith

July 4, 2019
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor ( , Lake Placid News

LONG LAKE - As Neil Young whined his way through "Walk On" over a speaker in the Adirondack Hotel tap room - remembering the good old days, staying up all night, getting crazed - bartender Colleen Smith eyed a familiar face.

"Mr. Duffy!" she said, shouting to a man in a red hoodie. "It must be summer! What's going on?"

A seasonal resident, Mr. Duffy stopped by the hotel on a Tuesday night in late May. He was in town for a day or two - a holiday for his health. It was Mexican night, a popular time for locals to enjoy tacos and margaritas. There were conversations about the budget vote and spring concert at the school that night, garage sales and CBD oil, all within the first half hour of Smith's 5 p.m. shift

Article Photos

Colleen Smith tends bar at the Adirondack Hotel in Long Lake.
(Provided photo — Andy Flynn)

"You want some red wine?" Smith asked Mr. Duffy.

"Please," he said.

"A cab?"

"That's good."

At the risk of sounding corny, both Smith and Adirondack Hotel owner Carol Young said the tap room is a place "where everybody knows your name," quoting the "Cheers" TV show theme song. On Mexican night, it seems to be true, at least in the spring before the summer tourist crowds arrive.

"It's sort of that atmosphere," Young said. "People like to come, relax after work. They want to shoot the baloney with someone instead of going home and looking at their TV."

Dinnertime has a cocktail-room atmosphere, a happy-hour vibe before things can get a little loud as lips loosen with each alcoholic drink.

Smith, 63, has tended bar at the Adirondack Hotel for about 17 years - from 1991 to 1998 and since 2009. She likes working Tuesday nights.

"You're seeing more of your locals ... and you're not here as late because everybody works," she said. "It's fun, but they give you a harder time than the people you don't know, kiddingly give you a harder time, constantly busting your chops."

Case in point, when a woman drinking a glass of wine learned that Smith was being interviewed for the North Country at Work project, she laughed and said, "Work?"

"See what I mean?" Smith said.


Getting a foot in the door

Smith spent most of her childhood in New York City, where her mother had grown up. Her father was born and raised in Long Lake. He was a heavy equipment salesman.

"They were always entertaining," she said. "The phone was always ringing. I don't know if I learned anything about hospitality from my parents, but my mother and father liked to have fun. ... There was always a party. There were before-dinner cocktails every day. I probably started making Manhattans when I was about 7."

When Smith's father retired in 1970, the family moved to the Adirondacks and he opened a bar - The Crest Pub - on the Newcomb Road. Smith spent her last two years of high school in Long Lake, graduating in 1973.

After a couple of years traveling, Smith landed in Lake Placid, waitressing at the Steak and Stinger and the Lake Placid Club before hearing about an open bartending job at the Lussi family's Holiday Inn (now the Crowne Plaza). Charlie Draper was the manager.

"Charlie Draper met me in the lobby, and he said, 'Can you tend bar?' And I said. 'Yes.' And he said, 'Well, what goes in a martini?' Duh. I'd been doing that, like I said, since I was about seven. I told him. He said, 'What goes in a Manhattan?' I told him. He goes, 'Do you know what goes in a pina colada?' And I said, 'I can figure it out.' He said, 'You're hired.'"

Smith worked at the Holiday Inn from 1975 to 1983 in the winter and at her family's bar in the summer. After her father died, her brother took over the business and renamed it the Newcomb Road House. She moved to San Francisco in 1983, came back to the Adirondacks in 1990, moved to Albany in 1998, and came back in 2009.


The job

Like a typical Adirondacker, Smith has several jobs to make ends meet. She's the site manager for the Long Lake Nutrition Site, a real estate agent and an office manager for a local construction company. Then there's bartending.

"It's actually one of my most favorite jobs of all the jobs I've had my entire life," Smith said.

She likes the social aspect of bartending.

"Especially when I first started doing it at the Holiday Inn, I was meeting people from all around the world," she said. "And then, of course, the Olympics hit, which made it fabulous. I believe that's what kept me interested and attracted to it. Still here in the Adirondacks, it a tourist industry, so I'm meeting people all the time."

Other than mixing drinks at her parents' parties, Smith learned the bartending trade simply by doing it.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's the only way to learn to tend bar," she said.

Once she makes a drink, she rarely forgets it. If someone asks her to make an unfamiliar drink, she asks what's in it. That's what happened several years ago when a customer asked for an Irish Car Bomb.

"No, I didn't know what was in it, but I ask, 'Do you know what's in it?' If they know what's in it, I can make it. If they don't know what's in it, I tell them they shouldn't be drinking it."

An Irish Car Bomb is like a boilermaker. You put half Jameson Irish whiskey and half Bailey's Irish Cream in a shot glass and drop it in a pint of Guinness stout.

"I ended up limiting customers to three Car Bombs because it gets a little crazy," she said. "And it's expensive."

Each summer crowd brings unfamiliar drink orders, but it's the standards that Smith likes the most: the martini, Manhattan, old fashioned and whiskey sour. Summer customers also ask for more frozen drinks, such as the margaritas on Mexican night. Those are Smith's least favorite drinks to make.

"It's the most laborious drink," she said. "For some reason, it's just always been when someone orders a margarita, I'm like, 'Oh, all right.' And then they're like, 'This is the best margarita I've ever had.' I'm like, 'Oh goodness, that means they're going to have another one.'"



One of the challenges of bartending is getting a job in the first place. Smith got lucky with her first interview at the Holiday Inn, but many establishments have bartenders who aren't going anywhere soon.

"Usually bartenders, they're lifers," she said. "They don't give up their shifts like you go from waitress job to waitress job. Bartenders usually tend to stay with their establishment and realize how lucky they are to have their jobs."

Yet resort towns in the summer are a good place to start because there's usually a need for extra employees.

"The difference in the seasons, of course, is money," Smith said. "In the summertime is when your income increases. In the wintertime, your income decreases, but your expenses increase. So you have to budget accordingly when you're doing resort work."

Now in her 60s, Smith she said working the late night hours is getting old. Partly, it's because she doesn't have as much patience for the drinking crowd anymore.

"It's harder to put up with the nonsense, which comes along with the late hours. I love the cocktail lounge atmosphere. I'm not so much into the discotech. You know, after the kitchen closes, I'm kind of ready to go home myself."

Smith was attracted to bartending partly because it's not a typical 9-to-5 job.

"It's hard. It's hard on your body. You're doing a Vanna White thing behind that bar, back and forth, back and forth, for five, six, seven hours at a time. In the summer, it's nonstop. It's like you're a drink machine. I'm not knocking it by any means, but it is a young person's game."


Bartender's importance

Adirondack Hotel owner Carol Young said bartending is an important job for her bottom line. The food is 60 percent of the business, but it's the least profitable because it's labor intensive. The rooms are 15 percent of the business, and they are the most profitable, but they have the least volume. The bar is 25 percent of the business, and it's very profitable because she only needs one bartender per shift.

On Mexican night, that's Colleen Smith.

"Number one, she's a good mixologist," Young said. "Number two, she's on time. She's dependable. She works for me, not for herself. She will have my back. ... She knows how to control the crowd, whether you like it or not. So if you're not behaving or you're swearing, had too much to drink, she knows exactly, very quietly and very confidentially how to handle that situation."



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