Female Bartenders Raising The Bar
By Sofia Pipolo
A bar is only as good as its bartender. With so many amazing spots to choose from in Astoria, you could have a different face pouring your drink every night. What stands out most in the crowd, however, are our incredible female bartenders, showcasing their skills and knowledge
as they perfect a traditional Old Fashioned or their own signature cocktails. We were fortunate enough to have some of these talented women share their journeys behind the bar with us.
Born and raised in Astoria, Toni remembers tagging along with her dad at local bars/restaurants. Today, she’s bringing that old school attitude with her as the General Manager at The Last Word.
About five years ago, Toni found her passion for bartending while looking to fill a void brought on after going through a divorce. At the time, she was a Manager at NYMF, a now-closed biker bar on Ditmars. She came in for a drink at The Last Word one night and the owner, George, said, “Grab a tray and go serve.” She did, and the rest was history. After being pushed outside of her comfort zone, she found herself not only in the role of Head Bartender, but in a place of new found happiness.
Coming from a biker bar, The Last Word offered a more upscale environment and drink menu which allowed Toni to truly expand her creative mixology skills and even her personality: “I can explore other sides of me, sides that I didn’t even know existed, and still maintain my identity and not conform to what society wants me to be.”
From craft cocktails to an eclectic wine and spirits list, Toni developed a dedication to building her knowledge on liquors and mixology. “I became fascinated with the history of drinks…I’m intrigued by the bottles and the story behind them. Who made it? Why? Was it distilled? Why is it the color it is? And what people would like most?” The more she learns about her craft, the better and more creative a bartender she’ll become, she explains – a characteristic that female bartenders aren’t typically expected to have.“
There’s a phrase, ‘All women bartenders are dumb.’ We’re not,” Toni states bluntly. She explain show there is a stigma that women are behind the bar solely because of their looks. So, when people come into her job simply looking for a pretty face to serve them, she is sure to address that misconception; she shows them that what truly matters is the craft itself and a bartender’s unique ability to bring all walks of life together. “Yes, I want to be seen as a beautiful woman – but I am also beautiful on the inside and I have knowledge to share. ”
The art of bartending doesn’t require knowledge of just alcohol, but the ability to understand and manage different people and personalities. With themed evenings ranging from Latin music night to heavy metal, The Last Word has given Toni the creative freedom and confidence to express her dynamic self. She can easily engage with any patron that walks in the door: “I can talk about wine or I cans hoot whiskey and talk about heavy metal. ”
Toni reflects on how bartending has elevated her career, her confidence and her creative side. As a leader of younger staff, she says, “I don’t slack myself and I don’t want them slacking.” She constantly strives to maintain that strong-minded energy, letting her courage and independence shine from behind the bar on both her patrons and employees.
Similarly, Crystal Peone leads her staff with conviction as the Operations Manager at The Bonnie and Sweet Afton.
“It’s in my blood to be a people person,” Crystal says, reflecting on how she used to work at the cash register at her parent’s hardware store as a child. She continued to work in hospitality at a variety of places, including bartending at a casino and a golf course before finally moving to and falling in love with Astoria.
It made a big difference once she began bartending here instead of commuting to Manhattan for work. “Living a 15-minute walk[away from] work is a dream for someone in this industry,” she says. “You need to be able to talk about the neighborhood; from the first second, you have a talking point with the customer.”
Those types of connections are what gives her an edge, especially as a female in the industry. “People will look and automatically think you don’t have authority,” she says, explaining how female bartenders have to work to assert themselves as the person in charge. “Bartending is like hosting a party. You have control over that bar, just like you have over your own house…You have to gain the respect of people.”
And no party is complete without drinks. So, while Crystal admits to mainly being a beer and wine lover, she admires the creativity and physical act of mixing drinks. “I love the flow of hands, the shakes and stirs…It’s beautiful.”
Crystal advises that you do have to have thick skin in this role, but she also stresses her belief that being a female bartender is empowering. Reflecting on her time reopening the two bars after this summer’s Covid shutdown, “It’s powerful and beautiful to rebuild…I’m really proud to have had the experience and see how something so dark can become light again.”
Having entered the industry after high school, Brittany Belfiore says the key to perfecting her bartending skills over the last 20 years was having amazing female bosses. Brittany grew up in DC, moved to Miami and eventually made her way to Astoria where she became the Head Bartender at Trestle.
Brittany thrives in the upscale sports bar atmosphere of Trestle with her team of amazing women by her side, both up front and behind the scenes. “It’s hard to find the perfect chemistry we have here.” Brittany credits her success in the industry to learning from, supporting and networking with other women. She often shares her Instagram with others, including an account dedicated to mixology. “There’s nothing worse than girls getting jealous of other girls…If we don’t have each other, who’s going to be there for us?”
That sisterhood mentality, combined with her dedication to her job and additional mixology education has earned Brittany extreme respect as a bartender and helped her overcome negative stigmas. “When a girl has work ethic and confidence in her work, nothing compares.” She talks about how male coworkers or customers will underestimate her knowledge and physical abilities, like replacing beer kegs herself. She lets her actions speak for themselves, stating, “I love to put people in their place.”
In addition to proving her physical attributes, Brittany has also been able to showcase her creativity and skill by coining her own cocktails, like the Boozy Blueberry, Chasing Summer and Express Train. “I’m proud of my career and where I am because of other female bartenders,” Brittany says, one such role model being the Co-owner and General Manager of Trestle, Jackie Kelly, who has been running the baron the same block she grew up on for almost four years now. They remarked how they work to make Trestle a welcoming home for both customers and staff, specifically building a support system of women amongst themselves and with other female-fronted bars in Astoria. Brittany shares, “We have to build each other up…No one understands what another woman is going through except another woman.”
Patricia Ahn began bartending only four years ago, quickly mastering the craft through her commitment to educating herself. She recalled working as a barback and coming in to watch the other bartenders on her days off. “Wherever there was an opportunity for me to learn something or a place that was different from where I had been, I would apply.” Now she is the General Manager and Head Bartender at Sek’end Sun.
Patricia grew up in Queens and has always been inhospitality in some capacity, as her father worked in the service industry over his past 40 years in the US. Having lived in Astoria for six years, she’s seen a lot of female empowerment in the community. “This is a boy’s club that women are trying to shine in,” she says. If a gender bias is brought her way, Patricia will decide if it can be a teachable moment: “There’s a lot of pressure and not a lot of room for error. Because of that, I work harder.” This has also made her a better mixologist, sometimes forcing her to do a little research, learn a drink on the fly and make it on the spot: “I don’t get deterred by a challenge,” she says.
Still, creating a welcoming and safe space can have its own obstacles, which Patricia looks to combat with positivity. “I’m a minority in three ways: I’m a woman, I’m Asian American and I’m Queer,” Patricia reflects. “If someone has a misconception, I hope their positive experience with me will change that. ”
As a leader behind the bar, Patricia encourages creativity and inclusivity. At Sek’end Sun, they have group cocktail tasting sessions that even include back of-house staff. “I tell them to make what they drink and we build on our ideas together. ”
In regard to other women who are looking to enter the bartending industry, Patricia encourages them to learn as much as possible and connect with others. “There’s so much support from people who don’t even know you yet.” She reminds you to keep looking for the place that fits you best and opportunities that will take you far. “As women, we have to earn respect different than men. So, once you do, it’s going to feel so rewarding.”