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Over the Hill

Jim Meehan asks three friends and role models of what they do to remain vital after all these years in the business.

04 April 2023 · 11 min read
Jim Meehan

As I approach my 30th year in the hospitality industry, I marvel at colleagues of my generation like Tristan Stephenson, who recently took up professional long distance running; or Brooke Arthur, who beat cancer as a Type 1 diabetic after coming up in the heyday of the San Francisco bar scene and Kevin Diedrich, who I worked with in New York City before he moved to San Francisco and opened a couple of bars that he still works behind daily. As a middle-aged hospitality professional infrequently introduced as a “legend”- as if I were already retired- I’m still working every day in this industry, and feel like I have a lot left to accomplish.  When I asked these friends and role models of mine what they do to remain vital after all these years, I was relieved and inspired to hear that our life learnings were similar, even though our paths were unique and still playing out.

It may come as a surprise to any young bartender reading this that none of us feel over the hill even though we are in age. Diedrich-the only one of us still pulling regular bar shifts- told me that

“bartending and service gets much easier as I get older. I know the flow and what to expect when bartending.”

Arthur concurred, remarking that “bartending didn’t do much wear and tear (on her body) after she switched to Dansko’s.”  Stephenson went a step further, positing “I’m not sure anything is getting harder at age 40. Parenting is a constant evolving beast of a thing, but mentally and physically I feel in a better place than I have ever been.”

Longevity in the industry has required negotiating major changes in each of their eating and drinking habits.  Tristan confessed he

“had very little regard for what I ate or drank in my 20’s and early 30’s.” Kevin “used to eat a lot late night, and not healthy food: pizza, tater tots, burgers, heavy meat, fast food was my diet as a young bartender.”

Today, Brooke is “very health conscious and genuinely listens to my body and how alcohol makes me feel.”

Arthur’s taken up yoga, which “makes me feel strong and teaches me more about meditating - working out my brain and body makes me stronger in my career and personal life.”

Diedrich grew up playing tennis, basketball, football and attributes sports to being “instrumental in my career. Having grown up in team sports and individual sports, it’s trained me to be competitive, mentally and emotionally strong, disciplined and to work in a team environment.” Another impetus behind their lifestyle changes are the responsibilities that come with maturity.

“My days start at 6am and I need to be on mentally and physically every day” Diedrich told me. Stephenson has discovered “I’m actually a morning person. I now do most of my daily exercise in the morning and I think better in the morning too. My circadian rhythm was well out of sync when I worked late, so little wonder I wasn’t inspired to go running at lunchtime when I woke up.”

Racing competitively in ultramarathons, Stephenson takes his athletics to another level, where he’s found that

"a little bit of suffering every day can do wonders for your perspective in all aspects of life. Work, family, aspirations, fears and regret. When you start your day doing hill repeats in the dark and no other f*cker is out there, you get back home and feel an edge that stays with you for hours.”

Diedrich concurs, finding that “when I exhaust myself physically 100% it allows me to focus on other things and reset.” Tristan thinks of it as “a feedback loop there too – running makes me happy and makes my body feel powerful, and because I’m happy I want to go out and run, enjoy nature, push myself and strengthen my body. The same feedback loop can also be a deterrent for some people getting into endurance sports though – “I feel unfit so I don’t enjoy it, so I don’t do it, so I stay unfit.” As a bar owner, Diedrich finds

“the stress of not working for tips has helped, but the strain of worrying about staff and your business is heavier.” Starting over after his bar burned down, opening a new bar during the pandemic, and working through staffing shortages “is the most difficult thing right now.”

Arthur recognizes her “mental health is more important than anything else. Post-cancer, I struggled with deep dark depression and severe emotional issues coming off meds that affected too many things I cared for. I knew I needed help, so I found it.” She faced her greatest professional obstacles doing brand work, where

“overconsumption of alcohol lead to an unbalanced life. I lost relationships and partially lost myself along the way. I also ended up being diagnosed with cancer in 2017, and I believe the job and how I managed my routines were a part of it. Understanding how much I was numbing from the unlimited access to alcohol took time, but I felt it immediately when I was sick and not drinking.”

Stephenson notes that

“a lot of bars and cities foster bad life choices, particularly with younger people. It’s an exciting industry to be in and it’s easy to get carried away with it all because the nature of the business blurs the lines between your work and having a good time.”

Kevin is attempting to change the narrative by giving his employees “things that were not given to me when coming up. We pay 100% of our staff’s healthcare.” When he reopened his bar, he decided to close early so they didn’t get home at 4am 3-4 days a week. Diedrich attributes “keeping a balanced life of family and time with longtime friends has helped me maintain the drive to bartend and stay in this industry.” Arthur concurs, especially on the latter part, professing she believes “if we all check in with each other, ask the hard questions, read each other, and see how each other are coping, truly express care, and offer help – even when it’s inconvenient or complex, we can lift physical and emotional stress.” Nobody knows what this feels like more than Brooke, who bravely shared her cancer journey on social media.

I was astounded by the outpouring of support I received. The USBG relief fund, Speed Rack, and even restaurants and bars did so much to benefit me that I will always be so thankful for.”

As I think about the hill of middle age each of us has crossed, I’m grateful for all those who’ve helped me get over it too.  And I’m inspired by these colleagues, whose accomplishments and good habits give me hope to climb even higher. ———— The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Freepour.