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Breaking Barriers as a Female Bartender

We had the opportunity to interview Ms Symphony Loo, Regional SEA brand ambassador, On-premise Channel Manager for Campari Group SEA & India. She shared her life story; she tackled gender inequality and empowered more women to work behind the bar. Indeed, she is a symphony of joy and inspiration, and we enjoyed every bit of the interview with her.

Humble Beginnings

They say it runs in the family, which couldn’t be more true for Symphony, who was born and raised in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. Growing up, she watched her mother cook in the kitchen and helped her aunt run a Bak Kut Teh business, and these experiences sparked her interest in working in the F&B industry. “I’m always passionate about food and flavours, and running around in the kitchen; I felt like I belong (there).” Symphony said.

At 17, Symphony made her first cocktail drink — long island iced tea. She was working part-time as a waitress at a bar, which made her realize how much she loved working in hospitality.The Good, Bad and Ugly of Bartending.

Following Her Passion

Recognising how much she thrived in the F&B industry, she decided to learn more about the industry, and pursued a Diploma in Hospitality Management at Taylor’s University, Kuala Lumpur in 2011.

She studied at the Les Roches International School of Hotel Management in Switzerland, where she picked up the technical aspects of hotel management such as accounting, admin, design and architecture.

Upon completing her studies, Symphony was eager to put her skills to the test. Though she studied hotel management, her dream to get hands-on in the F&B industry was always within reach — “I never gave up on my dream in F&B. I really loved that, so when I was in Switzerland for one and a half years, I was working behind pubs, making vodka and sodas”, she said.

In 2014, she joined Four Seasons Hotel in Singapore and had the opportunity to train to be a bartender. “I started as the supervisor on the floor — nothing related to cocktails. But I always had my eyes on the bartender who makes cocktails, who was also the bar manager at that time.” Symphony shared.

The Good, Bad and Ugly of Bartending

People often think that all bartenders do is have fun and party, but little do they know the hard work that goes behind the profession.

In reality, it takes knowledge, skills and — and plenty of grit to be a bartender. Try memorising hundreds of cocktail recipes, keeping track of orders, and constantly socialising customers; it’s no easy feat to juggle between different tasks!

Bartending is often misunderstood, many biases attached to the scene. It is often seen as a part-time job done by students and the nightlife scene that comes with the job is also not always welcomed particularly for women. People often think that the job is unsafe with no prospects and that it is easy. This is all simply untrue, and Symphony is a shining example. One has to have a broad knowledge of spirits and the agility to concoct drinks correctly and quickly and an excellent memory to keep track of orders, like which customers have paid or are waiting to be served.

Bartending done right can be a lucrative career, one can even explore other career options such as being a spirit’s brand representative, general manager, or even open your own bar, and Symphony is a testament of that. She started as a barback, became a bartender, bar manager, brand ambassador, and is now the on-premise channel manager for Campari Group. While bartending may not be for everyone — it can be a good career path if one sets the mind to work hard and acquire the necessary skills.

The bartender pours the cognac

Symphony went on to explain the rigorous training she had to go through before becoming a professional bartender — The company sent someone from Spain to train me as a professional bartender every day for three weeks 12 to 16 hours. I slept in the hotel most of the time. I remember I spent six hours just reading about classic cocktails bartending is like being a chef; you mix flavours in liquid form. If you (the chef) mess up the food, you can throw it in the kitchen. But, if we (bartenders) do that, there’s no going back…people will think that we are not good. Apart from preparing drinks with precision and accuracy, a bartender also needs to have a vivacious personality to connect with different kinds of customers, as customer service is a core skill for bartenders. For Symphony, her favourite part of the job is meeting and speaking to new people.

“I like the vibes, the atmosphere… I like the music, it brings the bar alive, and we bring vibes to the people.” Just like the lively and vibrant atmosphere of the bar, a bartender’s energy never wanes.

Enthusiastic and fearless by nature, Symphony loves bartending because of how challenging it is — It is a test of patience as she hones her craft. Symphony shared that willingness to learn even though they don’t possess the skills is an  important skill a bartender should have.

Overcoming Obstacles & Breaking Barriers

Though she expressed passion and worked hard, Symphony’s road to being a bartender was not a smooth sailing one; She faced opposition from her family —, her father was so unhappy he stopped talking to her for 6-9 months.

“I mean, I can understand… if one day, my kids come back to me and tell me they want to be a bartender after studying for so long, I would react (the same way).” She laughs.

However, despite the odds — she never gave up on her passion and goal of becoming a bartender. She wanted to make the best use of her training and experience.

Symphony tells us that ten years ago female bartenders were a rare sight. Thus, gaining acknowledgment, let alone respect was tough. She recounts one of her first experiences as a professional bartender.

“Once, a customer came in and ordered a martini. However, when I was making the martini, he said, ‘no, I want a bartender to make the martini.’. He didn’t want to say that he didn’t want me to make the martini. But it’s okay, customers are always right.”

Symphony Loo.

Afterwards, Symphony made the drink for the customer, and her male colleague helped to serve it. Unaware that the drink was made by Symphony, the customer complimented, “wow, as good as usual”, to which her male colleague responded, “I didn’t make the martini, she (Symphony) made the martini.”

The customer was ashamed, and he immediately apologized to Symphony. “I wanted to prove that a female bartender can make any drink. It was tough as people couldn’t accept it (then)… I wouldn’t trust myself if I was a customer!” Symphony jokes.

Interestingly, Symphony became good friends with the customer, who even became an investor in the company she worked with, and they remain friends till this day.

As the years went by, Symphony proved herself with sheer tenacity, hard work, and confident personality. She believes that if you want to do something, set your mind to it and get it done. She encourages people to be unafraid to learn and ask for help when needed.

“One thing we need to show men is, ‘hey, we can work like you’. Of course, don’t hesitate to ask for help. I can carry a gallon of beer, but men can carry two gallons of beer, so why not save your energy and ask for help?” Symphony questioned.

“Even females should lower down their ego. If we always think that always look down on us, then these barriers will never be gone. Don’t go there with nails, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do that, because if you do that you will never be successful in any job.” She added.

Symphony paved the way for many female bartenders through her inspirational story. Seeing her growth, they have asked to work alongside her to learn more about the trade.

Making Mental Health a Priority

While bartending is exciting and fulfilling, it has its downsides too. Working as a bartender means working from dusk till dawn, standing for long hours on your feet, not seeing family and friends due to the hours, sleeping irregular hours, and facing high turnover rates at the workplace; All of which can lead to burnout, stress and a decline of mental health.

“Me and my housemate never saw one another. If they wanted to see me, I told them to come to the bar… We don’t get to go out like normal people on weekends.” Symphony added.

Beneath cheerful demeanours, some bartenders struggle with mental health issues. Working in the service line, bartenders work in pressure-packed environment, expected to constantly satisfy customer’s demands, and adapt when operations get busy.

“I have saved two of my team members from suicide.” Symphony said. As a firm believer of making mental health a priority, she would always show concern for her team members when she was a bar manager and ensure that they are not working at the expense of their health.

“I always tell my team if you are not feeling well, go into the office, come out only when you feel okay.”

Although mental health is still a taboo for many, bartenders like Symphony who speak out about them help tackle the bar industry’s stigma.

From Bartending to Brand Ambassador

Symphony is no longer behind the bar anymore; she is now the On-premise Channel Manager and Brand Ambassador for Campari group SEA.

“When I got the offer, I was abit hesitant. From my past experience, I saw brand ambassadors drinking and getting very drunk — Do I want to be that?” She questioned herself initially. Thus, she decided to take a different approach when she took on the job.

Symphony uses knowledge from her past experience as a bartender in her current position, “Last time people would come to me to take my product (when I was a bartender), now I think the other way round, ‘what do people want from me?’ and ‘what do I used to need from them?”

So, she decided to focus on education and brand training, which will support product knowledge and brand awareness. The more the customer learns about the product, the more likely they are to buy it. For instance, she helped build ‘Campari Academy Online’, an educational platform that teaches people how to make spritz, the classic cocktails, which helps people learn remotely.

When asked if she would ever go back to being behind the bar, Symphony responded enthusiastically, “I’m doing it everyday home! I have a bar at home, my husband is also in the industry and we both love cocktails.”

The bartender pours the dark golden rum

Taking The Leap of Faith

Symphony’s story is as symphonic as her name —   weaving through notes of boldness, courage to defy the odds, and the grit to pursue the life she loves.

Symphony shared that setting boundaries and researching about the profession started her career on the right footing — “You need to be honest to yourself. is this a hobby or career? Express your interest to your employer, I was always honest in all my jobs…. Do some research, buy one or two cocktail books. Don’t go into an interview without knowing what a whiskey is.” Symphony said.

“Be humble and realistic, don’t expect to be perfect immediately, or a bar manager in a day or a year.”

Just like any other job, passion, hard work and tenacity are the ingredients that help propel us further in our career. To everyone who is chasing their dreams, we hope that Symphony’s story will inspire you to continue pursuing your passion! Despite the many obstacles that came her way, Symphony believed she could overcome them, so she did. Accepting the challenges with an open and resilient mindset was how she ultimately succeeded and broke through barriers.

"Keep your Gin up, that’s the spirit!"

For more stories head on over to our website! Also, check out our works on our website and Instagram! www.writehaus.asia and @writehausasia!

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