How a Great Bartender Met His Match

Michelle and Keith Walsh on their honeymoon.

Now a Skinny Pancake Manager, Keith Walsh Still Focuses on People

I asked Keith Walsh why he had given up bartending to work as a manager at Skinny Pancake -- this is like Picasso giving up painting -- and I will tell you his answer.

But first I have to tell you his love story.

He was 21, tending bar at John Harvard’s brewhouse in Cambridge, Mass., learning from an old-school mentor named Fran how to keep the counter clean and the garnishes stocked and the glasses cold while leaving the eight customers on their stools feeling like you’re paying attention to nothing but them.

One day he came down with some kind of cold and a friend suggested echinacea.

He had no idea what echinacea was, but it sounded like the kind of thing you’d get at Cambridge Natural Foods. So that’s where he went. And there, along with the herbal remedies, he found the most beautiful grocery store clerk he had ever seen.

He had $200 in his pocket. Every red blood cell in his body screamed “Ask her out!”

But he didn’t. He left with a little echinacea and a lot of regret.

“I spent the next eight years thinking about this woman -- honestly! I held her as my litmus test, right?”

He moved to New Orleans, where he worked at the House of Blues and tended bar at a jazz club called the Funky Butt. While he was away his best friends moved from Boston to Burlington, and talked the place up. He visited in July and decided to stay, apparently having forgotten that Vermont also has a season called winter.

He did a little of this, a little of that, eventually picking up part-time work tending bar at American Flatbread. You know how it is when you start making acquaintances in a new workplace:

“It’s, ‘Oh, you’re from Boston too, no kidding? Where did you live? Where did you work? Oh, you worked at Cambridge Natural Foods? No kidding! When did you work there? Oh, no kidding! Were there any other women with blond hair there?’ ”

Turns out there weren’t.

It was her!

The echinacea woman of his dreams had moved to Burlington too!

Fortunately for Keith, Michelle forgave him for not recognizing her.

“My memory,” he said. “As much as the ideal was there, the specifics around what that ideal was had faded a little bit.”

Given a second chance he did ask her out, and then some. In time they married and moved to Montpelier with her son. She attended nursing school while he answered phones at the DMV. “You do what you got to do to get your family health insurance,” he said.

After graduating, Michelle took a job at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. They moved to South Strafford and then Thetford Center. Keith worked at Long Trail Brewing on the production side until he found his happy place: back behind the bar, this time at Elixir in White River Junction.

This was Keith Walsh at the peak of his bartending powers: shaking martinis, pulling draft beers, a master of the back work and every customer’s companion, with his burly build, easy presence, and voice as deep as a good mystery. One night he told an uncertain couple that they had a good thing going and needed to work it out; they came back not long after to tell him they were engaged, and then again to show him their baby. “It gave me goosebumps,” he said.

Along the way, though, Keith was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and he faced a painful reckoning. “Making 14,000 martinis a year was probably not the best thing for my wrists and my hands and my elbows and shoulders and everything else.”

That led him to Worthy Burger in South Royalton, working a bar without martinis to shake. But then Skinny Pancake came to Hanover, and with it an opportunity. Now 42, with 20 years of bartending behind him, he reached in a new direction.

These days, you won't find Keith Walsh behind the bar at the Skinny Pancake. He's a front-end manager.

As a front-end manager, he misses the intimacy that bartenders enjoy with their customers, and the sense of a world all his own. But there’s satisfaction in helping a new restaurant find its footing, in serving local foods from local farmers and putting money in their pockets, in sweating over details as small as the napkin on the floor under the corner table and challenges as big as prepping for the rush three hours out.

In some ways they’re not so different, bartending and managing. They both come down to the people, who have a way of separating one restaurant from another as much as the menu.

“There’s an undercurrent that is created by what’s going on with the staff and how the staff is functioning, how they’re behaving, right? That sets a tone. Just as much as the lighting does, just as much as the music does, just as much as everything else does.”

What’s the tone at the Skinny Pancake? Keith has his answer, and perhaps you have yours. As for me, I have another story to tell that picks up where this one leaves off. It’s about Redbeard the Appalachian Trail night hiker, and why he’s washing dishes at the Skinny.

Stay tuned.

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