Ask anyone to name Boston’s most important hospitality job during baseball season, and the answer is clear: bartender on Lansdowne Street. Back Bay resident Ally Buitenhuys, 29, has spent four years, pandemic included, as a bartender and server at Bleacher Bar overlooking Fenway Park, preserving a sense of normalcy for fans, tourists, and lovable regulars.
“A lot of customers have turned into actual friends who were very concerned for me during the pandemic. Those are the people you remember and you want to come back. We get drunk idiots from time to time, but I don’t remember those. I remember the people who actually care about my life,” she says.
How’s work gone since the start of the pandemic?
We closed in March, obviously. I remember it was St. Paddy’s day, which was supposed to be one of our busiest days. We all got cut because it was slow, and that was my last day of work until June 30. We reopened when the mayor said we could. We did indoor and outdoor dining, because the games were supposed to come back in July. We opened, and Fourth of July was our first weekend. Usually everyone leaves the city, but we were understaffed and crushed all weekend. We actually made money. We made money as soon as we opened.
Two restaurants on the street had closed, so if anyone was going out, they came to us. We were slow during the week, but we have a lot of regulars during the day who work in the area. They helped out, and college kids on the weekends had to come to us. We were never a college bar, but we turned into a college bar.
Personally, how did this feel for you from a safety perspective — from a lifestyle perspective? We’ve learned a lot about the safety of restaurants and bars, and the safety of being indoors and outdoors.
It was definitely scary. I like to go home to my parents. I live in the city now, but my parents live 45 minutes away on the South Shore. It was scary, and I hate yelling at people. When people walk around without masks, I cringe when I’m the one who has to say, ‘Please put your mask on.’ I hate it.
We’re so far into this, why do I still have to yell? And it’s sad that people don’t respect it. If I have to wear one, you have to.
How did that feel? Were you being the mask police a lot, and if you were, what was the response?
Not a lot, but enough. It was the college kids. A lot of times, six people to a table was hard, too. Nobody wanted to listen to that. ‘Oh, do we have to?’ Yes, you have to! The health inspectors do come in, and that’s on us and on the liquor license. People get mad at you; it reflects on your tip, which is sad. But it’s not my fault this has happened, is how I felt.
Did you ever get sick?
I actually didn’t. I can honestly say that us girls who work here are very close. There are four of us who hang out, working out all summer. We never had an outbreak; we were so busy last summer, with games. Everyone wanted to watch from Bleacher Bar because you could see through the window. We had to flip people in and out. Tourists kept coming in; so many people from Florida and from southern states. Us girls never really got it. The few people who work here didn’t get it, and now I’m all vaccinated. I’m good.
If you had to compare last season to the beginning of this season, what’s different?
A lot more people are willing to come out. We extended the patio last year, and we found that nobody wanted to sit on it. This year, we have an extended patio; if it’s nice out, it’s full. It’s a lot more money for us and for the business.
That’s interesting. You’d think customers would want the patio seats.
The whole point of Bleacher Bar is to sit inside and look through the window [onto the field].
How did you get started at Bleacher Bar?
I worked in college at a small family restaurant in Bridgewater. After college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had friends who worked at Game On, which is the same company. I started working there, moved up here, and after two years at Game On, I had a little audition at Bleacher Bar. I ended up getting it. The first day happened to be on my birthday, Aug. 1, 2017. And I’ve been here since.
What’s the best part of your job and the most difficult?
The best part is definitely making people happy. It is shocking how many people walk into Bleacher, see the window, and say, ‘It’s so cool!’ I have been here for years now; it’s not that cool to me! People walk in happy. I just have to keep them happy, and that’s the best part — when they’re just as excited as when they walk in.
I can’t quite say the worst. Sometimes it’s overwhelming, but it’s nothing that bad. Sometimes you’re so busy, but that’s not a bad thing.
How would you describe the Boston clientele?
We have a lot of tourists, but we also have a lot of regulars and a lot of people who frequent the place. I’ve come to a table so many times and said, ‘Oh, you’ve been here!’ I don’t have to do the whole spiel. It happens a few times a week. Not just regulars, but I know the faces, I know they come in, they bring their family when they’re in town. That’s always great. People love to come back to Bleacher Bar. It’s not a one-and-done place.
Is the mood among your customers different this year?
I think people are willing to go out a lot more this year. Everyone asks me, ‘Where should we go to next?’ A lot of places closed. A lot of places didn’t make it. I feel badly saying it, but everywhere I used to frequent has closed.
We were busy during games last year and thought we’d still be busy this year. With less capacity, we found that our busiest times are still pre-games. We clear out for the most part during the game, and then there’s no postgame. The people who are going in [to Fenway Park] aren’t the people who are going to party afterward. They’re going home at 10:30 at night. Nobody is staying out till 2 a.m. We close at 11 or midnight, usually. I’m not ready to see 2 a.m. again, and that’s the one thing after this pandemic that I don’t think I could get used to again.
What is the role of Fenway Park for people in Boston? Has it taken on a different importance? You’re right there; you see it all.
It’s home base, especially as the oldest park in the country. The Garden is new. Gillette is new. Fenway is 1912. People flock to this place, out of the state, in the state, people love it here still. I take it for granted because I’m here every day. I’m here right now.
What has sustained you over the pandemic?
I’ve cooked a lot more; my boyfriend cooks a lot more. A little, small restaurant is Corner Tavern in Back Bay; they’re so nice, so lovely. They have a nice little menu that’s not a dive but not high-end. It’s right in the middle. And Joe’s American Bar and Grill on Newbury — you know what you’re going to get there. I get the honey crispy chicken salad.
Back to Bleacher Bar: What’s your most popular order?
Bud Lite bottles and Jameson shots. We’re not really a cocktail bar.