Nick Dodge is the Beverage Director at Nitehawk Prospect Park, a full service dine-in independent movie theater. Though he’s worked in the food and beverage industry for almost twenty years, only recently did he embrace his work as his career. I spoke with Nick about not overintellectualizing the question of what to do and letting life play out instead, trusting that the answer will present itself over time.
What does a beverage director do?
I'm responsible for creating the menu, hiring and training the bartenders, making all of the systems of how our drink service operates.
You work in the food and beverage industry. Where do you think your love for food and drinks originated?
It's a really tough question, because I don't think I came from a background where food and drink were a big concern. My parents drink socially, but [having] a glass of wine at dinner is about the extent of it. They both worked full time when I was growing up and I think dinner was more of a practical concern. They like to cook but neither are super passionate about it. Going out to dinner was pretty rare for us.
Dining was more of a functional experience. I also grew up in the '80s and '90s in the Midwest where there wasn't the most interesting food culture. I don't know [how], but I learned to cook at a really young age and I was always more interested in food than anyone in my family. I probably drank more socially than anyone in my family. I enjoy tasting really interesting, new things and always have.
What was the motivation for getting your first job at a restaurant or bar?
It was a means to make money. [When I got] my first job in the industry, I was 17. My cousin was a doorman at a nightclub in Detroit and they needed a barback, so he got me a job there. I lied about my age—in order to serve alcohol in Michigan, you have to be 18. I wasn't bartending so I don't think they were that concerned about it but I certainly had to carry alcohol around at times.
I worked summers there for a couple years. All throughout college I was bartending or waiting tables. I got a job managing a catering company. [Working in food and beverage] was something I [consistently] did, but I always had other career pursuits. It wasn't until much later that I thought of it as an actual career path.
If you put it on paper it is very much a linear progression of accruing experiences and knowledge and putting it into use professionally. But I think because for most of that time I didn't view it as my actual career path, it didn't feel linear.
What were some of those career pursuits that you were considering?
One of the reasons I fell into [bartending] was that I never really had any strong idea of what I wanted to do. I studied English and political science and it was my idea that after college I would go to grad school for political science. I spent some time applying to grad schools and bartending the whole time and moving around. Eventually I wound up in New York and it was here that I realized I had been procrastinating going to grad school. I wasn't sure what I would do with a master's in political science that I couldn't already do with a bachelor's. It seemed like the right idea for a career path—most of my family comes from academic backgrounds with multiple degrees, so it seemed like that was the next logical step. I thought maybe I would stay in academia and teach political science but I wasn't really sure, so I procrastinated and procrastinated in my twenties.
[Ultimately] I realized it wasn't something that I actually wanted to do; I just felt like I should. Meanwhile I had been working at places that I really enjoyed and had a job at the time that I took seriously. It clicked one day that I was floundering figuring out what I wanted to do for a career when I actually already have one.
You had mentioned your family background and a majority of them being academics. Was that the definition of success for them? What sort of messages did you get around what success or a good life meant in terms of your family?
Absolutely. My parents and grandparents are more serious, and very smart people. I think they defined success for us not in terms of financial success, but more in terms of doing something fulfilling and productive for society. I think that's how I viewed success and maybe why I was attracted to political science because there are lots of service opportunities within that.
Do you think that they understand your current career in food and beverage as productive for society?
It's not probably a career that jumped to mind for them, but I think they see that I'm happy and am doing interesting things so they are happy for me. Again, they're not big drinkers so bar culture isn't something they know a lot about or fully understand. But they're very supportive.
You've lived in a few different cities after growing up and going to college in Michigan. What spurred that desire to leave and explore other places?
I think it comes from the same place as my love for food and drink. I like trying new things, and I've always had wanderlust. The idea of living in the same town I grew up in was never something I considered, even though I love where I grew up and have nothing but great things to say about where I come from.
I like new experiences, so it made sense for me to move around. In my twenties [I had] fewer commitments and could also get high-paying bar jobs which were available everywhere. It was pretty easy for me to start fresh in new places because I could get a job quickly and immediately pay rent and meet people. It's a very social line of work.
Your friend Anna started [a beer-mustard company] My Friend's Mustard for which you were a partner, and your wife Irene started [a Korean comfort food pop-up] Yooeating. You've been a huge source of support in their ventures. I'm curious if you've thought of starting your own business. In the spectrum of public-facing entrepreneur/CEO to a more behind the scenes role, do you think you prefer one over the other?
I would say I'm much more comfortable in the background doing work without necessarily being the face of something. I think maybe that's why I've found myself in those positions. In general I'm attracted to people who make tangible things, whether it's food or art or furniture.
I certainly do think about opening my own business at some point. Irene and I talk about opening a bar and a restaurant together.
Do you feel like it was a linear path to get to where you are now, tracing your various experiences bartending or in the service industry?
In hindsight it does, but it never felt that way at the time. I've been managing bars for years in larger and larger roles. If you put it on paper it is very much a linear progression of accruing experiences and knowledge and putting it into use professionally. But I think because for most of that time I didn't view it as my actual career path, it didn't feel linear. It felt like a bunch of experiences that added up to what I'm doing now but it didn't seem like that was a trajectory.
In terms of going from barback to bartender to bar management, was that something you pursued yourself or something other people encouraged?
I have never applied for a management position. It's something I keep finding myself in, sometimes a little begrudgingly. I think I have a pretty strong work ethic and tend to take work seriously, which for bartenders is maybe not the most common attitude. So I find that I am often promoted or put in positions of authority, managing other people. It's probably the most uncomfortable part of my job, but it's good that it's uncomfortable because I think that maybe makes me better at it. The people who revel at being in charge of other people are maybe not the best suited for it.
What do you think makes a good manager?
Leading by example for sure. No one wants to follow anyone if they think that person wouldn't do the same thing in their shoes. Setting an example and letting people know that you would happily do anything you're asking them to do means a lot. I think the most important thing is that you're ultimately the one responsible for how things are going to go. There are lots of stressful situations where you have to make quick decisions. They don't always have to be right decisions but you have to be resolute and figure things out on your feet and carry through with things. It's the ability to solve problems on the fly.
Also being intellectually curious is important. You have to know a lot about the subject you're responsible for so that people want to follow you and respect you. It's very obvious when someone's in a position where they're out of their depth and don't know what they're talking about. It's hard to follow those people because you don't respect their knowledge above your own.
Did you ever feel completely lost about what you wanted to do in life?
That was how I felt for most of my life.
What sort of methods did you try to figure out what you wanted to do? Or did you employ more of an avoidance tactic?
I think it's certainly something I thought about for a very long time, but it's such a big question. You only get one life, and when you intellectualize it, it really becomes a vast, intimidating thing. It's easy to go through the motions of what other people think you should be doing.
I probably didn't make the most of the opportunities that were given to me because I didn't have a clear idea of what I would do with them. I definitely could have taken college more seriously based on the financial and time commitment that was involved. I think I was pretty lucky because I did pretty well in school and could pass classes without much effort, which also meant I didn't really get as much from it.
You only get one life, and when you intellectualize it, it really becomes a vast, intimidating thing. It's easy to go through the motions of what other people think you should be doing.
Do you think there were areas in your life beyond work where you saw your future and you had more certainty about what you did want?
I certainly have ideas about who I want to be as a person, which is not necessarily related to work. While I love my job, it's not how I define myself as a person. I've always had strong convictions about how I want to live in terms of my morals. I'm recently married and I knew very strongly that it was a major life decision that I wanted to make. I would say there are times when I have strong ideas about who I want to be and what I want to do but work has been one that I've struggled with.
How do you think that conviction of separating your identity from work came about?
I would [attribute it to] my family background. I have a really supportive family that has a great attitude about life. Academic pursuits are a pursuit of knowledge for my parents rather than a source of financial comfort. Work [is seen as] an opportunity for fulfillment rather than for money. I was instilled with pretty strong philosophical [principles] on how to approach life.
What does work mean to you?
It's hard to define. I don't really define myself by work so even when I was struggling to figure out what I wanted to do with my career, it didn't throw me into any confusion about who I was. In that sense [work] is not that important to me.
But work is something I am going to spend a majority of my waking time doing while I'm alive. I want to take pride in what I do with that time, so I do take work very seriously and do it to the best of my ability. But it's not the most important thing in my life.