In a city with never-ending bar options, Del’s Bar in La Crosse sticks out. It’s been open since 1933 in a historic brick building downtown. Step inside on any given day and you’ll find regulars who have been coming in for 40 years, college students and tourists chatting with each other around the oval shaped bar.
One Sunday afternoon with the Brewers game and jukebox blaring, bartender Sara Viner was busy mixing up Del’s famous Bloody Marys. The recipe includes tomato juice, pickle juice, Worcestshire sauce, a (pickle + olive + Brussels sprout + pepper jack cheese) garnish … and the rest is secret.
“I enjoy making Bloodys,” said Viner, who’s been working at Del’s for 20 years. “I also enjoy Bloody statistics and I like getting creative with Bloodys.”
What are Bloody statistics, you may ask?
“One year, we made 12,736 Bloody Marys. Two weekends ago, I did 481, but we think we did more than that,” Viner proudly boasted.
“I love how you know these numbers!” laughed Briana Rupel, another bartender who’s worked at Del’s on and off for seven years.
One thing that’s kept Rupel and Viner at Del’s for so long is that they genuinely love helping, serving and entertaining customers.
“I like hosting a good time for people. It’s what it boils down to,” said Viner. “Good vibes. Good people. Customers can come into the bar and not think about everything going on with this crazy world we live in right now … It’s one thing I love about being here. When [Bri and I] bartend together, we make the frickin’ customers get into it and dance, sing.”
“A lot of people who aren’t in the industry think it’s all about the drinks,” said Rupel. “But really, I’m thinking, ‘How can I craft this experience for the customer to be the best experience they’ve had?’ They come here to drink after work, but they want to have a good time. Good stories. Good music. Otherwise, they can drink at home.”
Both Rupel and Viner view Del’s as a community. Customers and staff are a family. Friends and strangers end up talking about their days, the news, local gossip. People share credits on the jukebox. Del’s Bar has seen its fair share of first dates and engagements, too.
“The motto, slogan of Del’s is ‘Young and old alike,’” said Rupel. “Everyone here gets along. It’s one of those iconic bars that’s always been that way. It’s always embraced that mentality.”
“I think a lot of the bars in La Crosse have this in their own way,” said Viner. “Snuffy’s, The Helm, John’s, Popcorn Tavern all have this old-time following with the old people and young people. I think we’re all special like that.”
Del’s is also one of the go-to bars that gets slammed during La Crosse’s Oktoberfest celebration. One year, Rupel clipped on a pedometer for Oktoberfest weekend. She discovered she walked 15 miles working behind the bar and running up and down the stairs. “Bartending is a great workout,” laughed Rupel.
“It’s fun. It’s fast. It’s loud. A lot of good people,” added Viner, who loves working Oktoberfest. “We have a lot of out-of-town regulars that come every Oktoberfest. They take pictures. We’ve seen pics of ourselves working through the years, which is great since we never have time to snap pictures while we’re working.”
Oktoberfest is an intense experience for any bartender in La Crosse, but Rupel said Del’s tight knit crew makes is doable.
“I liken it to going to battle,” said Rupel. “We’re downstairs eating food beforehand, getting prepped. People are listening to music to amp themselves up for the shift. Then, you’re thrown into it. You don’t pee for 10 hours. It’s nonstop. By the end, when we’re using a snow shovel to scoop up garbage and cups and everyone has left, we all embrace each other and think, ‘We did it! Another year in the books! We got through it together!’ That’s one of my favorite parts. Yeah it’s busy, but it’s so worth it. It’s so fun.”
‘We Finish Each Other’s Drinks’
It’s not just the customers and experiences that keep Viner and Rupel at Del’s, but a deep love for the job.
“One of the most insulting things someone has said to me as a bartender is, ‘What’s your real job?’ How is this not a real job?” said Rupel. “I get paid great money. We all have off days, but I’ve never had a bad day or wake up not wanting to go to work.”
“Nope, never have. You may get burnout, that’s every job,” added Viner.
Viner also co-owns a business, Tree Huggers Co-op, and Rupel works as a freelance writer. But, they can’t shake bartending out of their systems.
Plus, Rupel and Viner’s friendship make them a strong team when they’re slingin’ drinks.
“We hit it off right off the bat,” said Rupel. “Throughout the years of working the same shifts together, without speaking, without deciding rules, we came into a symbiotic dance. We know exactly when to move and get out of each other’s way. I know looking at [Sara’s] face what [she] needs. Some people finish each other’s sentences. We finish each other’s drinks as we’re making them.”
“It’s true!” said Viner. “My best partner has truly been, Bri. You and I have this crazy, intuitive bartending style. And I love it.”
This story was part of WPR’s High Tolerance series, a look at Wisconsin’s relationship with alcohol.