Aaron Barlow and his sister moved to Asheville on a coin toss (Charleston, S.C., was the other option). Beginning in the middle of the Bele Chere rush in 2002, Barlow, a longtime waiter at the Flying Frog’s street-level bar and café, has seen his share of wild times while working at the downtown hot spot.
He recently sat down with Xpress at the restaurant to talk about the changing face of Asheville, the artistic community and the particular challenges of waiting tables in this city.
Mountain Xpress: How did you end up at the Flying Frog?
Aaron Barlow: My sister had actually gotten a job here before I had. She called me one day and told me, “You need to be down here if you want this job.” It was Bele Chere weekend—that was my first. Burned by fire. I just walked on the floor and started waiting tables.
This is the dead center of downtown. I take it that’s led to some interesting happenings over the years?
Oh, quite a few—almost more than I can tell you. I remember when the gentleman that owned Club Victory off of Wall Street ended up getting shot. This place [the Flying Frog] is all windows; we saw him stumbling down the street. At first we thought he had had way too much to drink. Then he fell to the ground and we saw a puddle of blood. Cop cars were everywhere. Generally we’re pretty laid-back around here. We don’t have too many brawls or that sort of thing.
Shootings and potential brawls aside, what are some other times that stand out?
I could go through Bele Chere stories in a heartbeat. People come in here and they’ve been drinking on the streets all day long. One time this guy came in here and the bartender on duty served him one drink. He didn’t even touch his drink and then he passed out, head on the table and started throwing up. The paramedics had to come, and then the guy’s friends started getting up in [the bartender’s] face, even though she’d only served him one drink and he hadn’t taken a sip.
I almost know all of the bums by name in the summertime. They come around and try to panhandle outside all the time. Trying to keep the bums out, that’s an ongoing thing. Everybody’s got their rough nights. Cool, professional people have too much to drink one time—you get a little bit of dirt on a lot of people.
Have you seen the character of downtown change?
Yes. When I started here, there weren’t that many established businesses downtown. That’s changed. Asheville’s expanding, and it’s gone from more of a local crowd to more tourists—more and more every year. I don’t know how many times a day I have to point out where the bathroom is or where downstairs is.
I’m curious. I hear Asheville referred to as a “beer town” a lot. What are some commonly ordered drinks, some favorites you see here?
Our martini list is fairly extensive. Our infused cocktails bring some people in. But as far as people that come in, it’s Guinness and Jameson that’s really popular. We’ve got a lot of local breweries—Highland Gaelic Ale is another best seller. Though with the tourism factor, you get a little bit of everything.
A lot of the people I really like to wait on on a daily basis are other service-industry people, because the service industry feeds the service industry. There’s not a better tipper out there than another server when they’re out on the town, because they know that’s how you’re paying your bills.
We’re one of the favorite bars of the arts community. They’ve always been a staple; they’ve always treated us well, and I know most of them. I work two jobs, and waiting is great from the networking standpoint.
What’s your other job?
I’m a realtor with Sweetwater Realty. It’s hard sometimes to get people to see me as a realtor first and a waiter second. Most people see me as a waiter first still. It’s tough. Me and my fiancée, we don’t have a lot of time off.
There are a lot of artists here. Has the number increased or decreased over the years?
As far as what we see, it’s about the same group that have been frequenting here, at least on a weekly basis.
There’s a lot of turnover in the service industry. I know a lot of people in a lot of different places. It can almost become addicting: People get into it, and it’s hard to get out. But the fact [that] there’s no health insurance is huge. I can buy it here and there—I’m still a young guy—but it’s a hefty penny. I’d love to see a candidate come out for free health insurance.
Why is the service industry so hard to get out of?
It’s got a lot of college students, a lot of people on their way up. But as far as jobs in Asheville, a lot of the servers I meet, they’ve got degrees. Some of the most intelligent people I’ve met actually wait tables for a living. Maybe it’s not the service industry itself but the style of life. When you work nights, you get used to that 6 p.m.-to-3:30-in-the-morning shift. That cuts a lot of time out of trying to go out and hunt for other jobs or do other things.
It seems like every waiter has a different aspiration. They want to get out; a lot of people have other jobs, and this is a backup. You can do this wherever you go. If you’re a good waiter, you can take that wherever you want to go, as long as there’s a restaurant.