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City People

Where everyone knows her name

And they all know her nickname, too: "Corvette Karen," the day-shift bartender at the Green Iguana in Ybor City.

By RICK GERSHMAN
Published June 30, 2006


YBOR CITY - When Karen Durrett was young, she always enjoyed finding out what made people tick.

That rarely happened when she worked as a sales representative for General Electric. But in her late 30s, she found the perfect line of work.

Psychologist? Therapist? Counselor? No.

Too boring. Too stuffy. Too ... sober.

So Durrett became a bartender.

"Now people I've never met before tell me the most incredible things," she said. "I'm not somebody who's going to judge."

Durrett is the daytime bartender, Tuesday through Friday, at Ybor City's Green Iguana restaurant and bar.

It's one of Tampa's most popular destinations for lunch - particularly a liquid lunch. And Durrett has fans in high places.

"She is probably the best bartender that I've ever seen," said Seamus Hannigan, former manager of the James Joyce Irish Pub, directly above the Iguana.

"She shows up to work with a smile on her face, and she keeps that smile even if she wants to tell someone to go to hell," he said.

"You're not going to meet anybody who knows Ybor like her. She's the Mom of Ybor City."

Actually, she's not just a mom. Durrett, 41, is a bartending granny.

She has identical twin sons, Jeff and Jeremy, 21. Jeff is a bartender at a Beef O'Brady's in Atlanta and father of Durrett's grandson, Cameron. And Jeremy, who barbacks at the Green Iguana (occasionally for his mom), will be a father in December.

Durrett came to bartending in a roundabout way. She made "six figures" with GE, but when the Tampa division closed, she enjoyed a semiretired life for the next seven years.

In 2003, a friend said she was going to take a bartending class. Durrett tagged along, passed the class, and the school got her a gig at Jimmy Mac's (which closed in 2005).

Durrett worked at Jimmy Mac's for about six months before snagging a gig at the Iguana. She's been there more than three years and has no plans to leave.

Eighty percent of Durrett's customers are regulars, she said: "They're my friends. I'm entertained by their lives."

Durrett vows never to return to traditional corporate work. "It's not about money. I still make very good money, but I am so much happier."

The restaurant's happy too. Managers hired Durrett in the hopes of building daytime business among working adults at the bar. It's also why Durrett enjoys the day shift: "I'm more in their age group."

Food and beverage sales to patrons at the bar previously lingered at $400 in food and beverage sales per day, Durrett said. Now she "rings" (in bartender parlance) an average of $1,000, and sometimes as much as $1,500.

That's an impressive ring for any bartender on a weekday shift, when alcoholic beverage sales generally pale in comparison to evening sales.

"Karen's the best, man," said Matt DeAngelis, who has barbacked at the restaurant for a year. "I was hard up for a job and I'd worked with Jeremy before, and she's the reason I got the job."

Said Hannigan: "I've never seen anybody have the following she has. She's a rock star."

Durrett's secret? It starts with fast, knowledgeable service, knowing hundreds of drinks and every item on the menu off the top of her head.

Like all great bartenders, she's an expert multitasker, making drinks for her bar customers and for servers, keeping the bar clean, making it seem effortless.

But the critical aspect is making her customers feel at home, getting to know them, introducing them to each other.

"Now I have 30 to 40 regulars who come to see me every single day," she said. "And now they all know each other."

She's seen all sorts of situations, such as the woman who liked to expose her breasts whenever she had a few too many. Durrett had to ask her to stop, albeit grudgingly.

"I hated to be the party pooper - I'm all for it," she said. "But when you have kids and families in here, you have to take control."

And such excitement keeps things interesting for a woman who learned that serving drinks is what really makes her happy: "I'll do it as long as I possibly can."

Rick Gershman can be reached at rgershman@sptimes.com or 226-3431. His Times blog, The Ill Literate, is at www.tampabay.com/blogs/tampaarts.

KAREN DURRETT

Gig: Bartender, Green Iguana, Ybor City

Age: 41

Home: Davis Islands

Nickname: "Corvette Karen" She owns two.

Kin: Two twin sons, Jeff and Jeremy, 21; one grandson, Cameron, 2

All in the family: Jeff tends bar in Atlanta; Jeremy barbacks at the Iguana

Sip on this: "This is the best job ever. It's like all of your friends are coming to work and seeing you every day, like hosting a party all day long."

[Last modified June 29, 2006, 10:56:21]


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