True grit: A Boston bar career climb

Updated: Aug 19, 2020

Adam Van Buskirk masks up and starts setting up the new patio at the Kenmore in Boston, MA. The small neighborhood bar near Fenway Park was granted outdoor seating on Commonwealth Avenue in light of the pandemic, a modest patio dining area spread on the sidewalk and two parking spaces. He shuffles past the parking meter with patio umbrellas in hand, preparing for another brunch shift on another summer weekend in Kenmore Square, greeting pedestrians as they pass by the restaurant.

The career climb

Adam didn’t know he would be, nor aspired to being the general manager at the Kenmore when he started out as a young adult. The chronology of his career climb is one of chance and serendipity, meeting his opportunities halfway. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in business administration at Alfred University in New York, he followed his then-girlfriend (now-wife) to Boston. He worked as a handyman, then in real estate in Sommerville, and in 2008, the economy crashed. The young couple quickly became financially unstable and Adam took any job he could to make ends meet.

Adam Van Buskirk, General Manager, the Kenmore

One day, he walked into Cheers, the infamous Boston bar for which the TV show is named, and walked out with a new job as a doorman. In an effort to make more hours and more money, he climbed the restaurant ranks—to server and bartender. After a falling out with the bar manager there, he networked his way into other restaurant jobs and got experience working in a variety of positions, meeting diverse clientele.

He worked for a bustling Italian restaurant and pizza place in Boston’s touristy North End, as well as the Corner Tavern across town. Attracted to the healthier work culture at the Corner Tavern, he eventually moved there full time.

Building grit and industry knowledge

“In college,” he says, “I had no clue I’d be working in the restaurant industry. I got into it out of necessity.”

In the fall of 2009, Adam walked into the Corner Tavern for food and drink and was greeted by the then-general manager, Aldo Jaquez. After hearing Adam’s struggles at his North End jobs, Aldo encouraged him to apply at the Corner Tavern. Though a position wasn’t open at the time, Aldo called him as soon as one became available.

"The kindness that was afforded to me in the hospitality business was my ticket to success. Aldo taught me a lot about service and the inner workings of the bar,” Adam said. “In the industry, guests have different personalities, different politics. You have to be able to not take offense to people’s words, make a positive connection, and treat everyone with the same respect and kindness, no matter what their point of view. That means being flexible, adaptable, approachable, and friendly. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s rewarding."

Adam has been extraordinarily successful working in hospitality. He married his long-time girlfriend, had a dream wedding, bought a house, and he says he's financially in a place that is comfortable next to a lot of people who are in bad situations right now. Working behind a bar gave him an "ability to laugh" and enjoy his job. As a person, he is well-rounded, accepting, and living a happy life.

Surrounding himself with a good team and mentor

Adam chats with some customers during Brunch.

When Aldo moved to Miami, FL, Adam took over as the general manager of the Corner Tavern. He looked to Doug Bacon, who owns the tavern, and played an important role in Adam’s career success, as a boss and mentor. “Doug started out as a bartender and now has eight businesses, and that’s admirable and impressive. He’s stern, but fair, and possesses the traits of a good leader—respectful, kind, knowledgeable, and up-to-date on the industry. If someone hurts the business, it impacts him emotionally—this is his life. He cares about the health of the business, so when the business hurts, we all hurt. He applies detail, direction, and solutions to everything he does.”

In addition to the Corner Tavern, Doug is the owner of other popular neighborhood watering holes around the city under the Red Paint Hospitality Group umbrella: the White Horse Tavern, the Avenue, Harry’s, the Last Drop, Hopewell, the Westland, and the Kenmore.

“Doug’s leadership can best be illustrated by his response to the pandemic,” said Adam. After his restaurants closed when coronavirus deaths and diagnoses initially peaked, Doug made efforts to support his business teams by forwarding financial resources and information; taking food that would’ve gone bad and packaged it and distributed it to staff that needed it; checked-in with staff regularly about health and finances; and worked painstakingly to keep everyone healthy and happy. Being part of a hard-working, kind, and connected team is one way to remain happy and challenged in your job, but having a mentor in place that can drive positive workplace culture and change is critical to career success.

Sunset view of the Citgo sign at the Kenmore.

Learn from the greats

Adam is now the general manager of the Kenmore, the latest addition to the Red Paint Hospitality Group’s portfolio of neighborhood bars. Because the Corner Tavern didn’t reopen due to coronavirus capacity restrictions, Adam sought any and all opportunities to get back to work. His grit and drive laid the groundwork to open doors for him as the new GM at the Kenmore.

What must you possess in order to climb in your career? According to Adam: “Don’t be afraid of change or to take a chance. The grass isn’t always greener, at the same time. Don’t settle and realize your self-worth. Always be learning. Always be challenging yourself.”

And for those in the industry in a rut? Adam’s been there, too. He recommends: “You have to find enjoyment in the simplest things, in connecting with people. You really have to care about people and you’ll find they care about you in return.” If you’re struggling to do this in your job, rekindle your passion and start doing the work to care for yourself in your career. Like Adam, that could mean changing jobs, changing roles, or just changing industries in general.


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