The flying bartender
Southwest pilot is also a pub owner
Bobby Griffith is grilling hot dogs in a parking lot in East Sacramento. The owner of Clubhouse 56, a pub and restaurant near the corner of 56th and H Streets, Griffith, 50, is smiling and shaking hands with customers and passersby. The longtime Sacramento resident has two full-time jobs with seemingly diverse skill sets. While he’s not working the crowd—with mostly everyone on a first-name basis—Griffith is managing employees, tweaking the menu and otherwise running the business. When he’s not doing that, he’s a captain for Southwest Airlines. Griffith flies out of Oakland. But his long work days can begin in Sacramento by opening the neighborhood establishment that caters to locals and various university athletic alumni groups who gather for key sporting events. Big-screen televisions, cold beer, mixed drinks and a mean menu of burgers, tacos, tortilla soup and daily lunch and dinner specials define the vibe. The decor is primarily sports memorabilia except for a large logo sign from the original and long-gone Shakey’s Pizza Parlor on 57th and J Streets.
How did you decide you could own a pub and also be an airline pilot?
I don’t think I really knew how difficult this industry was until I jumped into it. It takes similar devotion and commitment to get where I’ve gotten with the airlines. It just took years and years of dedication. But [the pub] is probably a more difficult industry. They are both customer-based. And both require a lot of hands-on responsibilities. I’m still here, but it’s definitely the most difficult and challenging thing I’ve done in my life.
How long have you been a pilot?
I’ve been a commercial pilot since 1987. I’ve had various jobs along the way, from flight instruction, corporate to charter. But the only airline I’ve flown for is Southwest. We fly just 737s.
How do you manage both jobs?
A lot of mornings, I’ll come in, open the restaurant and work two or three hours. I fly evening shifts primarily, so I make the two-hour drive, check in an hour before departure and then maybe head to Las Vegas and then to Newark. On combo days, my average day is 15-18 hours. When we first opened in 2010, I might land in Oakland at 10 p.m., drive here and then close the restaurant at 2 a.m. Now, I go home from Oakland. It’s been 100-hour weeks for a lot of years, but the good thing about it is that they’re both different. The restaurant is very challenging; the airline allows me to get away from the restaurant.
You often work 80-100 hour weeks. How do you do it?
It’s crazy wearing two hats. It’s always good to come home. When I come into the restaurants, I find out how things have gone the past couple of days. But if I’ve been [at the restaurant] for too long, it’s always great to ship out for a few days. The jobs definitely complement each other.
What have you learned about the restaurant business?
Before I was this deep into it, I didn’t realize why restaurants would come and go. But when you get into it, you understand the challenges facing small businesses and little restaurants. You have to have a consistent level of food and a consistent level of service. You have to keep it clean. We are a neighborhood, family-friendly place and for a bar and grill, a sports-bar kind of place. It’s really difficult to do. But we’ve managed to do it. You have to maintain, and you can’t get complacent. This industry never allows you to feel too comfortable.
I can’t help but think of Flight, the Denzel Washington movie in which he was an alcoholic pilot. It’s unfair, of course. But there seems to be some dichotomy, at least on the surface. Can you make any comparison between the two jobs?
Being in aviation is all about consistency. There’s not a lot of room for error and you are always trying to have the perfect flight or landing or whatever it may be. Each job poses different challenges. The restaurant is all customer service. How can you make their experience memorable and get them to come back? In the airlines, you are always trying to do good, follow a lot of procedures and rules. They are both very demanding jobs and stressful under certain circumstances.
Can you give me an example?
You could have a full house in the restaurant and the air conditioner goes out. It happens. Or the ice machine breaks, or maybe it’s the grill. Maybe you have a gas leak or a sewer issue. It can be anything. In the airlines, we have mechanical problems. We have an airplane full of passengers, some of whom may not understand why we are canceling a flight. Trying to keep your emotions under control in two uniquely different jobs is important.
Do you ever come in after a long haul and pour yourself a beer?
Not very often. The longer I’ve been in the industry, the less I drink at all. The days are so long; I just don’t have the time. You kind of have to be on your game all the time.