Behind the bar: The Rookery in Bushwick
Q&As with bartenders we know and love around the city.
I walk into The Rookery at 1 pm on a chilly afternoon and sit at the horseshoe-shaped bar. Situated amongst the street art of Bushwick’s Troutman St, it’s a pub with good mac and cheese, seasonal cocktails, and an excellent dog-friendly outdoor space. The walls are covered in antique paintings and floral wallpaper courtesy of owner Jamie Schmitz’s mother. Though the spacious bar is mostly empty at this hour, the place is buzzing. The electricity seems to emanate from the center of the room, or more precisely, from the woman behind the bar.
Jonna Parks is the reason I’m a regular at The Rookery. She makes the best Bloody Mary in NYC, adores pancakes, and she can extract the deepest secrets from even the quietest of souls. She’s loud and loving and often sports a purple lip and breakfast food earrings. One of the few people in the world who actually loves her job, Jonna is a true diamond in the rough. She sat down with me to share stories of growing up, Bushwick tourists, and the importance of finding work-life balance.
Hannah: How did you become a bartender?
Jonna: I grew up 20 minutes from the Canadian border in upstate New York, where my mom worked at a restaurant. When I was 14 I said to my mom, “I want a shirt,” and she said, “cool get a job!”. I didn’t have a driver’s license so I got a job at my mom’s restaurant and we carpooled to work. I started washing dishes, then pizza and salad girl, then hostess, waitress, and then I’ve been bartending since I was 20. I started to bartend in Sackets Harbor — a touristy town south of the Thousand Islands. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. I worked at a brewery for nine years in Sackets Harbor and thought that was my life job, but then they closed for renovations. While they were closed I met my husband Corey, an English teacher in the Bronx, and I moved to Greenpoint to be with him in 2014.
H: Was The Rookery your first job in New York?
J: My first job in NYC was at Red Star in Greenpoint and then I started working at the seasonal bar, Barge Bar, where I still work May through October. I’ve been at Rookery for two years now. This is the longest place I’ve worked consistently other than at home. It was hard at the beginning to be away from home, but I like it a lot now. I like that it’s casual. The space is open and airy and my voice carries so I can handle the whole room. You have to come up to the bar to order and everybody knows that, so if you’re sitting at a booth I can stay behind the bar and ask if you want another beer. I also like that it’s a horseshoe bar because I can see everything and talk to everybody. I work four days a week and take vacations when I want to. It’s ideal.
H: Do you ever miss other parts of restaurant life or is bartending your favorite?
J: Bartending is my favorite part of a restaurant because I like being trapped. A lot of people don’t like it because you can’t get away from your customers, but I’m like, “Why would I want to get away from my customers!” I want to hang out and you can’t do that when you’re waiting on people.
H: Can you tell me about your customers? Your regulars?
J: The regulars here aren’t pretentious. Everyone who comes in is from somewhere else. We’re all imports so I learn so much about the world. It’s similar to my hometown because it’s a military town. I’m from a melting pot so I love this melting pot. We also have day workers like carpenters and people who build movie sets, and then we have a group of Nooklyn people (shout out!), and a group of teachers. I like to introduce my customers to each other. My goal is to get everyone at the bar talking to each other — if everyone at the bar is talking about their favorite vegetable or super power than I’m stoked.
H: Do you become friends with your regulars?
J: The good ones, yes. I like people who come and sit at the bar and want to talk. I want to develop relationships with my customers. I want to know everything about everything and I like to create a safe space for my customers. I write down people’s names so I can remember them when they come in and make them feel special. It’s easy for me to do because I love my job, I’m a career bartender. I’m going to do it until it’s not fun anymore.
H: Any regulars you don’t like?
J: There have only been three customers I don’t like. But it’s like my Olympics. I can maneuver around them and work with them. I kill them with kindness. I smile. A lot. And deal with it. I’m secure in myself. If somebody’s mean to me I know it’s not about me. So, I try to befriend the ones I don’t like the most — that’s my real work.
H: Do you live in the area?
J: I’ve actually lived in Greenpoint the whole time I’ve been in NYC. The biggest difference between Greenpoint and Bushwick is people drink out in Bushwick. Like you could see somebody puking on the street here, but everyone’s in bed by 11 in Greenpoint. I didn’t know much about Bushwick when I started working here, but I’ve watched it change for sure.
H: How has it changed?
J: There are so many new places popping up and old ones closing. The Bushwick Collective makes incredible street art on our block, which has brought a lot of tourists. I honestly love that tourists come here because I want to be an ambassador for Bushwick and NYC. I’ve written out lists of things to do for people. I want to make cards that say “Jonna’s Favorite Things” and hand them out. A lot of tourists come in and say I’m the nicest person they’ve met so far in the city. It’s not that hard to be nice to people, so I am. I love being nice.
H: Is that the bartender’s role? To be the nicest person people have met?
J: The first bar I ever went to in NYC, the bartenders were really rude. I remember thinking, I’m going to come to NYC and be a bartender and be the change I want to see in the world. I’m going to make people happy. I always say, you get more flies with honey.
H: What’s your drink?
J: Vodka water splash of lemonade. I call it Jonna Juice. I don’t like bubbles. It hydrates you, it tastes like nothing.
H: And what about your favorite drink to make?
J: My favorite is when people give me an alcohol and say they want something fruity or new or interesting. I like to be creative. A lot of bartenders don’t like it, but I love making things up. I like making people random drinks!
H: Would you rather work days or nights?
J: I mostly work day shifts because my husband is a teacher. I prefer them because I like to work by myself behind the bar. It lets me engage with customers and get work done. Plus if I’m talking to another bartender I don’t get to find out anything about my customer’s lives.
H: But do you miss out on all the awkward first dates?
J: Not at all! I’ve seen so many. With Tinder things have changed so much. People aren’t coming into this bar to try to find someone to go home with, they’re coming here to have a first date. I love it. And I love being able to help. Someone will sit down at the bar and say they’re waiting for a date and I can help them bridge the gap. I just had a girl here who’s really nice. She wears glasses and orders gin and tonics. She sat down and said she had a second date and I was like “Oh! What do you want me to ask your date?” The bar gives you a lot of power.
H: With that power must come a lot of wisdom — what’s your best piece of wisdom?
J: My life is more important than my job. I don’t ever want to be too busy making a living to have a life. I never want to say I can’t do something because I have to work. My mom was a waitress forever so when I was 18 she made sure I got an IRA and started saving so I can have work-life balance and eventually retire. Self care! I’ve been self-caring my whole life. Life is too short to not do what makes you happy. People make me happy! I love people! Who doesn’t want to make friends! My job is to make friends! I love it! I need it!
H: What do you do for fun?
J: I watch a lot of Gilmore Girls. My husband motorcycles and I’m going to die impressing him. I started motorcycling two years ago, but I grew up four wheeling and riding ATVs. But, honestly, my job is my fun. My mom always said “If you like your job, you’ll never work a day in your life,” and that’s whatever, but also I get it. In the end, the most important thing to me is to be happy.