Piedmont Profile: Bartender pours himself into his work

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Steve Huffman
It’s a Thursday night at Brick Street Tavern and Bobby Miller is in his element, mixing a fair amount of bartending with a huge dose of good-natured banter involving anyone within earshot.
“Hey, man, it’s always good to see you,” Miller says, shaking hands with a patron who has strolled into the downtown Salisbury restaurant/pub and taken a seat at the bar. “Where you been?”
The customer smiles. He and Miller share a story about days not so distant. Before long, there’s another new arrival and the conversation plays out again, the lines altered only slightly.
“Hey, what’s going on, dude?” Miller asks. “What’s up?”
Remember the theme song from the TV show “Cheers”? The tune about the mythical establishment “where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came”?
Miller has a way of making his customers feel they’ve stumbled into such a place.
“Bobby is awesome,” says Brian Morrow, a big fellow whose diet won’t allow him anything stronger than a Diet Coke, but who visits Brick Street more for conversation than refreshments. “He’s as good a guy as you’ll meet.”
Most agree that Miller, 47, is an interesting sort. He’s a lifelong bachelor, a native of Salisbury and graduate of Wake Forest University who has spent virtually all of his adult life bartending. He’s part owner of Brick Street.
Ask Miller how his life played out the way it did and he grins and shrugs. We’ve all got to be somewhere, he notes, and bartending is an honorable profession that brings with it many rewards.
The job might not land him the type of salary some of his fraternity brothers at Wake Forest are pulling in, but Miller says there’s more to life than money, anyway.
“If you’re not friends with your customers when they come in, you’ll eventually become friends with them,” he says. “There’s not a lot of people who can say that about their jobs.”
Miller says that not too many years ago, he was taking classes at Catawba College with plans of entering graduate school and eventually becoming a counselor.
He finally realized the folly of it all.
“Heck, I do enough counseling behind the bar,” Miller says, laughing as he speaks. “I’m a lot cheaper than most therapists and my advice is just as good in most cases.”
Miller got his introduction to bartending while in college at Wake Forest. He started waiting tables at a Darryl’s Restaurant there in Winston-Salem during the chain’s heyday, and eventually moved behind the bar.
Miller remembers his first night working as a bartender was Dec. 31, 1984. The New Year’s Eve crowd was a rowdy bunch, Miller recalls, and it was an era when fruity, sugary drinks were the rage.
When Miller finally left the restaurant at 3 a.m. on New Year’s Day, he was covered with evidence of the gooey cocktails he’d been mixing and serving throughout the night.
He was tired, Miller says, but also happy. He liked the work. In a word, something clicked.
“I knew this was something that interested me,” Miller says.
He majored in religion at Wake Forest, though exactly why, he can’t say.
“Religion just came easy to me,” Miller says. “I figured, ‘Why not?'”
Then he pauses to reflect before chuckling again.
“I never knew what I wanted to do,” he says. “At 47, I’m still not sure.”
Following college graduation, Miller gave the corporate world a shot, taking a job in the manager training program with Ferguson Enterprises, at the time the second-largest wholesale plumbing supplier in the United States.
He worked first out of Wilmington before moving to an inside sales job with the company in Greenville, S.C. The gig lasted about two years, total.
Miller doesn’t go into a lot of detail about how it all played out, allowing only, “Then I acquired my free agency and returned to Salisbury.”
He’s been bartending pretty much ever since, and for almost 19 years was a staple at High Rock Boat & Ski Club. It was a good run, just about everyone involved agrees.
Morrow, the big guy sitting at the bar nursing the Diet Coke, says his parents had a membership to the club and took him there for dinner from the time he was a toddler.
“That place used to be slammed every weekend,” Morrow says.
Miller agrees.
“We rocked,” he says. “It was fun.”
The only stumbling block, Miller says, was when Alcoa lowered the lake’s water and boaters couldn’t make it in.
“Alcoa was the worst problem we had,” he says.
The stint with the Boat & Ski Club ended a few years ago when the business changed hands. Miller and several friends tried to buy the establishment, but those plans didn’t work out and he was suddenly out of a job.
He spent six months or so reflecting on things before buying into Brick Street with John Casey and Wesley Stokes, the restaurant’s other owners. They revamped the place, moved the bar, and opened last September.
It’s a nice-looking place. Give it a try if you haven’t already. They’re on East Fisher Street.
Charlie Smith and Miller have known each other just about all their lives. They went to school together and grew up attending St. John’s Lutheran Church.
Smith and Miller have stayed close despite the fact that Smith and his wife, Pam, have been married for years and have two daughters, meaning their lifestyle is far different from Miller’s.
“He’s like a part of the family, to tell you the truth,” Smith says of Miller. “He’s like an uncle to my daughters.”
He says that for years, a Christmas Eve tradition has been for the family to stay up late until Miller stops by, usually after he gets off work.
“It’s like a ritual,” Smith says.
He says that more than once, Miller has helped him assemble the girls’ presents from Santa, the two of them working until almost dawn to put together a Barbie playhouse or similar offering.
“It says something about a guy who’s single to want to be a part of a family the way Bobby wants to be part of ours,” Smith says.
Miller says one of the things he likes about bartending is the hours he works. He says that when his father, Robert B. Miller III, was stricken with cancer, he could spend daytime hours with him before going to work in the evening. The elder Miller died in September 2001.
Miller’s mother is Tippie, well-known around Rowan County as a volunteer and for her work on the board of directors of a number of community organizations.
Miller has a sister, Sharon Earnhardt, who teaches P.E. at Faith and Hurley elementary schools. She and her husband, David, have one son.
“And my best buddy in the whole wide world is my 9-year-old nephew, Chase,” Miller says. “If you don’t include anything else, please include that.”
He has a dog, Chloe, that he adopted after his beloved mutt, Duke, died four years ago at the age of 13.
Miller was grieving for Duke, he says, but one of his friends, Norman Kesler, suggested he take a look at Chloe. “I took in Chloe when I really didn’t want another dog,” Miller says.
Like most things in his life, it has worked out well.
Asked if he’s ever seriously considered marrying, Miller says no.
“Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but if I ever marry, I want it to be for the rest of my life,” he says.
“I refuse to get married just because I’ve reached a certain age and it’s expected of me. I refuse to settle.”
As the evening winds to a close, a couple that had been sitting and talking for a couple of hours rise to leave.
Miller bids them adieu.
“I hope you folks enjoyed yourselves,” he fairly shouts. “Come back and see us soon.”
Somewhere, the closing credits to “Cheers” are rolling.