Originally from Tulsa, Okla., Jake Hillyer moved to Charlotte eight years ago at the age of 24. He’s worked at several local gay bars and in the service industry for more than a decade. Now at Cathode Azure in South End, Hillyer says his co-workers have become like friends and family and he says there’s still an important place for gay bars in an ever-increasingly affirmative society. We sat down to chat and learn more about your Favorite LGBT Bartender — voted by a majority of readers who cast ballots in our first-ever bartender contest May 9-June 11. Our interview is edited for brevity and clarity.
What brought you to Charlotte?
My ex. Love brought me to Charlotte.
That’s a long way to travel, and you stayed.
I fell in love with the city and found a really good group of friends which kept me here, but I still miss my family.
Have you always worked in the service industry or was it something you kind of fell into?
I started bartending literally on my 21st birthday at Joe’s Crab Shack in Tulsa. I told them a year before while I worked there that I wanted to bartend. They said okay and here’s your opportunity.
Why did you want to bartend so badly?
When you’re young, it’s a very glorified position. You think a bartender leads this really awesome life. They get to stay out late and go out and party when they aren’t working. It is true to some degree, but it’s a lot of work — a lot of work. Very late nights. You are on a complete opposite schedule from most everybody you know. It could be the simplest thing — when things are only open certain hours, you aren’t able to go. Or, if people want to get up early and go out to the pool, you won’t get any sleep if you decide to go with them.
Is Cathode the first gay bar where you’ve worked?
No. I worked at Sidelines for a little over two years while I was also working at Jason’s Deli. I also worked at the Eagle, but it was brief. I only worked a couple shifts. It was just work overload — working at the deli and on Fridays and Saturdays working at Sidelines and trying to pick up a couple shifts at the Eagle as well.
Is there a difference between working at a gay bar versus working at a straight bar?
You get hit on a lot more. You feel like you’re more on stage, in a sense. It does have its ups and downs, but I’d say the ups definitely outweigh the downs. Most of my friends in the city are gay, so I get to see them all the time, so it’s really cool in that aspect.
Do you kind of form a family working at a bar?
Most definitely. You spend a third of your life working, so it’s only natural you become friends and family even with the people we work with. We are definitely a family here at Cathode.
Do you prefer a busy night or slow night?
Busy. The busier we are, the more money I’m making, the quicker time goes by and the more fun you have.
Cathode Azure is a unique place — sometimes a neighborhood bar, sometimes more clubby. What do you enjoy most?
That’s a tough one. They both have their perks. I would have to say I like being in a more high-volume environment. I think I shine better in an environment like that.
When you’re not working, what do you like to do? You’re already in a bar all the time.
It can be kind of tough being in a bar 24/7. I enjoy simple things. I’m a huge reader. I’m reading the “Game of Thrones” series right now.
Watching it, too?
Yes! I love it! I’m so obsessed with it. That season finale last time left it wide open. It was good!
What else do you enjoy doing?
I love just getting out and getting back to nature, going to the beach and being close to the ocean. I was born in southern California and one of the things we did a lot was going out to the beach. I’ve never felt more at home than near the water.
Did you go to school anywhere?
I went to Oklahoma State. My original major was veterinary medicine, then I changed it to linguistics and again to international politics with minors in French and Spanish. I can’t say I finished, but I would very much love to go back.
What’s your favorite drink?
It’s kind of funny how a lot of people would think a bartender would like something very crazy and outlandish or something so complicated to make. Most of us don’t. We like simple things. For me, it’s whiskey and a beer. That makes me happy.
What’s a memorable night or humorous event from your bartending career?
I would have to say it was New Year’s Eve in 2006. It wasn’t so much what the patrons were doing, but what the employees were doing. I was supervising at a bar out in Tulsa. It was a really interesting night and, actually, I probably shouldn’t say what a lot of them were doing. But, it was a very fun night. We all had a good time.
These days, lots of gay people can feel comfortable going out to primarily straight places. Is there a place for gay bars?
I think we’ll always have gay bars around. It does seem like they are phasing out a little bit, especially here in Charlotte with several closing recently. It’s because gays are more comfortable going out and feel more accepted. I remember growing up — it wasn’t that long ago, just 10 years ago when I was 22 — whenever you went out to straight bars, you didn’t tell people you were gay. We would go to gay bars and hang out with people like us. Now, it’s not as important, but it’s still nice to go out and mingle with people who identify just like you. I think we’ll always have gay bars around. : :