by Robin Beaudoin Ownby | photo courtesy of Eileen Hogan
The pandemic has been rough for the beloved bartender, and yet, she persists.
In the face of uncertain employment and in-person safety concerns, beloved bartender Eileen Hogan (also known as Matilda) has persevered and held on to her causes. She has been the face of popular bars and restaurants during her time in Memphis, including Hard Rock Café, Houston’s, River Oaks, Alchemy, and the Zebra Lounge. Hogan brings to the table an unparalleled gentility and kindness. Each establishment is enriched by her presence; she serves and raises awareness for a personal cause.
Born in Rochester, New York, Hogan moved to Nashville around age seven. As an adult, a job at Hard Rock Café Nashville brought her to Memphis. “Hard Rock was the only job I’ve ever been fired from. They offered me a great deal to move here, and I said, ‘This won’t last more than a year.’” She was right. At 7 a.m. one morning when Hogan arrived at work, she saw that her general manager had two giant sacks of her personal effects. “My daddy’s influence was with me, and I understood, but it was a shock to the system. I turned and looked and saw a homeless man, and I stopped crying realizing it wasn’t the end of the world,” recalls Hogan.
“I couldn’t afford to move, so I found other jobs and stayed in Memphis. I started paying attention to what was doing well, and who was popular, and what was consistent in Memphis.” She landed at Houston’s Restaurant in east Memphis for five years, but the environment wasn’t particularly supportive of the staff, she said. “That’s when I saw Alchemy opening, everything about it was wonderful, and it seemed like the best place to be in Memphis.” As bar manager at Alchemy, Hogan would make friends and mentors to carry her through the coming years.
Manager and mentor Burt Smythe allowed Hogan to find a side job so she could be more hands-on mixing drinks. Hogan stresses, “If I’m not mixing drinks I get kind of itchy about it.” A friend needed help moving to Chicago, and Hogan agreed – if they could visit Zebra Lounge there; she’d heard about them possibly opening a Memphis location. Soon, the co-owners of the Memphis Zebra lounge would be sitting at the bar at Alchemy. “Tamara and Michael Vaughn came into Alchemy and sat at my bar. I didn’t even recognize them!” Since Zebra Lounge opened in midtown Memphis’ Overton Square, Hogan has been a regular bartender, where she holds a yearly fundraiser. She gives all of her own tips and takes donations for the ALS Foundation, in memory of her late father.
“I’d pick a really good shift where I could work by myself, so I wouldn’t ask anyone else to donate their tips. At Alchemy, Burt matched the donations a couple of times, but Zebra is great. When daddy was diagnosed, it was about six years before he passed, and took four of those to get a diagnosis. Now [ALS awareness] is all over the place and people really know about it. The first walk we did, daddy was there in the wheelchair. I still have a photo of him with the balloons all around,” Hogan beams. The ALS Walk team is called “Hogan’s Heroes,” and consists of Hogan, her mother, and her sister. Between Memphis and Nashville walks, they have raised near $15,000 for ALS research and awareness.
We’ve been doing the walk for about 20 years, and there was one time at Zebra that I raised almost $4,000. I cried that entire shift. Drag queens gave me their tips, people kept re-donating auction items. It was the largest single day I’ve felt so much love in my life. It was the right place, the right time, the right people.
The pandemic this year shut down many bars and restaurants, limiting in-person tips and participation. Hogan took a different approach for 2020 to honor her father. “My dad’s favorite number was 17, so I picked 17 places to volunteer, from donating blood to working at the food pantry.” Hogan’s nephew Brandon died from an accidental shooting when a friend brought a gun to his house. Gun control is another pet cause for that personal reason.
Due to closures, Hogan has been bartended less frequently, but has picked up outdoor work. She is caulking and painting houses, bartending outdoors at the Memphis Zoo, and landscaping for her landlord. “I can’t afford to be sick,” states Hogan.
Her work ethic is a tribute to her upbringing. Her mother ran a coffee shop, and her father built handmade cappuccino machines, tinkering with anything he could take apart, just to understand its inner workings. “He always said, ‘Don’t buy it, we can make it.’” Even her Hogan’s Heroes teammate/sister runs and owns her own cleaning business in Dayton, Kentucky. Hogan recalls, “She used to pay me five dollars to clean her own room.”
“We are all close, so after daddy went to heaven we all hid out a little bit – it was so traumatic, watching this stupid Lou Gehrig’s disease take over a loved one’s life… the way the disease takes effect. My dad passed away in 2002.”
She has lived in Gatlinburg, Nashville, and now Memphis, and appreciates how easy Tennessee is to explore, and the outdoor adventures available in the Mid-South. “I go to Shelby Farms here, or go across the bridge to Arkansas. There are so many levels of adventuring in nature. Biking and walking, finding sunsets and graffiti are my jam right now – it’s keeping me sane.”
Her hopes for 2021? To get back to a ‘safe normal’ sooner than expected. “I think people will accept masks and washing hands, and I want to be in a crowded room and attend a concert. I heard Joe Biden say on NPR that he hopes we can all wear masks for 100 days. I’m trying to be a better friend, but taking care of myself with an educated skill set so that I can take care of my friends, is important this year.”