Thumping dance music, rainbow-colored flags and a live poodle aren't things you'd find at your average bar in downtown Phoenix. But Kobalt (3110 N. Central Ave., 602-264-5307) isn't your average bar. A favorite of the central Phoenix gay community, for four years the raucous tavern's been bringing a little color to Park Central. An un-average bar requires an un-average bartender, and Gina Florio's just the woman for the job. A veteran of several Phoenix watering holes, including Swizzle Inn, Florio's been serving drinks since Kobalt opened, lending a woman's touch to the cocktail menu as well as the ambience.
Is it weird working as a woman at a gay bar?
I'm the token straight girl. But as a female, I can empathize with the homosexual community. We're both disenfranchised groups fighting for equal rights. Part of the reason I love this place is because it's so inclusive. The bar scene is the place to go to be who you are without fear.
How long have you been bartending?
I've been in the bar business for more than 20 years. Most of that started when I was putting myself through school. Once I finished my master's degree and tried my hand at the real world, I decided I wanted to go back into bartending. So I did.
Was that a hard decision to make?
No. Not at all. My master's degree is in community counseling, and I utilize it here. When you're a bartender, you're a friend, a counselor, a therapist, a friendly ear, a shoulder to lean on. You're all kinds of things. It comes in handy. I just like the atmosphere here. It's much more accepting and laid back. This is where people go to forget their troubles, rather than drop them off.
Did you try working in the real world?
Absolutely. Before I came to Kobalt, I was a probation officer for Maricopa County for six years. It was tough. Here, I don't have to take my work home or make court appearances.
What's different about Kobalt?
Our community is central Phoenix. It's a totally different lifestyle here. We have young, urban professionals, we have the homosexual community, we have the arts community. I really like the diversity. These are people who have rejuvenated our city, and I wanted to be part of that.
What makes you a great bartender?
My attitude toward the job. When I come in, and it's my shift, I'm the hostess of the party. It's my party, and if my friends aren't having a good time, I'm not having a good party. That's how I approach it. I try not to let the business end of it show because that's not what people come to a bar for. I think it helps to make it more of a relaxed atmosphere, where everyone is welcome, there's no judgment and you can be who you want to be. We get a lot of variety here! It's nice that way.
Do you have a lot of regulars?
A ton, absolutely. You saw as I walked in, we all know each other. A group of customers and bartenders went skydiving a couple years ago. Just a bunch of us who got together from Kobalt and decided to go. There are events like that all the time. We recently had a bicycle bar rally that started here and involved other gay bars in the community. There's a camaraderie here that you find in other bars as well, but I think so many of our patrons are here away from their regular families and away from where they're originally from, so they find a family here. That happens elsewhere, I've just never seen it quite this tight.
What was skydiving like?
It was pretty invigorating. We went for the boss' birthday; it was something he had been wanting to do. I think we ended up with 13 or 14 jumpers that day. We did the tandem jump. I didn't mind having a man strapped to my back!
I heard you were a contestant in a "Sexiest Bartender" contest last year. How'd that go?
Oh, lord. There are so many fundraising events that happen in our community. This one is an annual event, and one bartender from each bar gets nominated to participate. They wanted to have a big female category last year and I reluctantly participated. But it was fun and for a good cause. We had to perform on some level to raise money from the audience. I didn't win. I think I'll leave this year's contest to my younger cohorts.
What's one thing you hate about bartending?
Right now I live pretty far from here, so my commute is the only thing I really complain about these days. I'm moving back to central Phoenix soon, though.
What's one thing you love about it?
The people I work with. My Kobalt family is pretty amazing. I've worked in very few places where there's this much support and cohesiveness between a group of people, especially one so different in age, persuasions, hobbies and every other aspect you can think of. But everybody rallies, which is a good feeling to have. There's no backstabbing, there's none of that bar stuff.
Nothing like the Maricopa County Judicial system?
No, not at all. Thank goodness!