Katie McKinlay
Katie McKinlay
Captain. Baker. Bartender. Sailboat racer. I first met Katie McKinlay when, in 2017, she became co-owner and captain of the Isaac H. Evans (giving it back its original 1886 name, the Boyd N. Sheppard), the windjammer I grew up sailing on out of Rockland’s North End Shipyard. Unfortunately, during the pandemic, Katie and her ex-husband had to let the boat go. Katie and I met up at a Sandy Beach picnic table in Rockland in mid-August for this interview, surrounded by the harbor and the crush of gaudy, arguably ugly South End Rockland-as-beach-resort architectural make-overs (that day there was an enormous roof on a lawn waiting to be lifted onto a newly expanded house, where it would instantly obscure another freshly garish house’s ocean view). We ended up talking for three hours. Just the day before, Katie had finally — after an almost two-year search which included six moves and a frightening brush with homelessness — secured stable, year-round housing for herself and her 7-year-old daughter, Evelyn. We talked about the local housing crisis, the Rockland school system, her opposition to ending tipped work, and the restaurant industry where, nationwide, workers are “taking back the reins this year,” no longer willing to tolerate rude or harassing behavior. Katie, by the way, is a quintessentially ideal bartender — warm, vivacious, skillful, and willing, when necessary, to do what it takes to make sure everyone gets safely home.

Becca: You came to Rockland to work on the Victory Chimes?

Katie: I moved here in 2008 to work on the Victory Chimes. I was just getting off of sail training vessels. I had been racing in Chicago for about 10 years at that point.

Becca: Do you feel welcomed here? The out-of-staters versus Mainers thing is pretty extreme.

Katie: It is extreme, but I’ve always felt welcome here for two reasons. You go anywhere by boat, and they welcome you. And the other thing is, that I’m a working-class kid; I work, and I stay through the winters.

Becca: How did you get into bartending?

Katie: My dad shipped me up to the Adirondacks [by myself]. I was 12 years old, and I was working at a little soda fountain at an ice cream shop as a waitress. And I’ve been in the restaurant industry ever since. I started bartending in Rochester at 18. When I moved to Chicago at 18 I had to go back to waitressing because you had to be 21 in Chicago to bartend. And then, like the day I turned 21, I got back behind the bar. So I’ve been bartending for 24 years. I left it while I was sailing for a season, but I’d always go back to it in the winter. I do love my work.

Becca: When I asked you about the idea of doing an interview you said, “That will also be a great push for me to continue my crusade.” What is your crusade?

Katie: Finding long-term solutions to the affordable housing crisis that eradicates the generalizations and stereotypes of who is “low income” in the community. We are dealing with classic gentrification. I went on Craigslist the other day, and a two-bedroom apartment right now is the same amount in Chicago as it is in Rockland, Maine. [People from outside of Maine are thinking,] “I’m gonna buy everything up because I need a safe house in case a pandemic hits again.” And it’s protecting yourself, I get it, it’s protecting your family, but it’s also at the cost of harming a community — and it’s not just our community. This is a nationwide systemic issue right now.

Becca: What are some things you’ve seen while looking for a place?

Katie: I looked at an apartment two weeks ago, right over here on Fulton, nothing special. He’s like, “Oh, I want $1,200.” And literally, as I’m walking through he’s like, “But I know I can get 16 so I might actually raise it. The neighbors are paying $950 a month, but I know the market, I could make so much money.” I found out that he rented it out to a couple the next week for $1,600. He literally went from $950 to $1,200 to $1,600 in two weeks because he knew he could. And I know another person who owns two properties in the area and one’s been vacant for three years because he can’t rent it for what he wants. So now you have an empty house here, empty house there. And it’s like, why are these property owners choosing to have a house sit empty rather than provide an affordable place for people in the community to live? I get that everyone deserves to make a living, but there are fairer models: I talked to another woman in the area who owns a bunch of rentals, and she’s like, I make 6% profit. She keeps her rents down, because she’s not trying to make a ton of money. I found that very honest and it made me want to be her tenant.

The last place I was going to rent was in Camden. I go home to Rochester to deal with my mom’s death. We’re making arrangements for a memorial and then I start driving back. I had texted the new landlord, “I’ll be starting to move in on Thursday.” She calls me the moment my tires hit [Route] 90 heading home. “You can’t move in.” Made up a couple different excuses. I was like, I’m homeless. I am driving back to Maine. My mom just died. And I am homeless right now. The thing that bothered me the most about it was the idea that I thought that I would lose custody of Evelyn. And that’s where I started to panic. I started calling everybody I know. For two nights I was like, “Whoa,

I am actually homeless right now.” And my friend finally offered me two rooms in her house. It has been all of my friends helping me out throughout this entire thing.

Becca: Are you set with housing now?

Katie: I finally nailed something down yesterday. Evelyn’s going to be super excited to live in town again, because we’re going to be so much closer to her friend and playdates and running like a pack of wolves down the streets. This is the kind of town that you can do that. But I feel like there’s less and less kids in town to do it with. That’s what we’re losing around here. The sense of community is just leaving. I lived on Front Street for almost 12 years and the little yellow house behind us that we really wanted to buy [was sold to someone else and is being Airbnb’d]. Every weekend, it’s new neighbors when it could have been a little family moved in.

Becca: Would you be in favor of banning all non-owner occupied Airbnbs in Rockland?

Katie: Absolutely. But it goes beyond Airbnb. [Airbnb and other local summer rental companies are] systematically helping create the unavailability of housing, and even that seasonal market right now is getting priced out in the winter — people are asking, for winter rental, way above what the median [local] income can afford. In order for me to get a piece of the pie, I need to be able to also save. Why should I be paying someone’s literal annual income so I can work and never own my own? And that’s the rat wheel that you get in. I want to save for a house one day, but if I’m giving you $12[00], $1,600 a month … And that’s where we are losing sight of community and altruism and everybody getting what they need. It’s like feudalism, right? (laughs). It feels like it. I’ve lived in six places in less than two years because everybody wants to do seasonal rentals, it’s tough, and moving around like that with a kid is even worse.

Becca: What are your thoughts on the Rockland school system?

Katie: [Evelyn] loves it. She loves South School. And I think Principal Bennett’s doing an absolutely fantastic job. He’s very in line with the Ashwood and Montessori model; he’s not doing experiential education as much as St. George is but he is taking that kind of compassionate turn towards the models that they’re using. And she does really well. I think she loved the beginning of COVID because they had recess constantly. But then by the end of it, the masks started to get on her. But I tell you what, that four-day model, I wish they’d stick with it. Having a day off in the middle of the week, she wasn’t as exhausted on Fridays, we got to do something fun in the middle of the week, and I felt like she was focusing better on her classwork.

Becca: What else are you passionate about?

Katie: The push for remote workers is the other thing that’s burning me. Because I don’t think that remote workers contribute to the community enough. Yeah, they’re contributing to a restaurant maybe once or twice a week, but how does that really contribute? They work remotely so does that mean they’re not even paying income tax in the state? We need to find the right balance of a locally based workforce and remote workers. I have more work offers than I can even handle. And that’s amazing that there’s so much work, but it’s also so sad that I can literally work at six, seven different places right now but I don’t have a place to live. Businesses are closing because they don’t have employees; people can’t afford to live here, they can’t find anywhere to f---ing live. It’s the snowball of these little things, like if people don’t have a place to live, you’re not going to be able to have the workers that you need for businesses that are opening up and trying to do business and we’re coming out of COVID and people want to open but they can’t because they don’t have a dishwasher. And you can only put so much more of that pressure on the employees that you do have before they start to break.

Becca: Many people in the “service industry” seem to be talking about encountering more rudeness than even before.

Katie: Oh, yeah. But we’re taking the reins back this year. I’m on a few of these different bartender groups throughout the country. I think that the restaurant industry has finally gotten to the point where it’s like, “Know what? No, the customer is not always right. We are overworked, understaffed; we are here for you, but you also need to be here for us. You will not take us for granted anymore.” And that’s being vocalized everywhere. Everyone’s just standing up for themselves. Finally.

Becca: How are employers adjusting to that?

Katie: Most of the places I’ve worked this was employer-encouraged and started. We had some guy just being totally rude, belligerent, making up all these lies [this summer], and [the business owner] was like, “Don’t come back. I don’t need your money. I don’t want people like you harassing my staff. Goodbye.” And the guy was like, “Wait, what? Really? You’re kicking me out?” To be able to say that to people again is like, we had to bite our tongues for so long. It’s been over a decade that we’ve just been eatin’ s— from people to a point where you’re like, this is humiliating for me. We don’t want total strangers to think that they can behave like that. It’s rude. Like, where are your manners?

Becca: This is exciting!

Katie: And the funny thing, too, is the big push for basically socializing the service industry and taking away tips. I’m like, “You don’t want to do that. You think service is bad now? You take away tips — it’s my incentive to get to your table fast. Give me an hourly that’s not even close to what I’m making right now? I’m gonna take my time.”

Becca: What about the argument that tips, particularly for women, result in a more subordinate relationship, and they say that if women wear more makeup, they get more tips. It creates that kind of …

Katie: … perpetuation of sexualization. I do it intentionally because I know I’m gonna make more money. I make 3% less in tips when I don’t wear makeup; I’ve done the studies for myself. I only wear eyes, and once in a while, like a little bit of lip gloss, but if I don’t do my eyes — 3%. It takes me five minutes. I’m like, Okay, it’s worth the effort (laughs).

Becca: I don’t judge that at all. But it’s a problem if some people who aren’t seen as sexually attractive therefore don’t get as much money.

Katie: I think a lot of it is talent too though — personality. It’s knowing your job. That ultimately is what is going to make you money. I think there’s a lot of misconception about how the tipping system works. There are not a lot of places where you’re not bringing in $20, $30, $40 an hour, the better places you’re making $50-75, the really great places, you’re making $110-150 an hour. And it’s great. So to try and take away what I’m making — I hardly graduated high school, and I make $150 an hour at one of my gigs. How are you going to try and take that away from me? And then people are like, “Oh, well, we shouldn’t have to tip and make up for your wages.” And it’s like, “Look, I have a kid. I have to support her and myself and all the things that go along with just living.” And I live relatively simply, but there is no way that you can expect professional bartenders that are in their 40s, 50s, 60s to go to an hourly wage that’s like $13 or $15 an hour. I wouldn’t do my job, not with the way that people behave and treat us. There’s no way I would be a bartender for $15 an hour.

Becca: Do you think bartenders have a more powerful role in restaurant settings?

Katie: 100%! We’re legal drug dealers. And that’s where I also prefer being behind the oak — behind the bar — as opposed to on the floor. Because when I go out on the floor I feel the shift of respect as a 45-year-old woman, as a waitress rather than a professional bartender. I’m not saying that waitresses don’t have skill — but that’s the perception of the public for the most part. They see a waitress and they’re like, “Oh, you’re a waitress?” And it’s like, “Oh, yeah, but I’m making $55 an hour.” Peak season, what we see at our take-home is between $45 and $65 an hour at these normal restaurants.

I just want things to be f---ing boring for a year (laughs). Normal and boring. I’ve lost everything In the past three years. I’ve lost my dad to alcoholism, I lost my mom to alcoholism, I lost my husband, I lost both of my businesses, I’ve lost every place I could live. And that’s the other reason why I’m so vocal right now because I’m like, I have nothing left to lose. And it’s like, I have my voice. I have my daughter … my car’s broken down right now. You know what I mean? And I laugh at it, because it’s just like, what else can you possibly take from me?