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Nov 29, 2023

Jeff Wong and Patrick Nelson: Teamwork Keeps Good Times Flowing

Barry Kaufman

Photography By

Besides an innate ability to navigate a busy bar while each is pinballing between customers clamoring for drinks, there’s a mesh to their personalities that adds to the neighborhood bar feeling at Woody’s.

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To see a bar in the weeds is to witness what sets bartenders apart from any other profession. No disrespect to doctors or air traffic controllers, but there’s a certain mental acuity that you’ll only find in a seasoned bartender. And they need every ounce of that brain power to keep drinks flowing, keep the vibe upbeat, and keep dozens of revolving orders straight regardless of how many are shouted at the same time.

Jeff and Patrick whip up cocktails for regulars on a busy night at Captain Woody’s in Bluffton. 

It’s a mental juggling act that is second only to the physical act of bartending. When the crowd is pressing in, the glasses are stacking up, and space is at a premium, good bartenders know to always keep at least one eye on their surroundings and tread gracefully.

To see this dance as the artform it is, head upstairs at Captain Woody’s Bluffton location on pretty much any night of the week. Between the regulars, the passersby stopping in for a drink after Promenade shopping, the sports fans, and the folks who come out for the regular lineup of musicians, it’s usually quite a spectacle. And at the center of it all, weaving in and out of the crowd and behind the bar, you’ll usually find the dynamic duo of Patrick Nelson and Jeff Wong. 

“You learn pretty quickly how to move around each other,” Nelson said. “It’s the bartender waltz. It’s beautiful.”

“Some people are easier to dance with behind the bar than others,” Wong added.

The pair of them have been teamed behind the bar for nearly 12 years; Wong was an OG, there since Woody’s opened, with Nelson joining a few years after. And while they are occasionally paired with some of Captain Woody’s other bartenders (shout out to Frank and Gunner), there’s a definite chemistry when these two are holding down the open-air bar atop the Bluffton institution.

“We’ve all got our strengths and weaknesses, and we’ve all worked together at least a decade,” Nelson said. “Eventually you just get used to each other’s (style).”

Besides an innate ability to navigate a busy bar while each is pinballing between customers clamoring for drinks, there’s a mesh to their personalities that adds to the neighborhood bar feeling at Woody’s. Nelson is the showman of the pair, breaking out quips and somehow carrying on distinct conversations with multiple patrons all at once while never spilling a drop. Wong is the font of knowledge, blessed with a prodigious wealth of sports stats, a nearly omniscient grasp on where everyone is and who needs a drink, and a bottomless well of one-liners. 

As an example, when asked what Nelson brings to the duo, Wong simply replied, “height.”

“Nobody sees him back here, so I have to do all the work,” Nelson quickly retorted. “Everyone thinks I’m alone back here.”

The pair of them have been teamed behind the bar for nearly 12 years; Wong was an OG, there since Woody’s opened, with Nelson joining a few years after. And while they are occasionally paired with some of Captain Woody’s other bartenders (shout out to Frank and Gunner), there’s a definite chemistry when these two are holding down the open-air bar atop the Bluffton institution.

“He’s the only one who can see over the cups that he stacks this high,” Wong fired back, signaling a ponderous tower of Styrofoam at the other end of the bar.

It’s a back-and-forth that the two fall into naturally, bickering like an old married couple in a way that only those who respect each other truly can. And if you really want to see the stakes get raised, you should see the two of them behind the bar on trivia nights. Part of bringing Nelson in after he’d been alternating between the island and Bluffton location was a need to add another bartender during the busy Wednesday trivia night.

Beyond just adding another body, it created a team-up of bartenders who, between the two of them, could usually run the table (if they were allowed to play). As the years have gone on, regulars now know who to approach when they’re stumped on a particular question.

“We’re full of useless knowledge,” Nelson said.

“But I’m older, so I just have more stuff I have to sift through. It’s there; I just have to get to it,” Wong added. “He’s young, so his memory’s sharper.”

It’s at this point in the interview that one of the regulars points out (loudly) how Wong was the only person in the bar who was able to identify the seagull from The Little Mermaid. In his defense, he does have a young daughter. But the ribbing is all part of the show for the regulars.

For them, the ones who come to Woody’s day in and day out, who don’t even have to speak the name of their chosen drink out loud anymore, that’s where Nelson and Wong truly shine as a team. They’re here to serve you a drink, sure. But more than that, they’re here to make you feel at home, like you’re just as much a part of the team as they are.

And even if you’re not one of the regulars, it won’t be long until you are.

“All the bartenders here are like that,” Wong said. “I just know he takes care of business, and he knows I take care of business.”

And whether that means seeing over cups, remembering dozens of drink orders at once, or sharing their knowledge of The Little Mermaid, it’s a business that these two bartenders have turned into an artform.  

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