ASTORIA — Stewart Whalley was offered a bartending gig at Sweet Afton in 2009, before the bar at the corner of 34th Street and 30th Avenue even opened its doors.
He was living in the West Village at the time, where he'd been tending bar for several years, but was between jobs and thinking about traveling when one of Sweet Afton's owners asked him to come by and talk about joining the team.
"I said, 'Eh, I’ll go and check it out,'" recalled the 39-year-old Whalley, who goes by Stu. "I've literally never looked back. I love this bar."
After eight years serving drinks there — including three years where he lived in an apartment directly above the bar — Whalley worked his final shift last week and is preparing to move back to his native England to be with his family and undergo chemotherapy for Hodgkin Lymphoma.
He was diagnosed about three weeks ago, after noticing a lump on his neck that he first mistook for a golf injury. Since then, the Astoria community has rallied around Whalley, a beloved fixture in the neighborhood known for his people skills and sense of humor, raising more than $50,000 through an online campaign in just five days.
"We've had lots of bartenders come and go over the last 13 years of business, but I would argue that Stu is maybe the best bartender we’ve ever had or I’ve ever seen," said Ruairi Curtin, 40, one of Sweet Afton's co-owners, who also runs The Bonnie in Astoria and The Penrose on the Upper East Side.
"He’s just got that kind of uncanny ability to make every single customer feel like they’re number one."
Sweet Afton's sister bar, The Bonnie, also plans to host "Stu's Ball" Monday night, where all proceeds will go to the cost of Whalley's medical care and to support him during the months he expects to be out of work for treatment.
"I barely had to open my mouth and the floodgates have just opened with support," said Curtin. "I have a feeling that there’s going to be a line around the block Monday night, which is a strong reflection of what Stu means to everybody."
"He remembers everybody’s names," said Sweet Afton owner Ruairi Curtin. (Photo Credit: Donna Bruschi, Mayra Velasco)
Since he took up his post behind the bar in 2009, Whalley's cultivated a close-knit community of customers-turned-friends. He's been to the weddings of five people he met while serving them drinks, and Tuesdays at Sweet Afton are affectionately known as "Stuesdays," because it's the day of the week he always works.
"He's amazing at his job," said Roger Mclean, who met Whalley 10 years ago when the bartender was working at the now-shuttered Diablo Royale in the West Village. The two have been friends since.
"He's one of the reasons why I venture over to Astoria," the Manhattan resident said.
In the next few weeks, Whalley will move from Queens back to northern England, where he has a "big family" in the town where he grew up, just outside of Manchester. He'll start chemotherapy there, and says he feels optimistic about his treatment.
"I know it's still cancer, but my doctor said to me, 'If you need to get a cancer, this is the cancer you want to get.' Which is encouraging," he said.
The outpouring of support from Sweet Afton's staff and customers has brought him to tears at times, and he called the community's response to his health crisis "extremely humbling."
"I think in all my life I've never felt so much love. Really," Whalley said.
After 15 years in New York, he considers the people he's met while working the bar his favorite thing about the city, "hands down."
"New York City gets you down. I think it gets everybody down. Everybody thinks about leaving," he said. "But I love walking through that door."
"Stu's Ball" fundraiser will take place Monday starting at 7 p.m. at The Bonnie, located at 29-12 23rd Ave. in Astoria. For more information, visit the event's Facebook page.