When it comes to taking the first steps into bartending, everyone dreams of starting at the top and finding that perfect bartending job at the perfect bar. There are a lot of varying ideas about what constitutes the perfect bar. To some, the best bars are those with long wine lists, fancy cocktail menus, and fine dining options. Others hope to work in a bustling music venue where they will serve a slew of shots and be constantly inundated with the wailing sounds of different bands and performers. And to others still the ideal bar is a rowdy sports dive, or a late night dance club, or a popular brewery.
Over the course of my career in bartending I have slung drinks in each of these, and I have found that they all share the same opportunities to meet interesting people and make big money. The truth of the matter, though, is that the best jobs at the best bars are fiercely contested over, and your chances of stepping into one of these positions depend on a number of factors that go beyond experience.
Know your strengths
It is of course beneficial when seeking out the more sought after bar jobs to have a high level of bartending experience, but at the same time there are characteristics and experiences that you may possess that, in certain situations, are more useful to a bar manager than actual time spent behind a bar.
For example, if you are one of those people who happen to know everything there is to know about music, you could be invaluable to a music venue. Customers will continue to come back to a place where they can be sure to have a great conversation about the bands they love, and performers prefer to play at venues where the staff knows their music or at least can appreciate a good discussion on the topic. In this case, you’ve served in two important functions: you helped to ensure an act and you helped to ensure an audience, both of which translates into money for the bar. Bartending at a venue is relatively simple, mostly consisting of shots and beer. That’s easy to learn, but that knowledge you already have is hard to acquire and priceless to some bar managers.
This can translate into any realm. If you know sports, go for the sports bars. If you’re a foodie, you belong in fine dining. And if you’re one of those exceedingly outgoing people who can hold a conversation on just about any topic imaginable, you should seek out the dance clubs or breweries, both of which generally cater to a fairly wide audience.
The bottom line is that your best chances involve applying your efforts to landing a job at a bar that is suited to your interests and capabilities. Odds are, these are the bars that you already frequent.
Show, don’t tell
This is an old rule of thumb for writers which involves making a more realistic story by having the plot moved along by actions rather than descriptions. It is a rule that can be easily applied when proving your qualifications to a bar manager.
The situation is this: you’ve sought out the bars where your talents are the most useful, and now you need to get your foot in the door. First and foremost, before you even turn in a resume you should spend a bit of time hanging out at each establishment. Show up in the late afternoon when you know things will be slow. Sit at the bar, order a drink, and enjoy yourself. If your timing is right the bartender will have nothing to do and will have a chance to chat a bit. Prove to the bartender that you can be conversational, pleasant, and funny. Talk about things that fit the atmosphere—food, liquor, music, sports, whatever. When the conversation winds down or the bar becomes busy again, say your goodbyes, tip adequately, and make an exit.
Return to the same bar at the same time a few days later. Chances are the same bartender will be working, and if they’re any good at their job at all they will remember you. Once again, show just how cool you can be.
After building a good reputation with the bartender, mention casually that you’re looking for a bartending job and ask if the bar is hiring. If you’ve done a good job of being pleasant and conversant, the bartender will immediately seek out the bar manager to meet you or tell you a better time to swing by in the future.
Once you’re in the presence of the manager, don’t tell him how conversational, pleasant, or funny you can be—-show him.
I’ve managed a number of bars, and you would be surprised how often people attempt to do the reverse. I remember one time when I was interviewing a very nervous but moderately experienced applicant who stared at the table and wrung his hands, all the while repeating again and again in a monotone voice how great he was with people. How at his last job he could keep the room rolling with laughter. I don’t think he looked me in the eye or smiled once over the whole interview.
Needless to say, he didn’t get the job. His poor presentation wasn’t necessarily a reflection on him personally; some people just don’t interview well. But his lack of confidence and personality made me wonder about his performance behind the bar.
In the end that particular position went to an applicant who had virtually no experience. If I remember correctly, the guy had been a dishwasher and had perhaps done a bit of cooking. But from the initial handshake to the one when we parted, he was so pleasant, interesting, and witty that the fact that I would have to spend extra time training him seemed worth the effort. He came off as someone who the customers and staff would both enjoy.
Working your way in
There are two ways of getting a bartending jobs that are almost foolproof.
The first is pretty straightforward. Ask everyone and anyone you know who already works in a bar to let you know when they have an opening and to arrange a meeting with the boss. Bartenders like to work with people they know and like, and bar managers will more often than not take their word on a new hire. This can land you a job practically overnight.
The second way takes a bit longer but ends up providing you with a wealth of valuable experience. It involves joining a bar at a lower position. While bar managers are generally looking to hire a bartender with experience, it can be relatively easy to get a job as a dishwasher, cook, bar-back, or even a waiter. If you’re willing to start at the bottom and put in the months that it takes to learn the ins-and-outs of an establishment, you prove yourself through attrition. The manager has seen you slog through day after day of washing dishes, replenishing ice, changing out empty bottles, taking copious amounts of verbal abuse from impatient bartenders, and dealing with the overall hustle and bustle of the bar. All the while you should be asking the bartenders to teach you the tricks of the trade: how to mix a drink, the characteristics of different liquors, drink recipes, etc. Bartenders–no matter how surly–love to show off their knowledge.
Eventually once you’ve proven your dedication to working hard, learning the craft, and above all have garnered the respect of the staff, when an opening comes the manager is more likely to promote you from within.
This is how almost every bartender starts out.
I spent two years cutting and searing my hands as a cook, acting as the much-underappreciated bar-back to ill-tempered bartenders (and “much-underappreciated” may be a bit of an understatement), asking questions, and figuring out how the whole bar industry works before I landed my first official bartending job. But when I was called up, I didn’t have to start in the slow, low paying weekday and afternoon shifts before getting some of the real money making slots. I had run the gamut and had already shown that I could take the rush with a smile and a joke. After that, finding a bartending job was no longer a problem no matter where I went. I had the résumé to back up my personality.
What it’s all about
In the end, landing a good bartending position consists of seeking out the bars where you’ll make a good fit, proving your ability to be charismatic and entertaining, and sometimes putting in the extra time and effort necessary to get the job. If shortcuts don’t work, don’t shy away from those lower positions. Taking the time to work your way in may seem unappealing, but once you break into an actual bartending position, you’ll be able to find a job and make good money no matter where you go.