Since the invention of booze, there have always been those who sought to tame it and distribute it for the mirth and consolation of the masses—we call these people bartenders.
People desire to go into bartending for a variety of reasons. Some are drawn by the money, others by the general lack of oversight and relative freedom of the work, and many are simply looking to be at the center of the party. Whatever pushes a person toward bartending, each ends up having to overcome the initial obstacle of actually obtaining the role. While it is a widely anticipated occupation, few actually obtain this heralded position.
It’s just a piece of paper
One common misconception is that attending bartending school will give you an edge at breaking into the industry. Some people are even under the impression that a bartending diploma is a legal necessity, but there isn’t a single US state that requires it. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, training of this sort is optional.
In reality, participating in such a program is only useful if you’re looking to bartend at an establishment that demands it, as is the case with some hotels, casinos, and big-name chain restaurants. But if you’re looking to work at any of the smaller, more rip-roaring establishments, you’ll have to take another route.
For what it’s worth
There are a handful of minor benefits to attending such a school. The New York Bartending School, for example, offers a $595 course which—over the course of 40 hours—teaches about bar set up and equipment, mixology and drink recipes, register training, legal responsibilities, and about the various liquors, wines, and beers. But none of these are lessons that can’t be learned by studying a good bartending manual.
When it comes right down to it, bartending school is an expensive alternative to working in a real bar where you learn everything a training program has to offer and more, all the while getting paid rather than paying someone else. Many bartending schools offer a job placement program, but the results of such a program are somewhat dubious as most bar managers are looking to hire experienced barkeepers.
If not bartending school, what then?
I know what you’re wondering—How are you supposed to gain experience if no one will give you the chance to gain it? The truth is that almost every restaurant or bar promotes from within. One enters an establishment as a waiter, bar-back, or dishwasher, then work their way up as positions become available. Bartending is the top of the food service-industry mountain, and it usually takes earning the respect of a bar’s owner, manager, and employees to reach the pinnacle.
There are a number of reasons for this. A bartender generally runs the show, and if he or she has worked in every position at a bar, they are more capable of understanding the overall function of the team. An affective restaurant or bar runs like a machine, with each person playing a specific role that keeps the whole thing operating. A bartender who has been there and done that is more likely to be able to step in and fix the overall flow of things when they start to break down. Such a bartender is looked upon by co-workers as something akin to a conductor of an orchestra, and one does not become a conductor having never played an instrument or two.
The benefits of bar-backing
Let’s go with an example. Say a person is bartending at an extremely busy martini bar and one day the bar-back doesn’t show. The bar-back is essentially the Renaissance man of any bar. He or she is the glue that holds it all together—washing glasses, replacing bottles, getting ice, changing kegs, clearing dishes, rinsing shakers, replenishing straws and napkins, and a million other tasks. Basically a bar-back runs around like crazy for several hours a night so that the bartender never has to leave his or her well, thereby ensuring that the drinks keep pouring at a steady pace.
Oftentimes the bar-back ends up helping in other areas as well—washing dishes, running plates of food, clearing tables, even bouncing unruly customers. A bar-back knows where everything is, knows how to fix a broken dishwasher, plate a dish, and handle the malfunctioning stereo that conks out on a regular basis. They are—in a high paced bar atmosphere—indispensible (and generally underpaid).
Real world experience vs. classroom training
Now, if the bar-back can’t or doesn’t make their shift one evening and no replacement is available, everything can fall apart rather quickly. But if there is a bartender around who has worked the position before, what could be a massive catastrophe becomes a mildly-stressful calamity because the bartender possesses the experience needed to manage the situation. They know when to step out from behind the bar, know how to fill all of the endless functions that would usually be completed on their behalf, and can generally keep from losing their temper (which often leads to the most extreme bar disasters).
On the other hand, I have also seen the bar-school bartender who—when chaos descends—has no idea where each replacement liquor is located, can’t recognize when the wait-staff is overwhelmed and is in need of support, and ends up in the back room for twenty minutes at a time searching for straws. Their expression becomes increasingly embittered, the bar line grows, and they lose track of more and more orders. Soon they’re telling one customer after another that the bar is out of this or that when all the while the bottle of Campari is right behind them below the counter.
I have seen well-seasoned bartenders operate under pressure like heroes. I recall one such bartender who, under the aforementioned circumstance, ran around like a madman changing kegs, taking table orders, and even showing the cooks how to properly sauté the rarely-ordered shrimp plate—all the while making sure that there wasn’t an empty glass in the house.
Such a bartender has usually either been with a particular establishment for several years, or has worked a number of different bars and could pour a perfect Sidecar in their sleep. This is a bartender who can walk through the door of just about any bar they want to and land a job, whether it be a nightclub, a high end restaurant, or a busy dive.
What I’m trying to illustrate is that a bar’s manager is looking to put a bartender out front who knows the inner-most workings of an establishment, and that’s not a skill acquired by mixing colored water together for a couple hours a night over the course of a week or two at some bartending school.
Learn as you go
Another reason why bartending school is unnecessary is due to the fact that in the process of working up from within a restaurant, a person learns everything he or she needs to know about the role. Drink recipes, pouring technique, handling the register, jokes (one of a bartender’s most important tools), and all of the other required knowledge works its way in through a sort of osmosis. Once a bar-back or waiter has been tapped to step into the bartending position, the manager and the other bartenders will smooth out the edges and teach the last few tricks to the trade. Walking through a door and handing in a resume with nothing on it except the name of a bartending school simply cannot compete with the experience that one gleans through one or two years of going through the ropes.
Over the course of my bartending career, I have worked the bar and managed at nearly twenty establishments, and there is a consistent reaction to resumes that contain bartending school credentials. A manager takes at a resume, sees the name of such-and-such bartending school, and if there is no real world experience to go along with it, they think about their bar-back who has been washing glasses and learning drink recipes for eight months and throw the resume away.
As for the employees who see bar-school resumes, they literally laugh at them. A bar staff is usually a fairly tight-knit family comprised of waitresses, waiters, bartenders, bar-backs, dish-washers, and cooks, many of whom have worked at the establishment for years. They remember when such-and-such customer attacked so-and-so with a broken-off martini stem. They’ve sat up after closing until daylight drinking and telling stories and swapping advice. And every Friday and Saturday night they all share the same subtle Hell of smashed glass, over-leery patrons, angry drunks, and people throwing up in the ice machine.
To them, that’s as real as it gets, and two weeks of mixing colored water doesn’t stack up. My advice if you’re looking to get into bartending—start lower on the food chain. Most places don’t require much experience to become a bar-back or a dishwasher, just some indication that you’ll be able to handle the pace. If you’re personable, hard-working, and show a talent for multi-tasking, it won’t be long before the manager takes notice and gives you a shot.