At one time or another, you’ve probably considered if you were cut out for the life of a bartender. The job is fun, it’s non-stop, and best of all? Bartenders take home cash every night.
But, what a lot of people wonder is aside from the “could I do it?” is how do I break into bartending?
No matter what kind of downtown or upswing the economy takes, there will always be a need for bartenders. In good times and the rough ones, people will always want a drink. And with so many cities experiencing a cultural revolution as more folks are moving away from the major cities and taking ownership of their hometowns, new trendy spots are opening up constantly.
How do you break into the bartending business?
There are a few schools of thought when trying to get a foot in the hospitality door. The old school way is pretty simple: start at the bottom and work your way up.
Some bars will need an ID checker who also does security. While it’s not the most exciting part of the business, it’s a start. Typically, the door person will eventually learn to barback, which helps the bartenders keep their wells filled with ice, the beer coolers on par, the liquor bottles stocked, if there’s a particular house favorite. They supply napkins, straws, and cups, too. Once they get used to doing those jobs, they’ll start covering shifts. Once they’ve covered a few shifts, that’s when they’ll either get their shot behind the bar they work at, or they’ll feel confident enough to apply at a new place.
That’s the trick about bartending, there are a lot of little factors that go into the business. It’s not just pouring some Jameson into a shot glass, there’s math with drink prices, knowing how much to serve, who not to serve, and how to charge fairly. Plus, you need to keep a good attitude while you do it.
The next way to break in is to work at one of the national chains like Chilis or Applebee’s. While not the most glamorous, the money is steady and it’s definitely one of the tried and true ways to break into bartending. But, even if you don’t have the experience, you’re going to secure a bartending certificate.
Some schools and classes offer training in every city. Can these classes help you learn the basics? Sure. But, just know most bars are going to want to train you in their method of how they make drinks. While it’s valuable to understand how to make that apple martini, don’t count on the neighborhood bar offering a chance to make them. If you get out of bartending school, don’t expect the world to suddenly open up – you’re still going to have to pay your dues.
What can you expect as a bartender?
Depending on the level of class of the place, you may be expected to learn the wine list, but also the beer list and how to make whatever drinks are on the menu. Luckily, most places with extensive lists like that keep cheat sheets behind the bar.
Pro tip: do your homework
If you’re not a regular in the bar you’d like to work at, hang out there for a night or two. Get a feeling for the customer, the vibe. If it’s a down and dirty dive bar, personality and how strong you pour the drinks are what matters, but also maybe what kind of music you’re into. If you’re aiming for more upscale, you’ll probably want to dress to impress. Chat up the staff, see how they dress, what their attitude is like. You’re only empowering yourself in the long run by knowing how the place operates ahead of time.
If you’re trying to break into those “ultra-exclusive” places, it’s an uphill battle. For some of Las Vegas and New York’s premium bars it’s not about drink quality, it’s about the exclusivity of the atmosphere.
What to expect every day
Bartenders keep track of inventory behind the bar. They’re in charge of maintaining clean glasses, knowing how to work credit card machines, doing quick math and sometimes checking ids. Bartenders are also expected to tally up receipts and keep a bank for shift change for the next bartender who comes on. It’s not all just pouring cold PBRs for thirsty folks.
Think about your nights and weekends. Do you love them? If that’s a yes, then bartending might not be for you. A bartender’s livelihood is when people aren’t working. Most of the time, that’s on the weekend. While there are exceptions to every rule, and in some cities like New Orleans or Chicago, where happy hours reign supreme, plenty of bartenders can make a living during regular working hours.
But typically, nights, weekends, and holidays are the busiest time and the best money.
Another thing to keep in mind is the average bartending shift is 10 hours. Working in a high traffic area like New Orleans Bourbon Street, it’s not uncommon for bartenders to work 14+ hour days when it’s busy. But they’re also potentially walking away with over $1K a shift.
What’s it pay?
Sometimes, on a corporate gig, there’s an hourly rate. Typically, though the average bartender relies on tips. Some bartenders can make from $10-$50 an hour, depending on the level of experience and the location. There are no two places alike in the industry.
We’re always looking for workers who’ve been in the industry for a long while or just starting out – download the Adia app and join the community to check out our current roles for companies looking for Chicago staffing and all over the United States.
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