Depending on your local bar scene and how sought after bartender jobs are, you may not be able to get hired directly into a bartender position. (Part 1 of this series is here)
If you’re in a country where competition for bar positions is less fierce, the following may still be useful if where you’re looking to start isn’t hiring bartenders right now, though getting an entry level bar job is very simple in some countries. Bear in mind though if its easy to get the job that may be a sign that the tips are not that great, its not considered a cool bar or the owner may be an ass.
How did I get my break?
I’ll be honest, I was lucky. I literally fell into my first job without even trying.
Having moved across the country to attend university in September 2000 I was able to continue working for the retail company I’d worked for during the past 3 years, the now sadly defunct Woolworths, a British institution if ever there was one.
After Christmas and into the new year the hours dried up at Woolworths. A friend at the University had an interview at one of the two local nightclubs, Reynolds in Stafford and asked if I’d give her a lift. I was invited inside while she had her interview with the manager, and the owner asked if I was any good with computers. Half an hour later he had a working computer, complete with a Jennifer Lopez wallpaper, and the owner insisted that the manager find me a job too. That weekend, I started my bar career as a glass collector.
It was in no way glamorous, it was as it sounds, walking around the floor of the club, collecting empty glasses and bottles, washing them and restocking them on the bar. There was also a healthy dose of cleaning up vomit and everything else that the bartenders didn’t want to do, but I was working in the coolest bar in town.
It only took a couple of weeks for enough bartenders to call in sick for me to get my first shot on the bar. I knew nothing, but I was a pair of hands and I could make basic drinks and pour beers. The club didn’t have a cocktail list at the time, it was the heyday of the pre-mixed ready to drink bottles. Bacardi Breezers were king, so no real skill was needed other than moving fast.
We had a Greek bartender at Reynolds Nightclub who used to flick ice cubes with tongs from the buckets on the bar top into the glass in his hand – my first taste of flair and the thing that made me completely fall in love with bartending and the industry in general.
Fighting your way in.
If you’re not as lucky as me and don’t just have a job fall into your lap, then you need to look at your options. Don’t think that your first step into the industry has to be as a bartender either, whatever you can do to get you through the door and onto the payroll will be one step closer to the job you want in the end.
There are a couple of normal entry positions if you’re not able to get right to bartending that will be a great step on the path.
The Bar Back is the one who keeps the bartenders stocked up behind the bar on busy shifts. A good bar back can easily make the difference between a nightmare shift and an amazing shift for bartenders too!
As a bar back you’ll have the opportunity to learn much of the technical side of bartending, in particular how to prepare items like garnish fruits, fresh fruit juices, how to make syrups and mixes, learn the layout of the bar and much more.
While a bar back will learn about how these are made and get used to working at pace behind the bar, the main aspect that a bar back will not be involved with is actually making the drinks or interacting with guests at any depth. Of course its possible to build rapport with guests at the bar while restocking or washing glasses, that’s not the role of the bar back and it’s important, especially during busy periods to make sure your focus is on supporting the bartenders who are relying on you.
- You’ll be behind the wood from day one
- Working with the bartenders is a great way to learn
- The better you take care of your bartenders, the more they will tip you out
- You’ll get used to working under pressure early
- Bar backs will likely get less shifts, only working the peak days.
- You won’t learn how to serve the guests and interact
Almost the polar opposite of the bar back position is the waiter, where you’ll be further removed from the technical aspects of drink making but you’ll make your money from the interactions and the relationships that you’re able to make with your guests.
While you won’t be making the drinks you will at least see which drinks are popular and with which sort of guests, so you’ll have a good baseline for recommending drinks when you get behind the bar eventually.
- Often plenty of shifts available and good tips to be made
- You’ll be learning how to deal with guests from day one
- You’ll learn to work under time pressure
- Great for learning to build rapport with guests
- Less technical job
- You won’t be learning bar specifics
Other potential options
There are other rolls that you could consider too, working bottle service in a nightclub is closely related to waiting tables, if more drinks oriented.
Many bartenders even start their career on the door of bars and clubs and move up from there, though this is obviously not ideal for everyone.
There is also the potential to come into the business via a kitchen as a line cook or pot washer, though those are also less ideal than bar backing or waiting tables as they’re less guest facing.
As long as you can find a way to get your foot in the door of a business in the bar industry, there’s always potential to move over to the role you have in mind down the line. Once you prove your worth to the owner or manager, they’ll be more willing to take a chance on you.
As you can see there are many ways to get your foot in the door of the industry, and which is right for you will depend on your experience and personality. Any experience is good, and once the managers know you it’s much easier to move between roles in the business than be hired for something you’ve never done before.