The Newbie Bartender

I've happened to spend an inordinate of time working at a bar that mixes seasoned professionals side-by-side with 20 year old fresh-faced completely untrained inexperienced barkeeps.  Ugh!!! I'll try not to spend too much time complaining and digressing about how asinine and downright wrong this situation really is.  

In any case, I was once that fresh-faced idiotic bartender.  My first gig was at 23, straight out of bartending school, right after a brief but very lucrative career as a penny stockbroker.  Bartending was supposed to be temporary while I searched for a new "real" job.  Regardless, I think it was my second or third interview.  I landed my first gig at a brand new 2 bar, 2 floor upscale spot on 7th ave and 131st Street.  It was supposed to be the resurgence of the area and I assure you it was! It was glamorous, luxurious, well decorated and well promoted.  The place was initially packed.  What is was not was well run unfortunately.  

Being a kid with zero Practical Experience bartending but with memorization of probably 500 drinks and fresh out of class, I was nervous.  Sure enough, I was clueless around an actual bar, actual customers and worst of all – customers knew it.  I had walk-outs galore, made crap money sometimes, got crappy shifts quite often, wasted a lot of liquor, and essentially got the shit kicked out of me on a professional level.  However, what I did receive was something worth millions of dollars – experience.  Like most jobs, nothing you can learn in books or in school can substitute for real world experience and it shows instantly.  Would you feel better ordering a perfect Bookers Manhattan from a 65 year old, silver haired, portly dude, in a black tie at a 125 year old mahogany  bar or a 23 year old super hottie in Daisy Dukes at the newest packed club's rooftop?  Why?

As I got my chops at bar after bar over the years, things got easier and easier. Confidence grew and all the issues of bartending in my inexperienced youth quickly disappeared.  I've got balls enough at this point that I can walk into just about any bar and demand (and get) a job.  It doesn't happen overnight.  

The main reason I was lucky enough to get my first gig is because the hiring manager thought I was hot – period.  I was indeed extremely lucky.  It's nearly impossible to get a gig a busy City bar without experience and fitting the mold that the hiring manager/owner is looking for combined with timing.  Those last 2 bits are critical to getting a good gig.  Often, it's about timing and luck.  If you happen upon an interview at the right time, like someone who has been there 10 years is leaving and there is no one to fill their spot, it's not inconceivable to land the gig whereas last week, you would have had zero chance.  Unfortunately, those vacancies and the corresponding timings are not advertised.  Otherwise, like in other professions, you can often get a good gig based on who you know as opposed to your skill set and pounding the streets.

Evolution vs. Environment

Well, at the risk of enraging just about every politically correct, personality rubber-stamping, draconian societal you-must-like me snob, I’ll make the comparison: I’m believer that in this business, who you are is both a result of your DNA as well as shaped of your environment/experiences just like, ehem…. your sexuality <flame_on>.  Why do I make this point? There are all kinds of personalities and abilities – many of which are much better suited to bartending than others.

Your people skills, manners, attention span, patience, thick skin, acting ability, flamboyance, humor, poker face, ability to apply different rules to seemingly similar situations play MUCH MORE of a role to your bartending prowess and subsequently, income potential than your proficiency to make a world-class, or more often, a shitty, flat and too sweet Margarita.

Most anyone can memorize or be taught the drink ingredients.  NOT everyone can visualize and categorize who to server and when, in a 3-people deep bar where you have a drink knocked over, appetizers arriving for a couple, 3 empty drinks in front of a college set, a blender spinning a Daiquiri, 4 burly dudes asking for 3 different beers and 11 shots, a computer that’s gone down and is no longer processing credit cards, a broken ice machine (happens a lot), and an Granny demanding a Makers Old Fashioned (the right way) at the very end of the bar all simultaneously.

Furthermore, if you’re the kind of chick/dude who did not grow up with your annoying parents badgering you with things like: utensil etiquette, greeting people on the way in AND the way out, “thanks,” “please,”…. if you can’t carry on a conversation with your service bartender, waitress, hot co-worker while CONSTANTLY SCANNING THE BAR for needs, than this business is not for you – at least not in a busy club/bar.  You will fall flat on your face or be relegated to crappy shifts making $100 – $200 where you could be making double/triple those numbers, and/or constantly be leeching of your fellow bartenders in places where you pool, pissing them off severely, or worse – potentially having them throw you under the bus or outright steal from you!

The point is, using these tips, to try and figure out of this business if for you, if you could learn to acquire these necessary good habits or if you’d be better off in that icy fluorescent cubicle, sporting the tweed suit, the latest Manolos, going over those PPT sales figures in the Sales conference room with the bigwigs, and hitting the happy hour on the other side of the bar with all the other suits.

You cannot be a successful bartender if you do not scan and pay close attention to your patrons while, conversing appropriately, being pleasant, speedy, flirty, clean and knowledgeable.  You must stop leaning on the back-bar for 15 minutes straight looking bored, dressed in your best dirty New Balance 991s, unshaven, unapologetic (and giving buybacks) for screwing up an order, and are much more interested in spending 10 straight minutes flirting with your boyfriend/girlfriend or Facebooking while customers are waiting.

Unfortunately, quite a bit of what I’ve detailed here cannot be taught.  Some of it it can.  But quite a bit of it, or the ability to learn these qualities, is something you either have or you do not. I myself am OCD.