How to Get a Bartending Job in NYC

Having been behind the stick for nearly two decades now, along with owning a tenth of .001% of el Blogosphere-O real estate for a short while, I get my fair share of interesting questions. Looking back, if I could tally them, I’d say some of the most frequent are (1) can you hook me up [booze-wise] (2) you get laid a lot working here, don’t you [or some variation] (3) how much money do you make and (4) how do I get a bartending job?

If you’re reading this blog, you probably already have the bug. Either that or you’re completely zooted at 3am and have nothing better to do. You’re clicking away aimlessly with Billy Mays in the background, an empty bag of Cheetos, and numerous crushed PBR’s littering your couch as you surf.  Bartending is one of those mysterious professions. In the eyes of the public at large, it’s a rarefied, undignified, unholy (but somehow enviable), cash and sex-rich profession that is viewed mostly as fleeting. That’s not always the case.

As I’ve mentioned in countless other articles, the cash, potential notoriety, and boundless hookups are all there for the taking – sure. It’s relatively easy to get into. By relative, I mean you can make six figures a year without having to grow indebted to the government for having financed your PhD or MBA. Therefore, many people are drawn in all googly eyed and eager. What they quickly learn in most cases, is that nothing in life is easy – not even making that kind of money bartending.

I’m not one to cower in fear of competition, or worse; withhold information. I have no desire to shun those with genuine interest in the easiest way to get laid craft. I have no weird sense of unionized-type brotherhood, or “you’ve got to pay your dues” type of asshole’ish attitude. No. So, bros and bras, in today’s lesson, I’m gonna drop some knowledge on exactly how to go about obtaining a bartending job in The Big Apple, a.k.a., Bloombergistan.

I’ve had the misfortune of being forced to look for bartending gigs more times than I care for. Each time I need to, I develop a big gulp in my throat and knot in my stomach, hang my head real low in misery (privately… never let ‘em see you sweat) and drink/drug excessively in between interviews to numb the psychosis that meanders to and fro upstairs. Why? Looking for and starting a new a job in NYC – of any kind – for me, is about as enjoyable as slowly peeling back each finger and toe nail with rusty old pliers then searing them in hot pan of bacon grease. It’s why I’ve stayed at a few venues for several years, despite higher earning potential and/or the availability of friendlier environments elsewhere.

I’ll assume you’re a bartender with adequate training and experience and focus this discussion on how to actually obtain employment.

Plan of Attack
The very first thing you must do when looking for a bartending gig is have a plan. We’ve all heard “…if you fail to plan, plan to fail,” right? Well, it’s true! Yes, people get lucky. Some foxy dudes/girls are sometimes minding their business, walking down the street and get offered mega-bucks modeling/acting contracts. Other folks win  the lottery. See my point? Play the odds. You can’t bank on luck. Get your shit together. Organize, and document. Envision, schedule and followup. Network. Initiate, execute, manage and close – standard project management processes. You should apply them to looking for a job (no matter what the job, actually) as well.

Buy a notebook, planner, binder or portfolio. Yes people, old school paper. Don’t neglect your iPhone for what it’s good for – relational database warehousing – but in this case, you’ll be much more efficient initially, writing shit down. You can transcribe your notes and digitize your appointments later. For the greatest efficiency, you’re going to want to write down each and every address, contact names, appointment times, and other venue-specific details. You’ll also need to note followup calls and appointments – critical. What’s important as well is that you don’t embarrass yourself and double-back on a bar you’ve already recently applied to just a few days ago. On the converse, it becomes a handy crib sheet for whom to go back to a few months later if you need to or who to place a followup phone call to a week or so later.

One of the most, if not the most, important preparations is to perform adequate reconnaissance. What the hell does that mean? It means, get to know your mark. No matter how you’ve found out (or not found out) about a particular job opening, it behooves you to a little preliminary research about the bar. That includes, but is not limited to, dining/drinking at the establishment long before interview day. You want to study your environment. Take note of the clientele, their general demeanor, style of dress, crowd levels. Review the menu, cocktail list, and casually observe which drinks are going across the bar with the greatest frequency. Study the bartenders. Are they happy? Angry? Friendly? Why? What are they wearing? Are they inked up head to toe? Are they doing shots openly? Is there an extensive cocktail program with tons of fresh herbs and berries that you should familiarize yourself with?

These are all critical details that if you take into account, will put you miles ahead of other candidates when it comes interview time and the G.M. or Head Bartender demands of you something like “whip me up an original cocktail off the top of your head” or asks you “what’s your favorite restaurant in the City, which dish do you like there, and why?” Very, very few bartenders take the time to go through this important legwork. Due to inexperience, neglect, laziness, and general lack of qualifications, most interviewees will give lackluster, mundane answers if they have answers at all.

Your resume. Beyond critical. It’s so critical in fact, that I cannot possibly include everything you need to know in this discussion. I’ll have to get to that another time. Just a few pointers in brief… Like your appearance, fair or not, your resume speaks volumes about you – not just the content, but the formatting, the folding (if any), the paper stock, typos (God forbid), the flow, and the believability. Bartenders fucking lie. They lie bigtime. Everyone knows it. It’s not hard to determine what’s for real and what’s imagined when you come face to face with a prospective employee. Ask a few baiting questions then make a few phone calls and your gig is up. That said, due to the Catch-22 situation in this town (where you need extensive experience to get a job but can’t get the job without experience) there are times when you may need to “fudge” the numbers a bit to get in the door in the beginning of you career. I’m not advocating it – just saying it’s not uncommon. Not everyone checks references. A common ploy is to list defunct establishments on your resume. However, if you overdo it, or lack the balls and knowledge to backup your claims; it will be obvious.

Resume Pictures. Like it or not, this is a very superficial world. The norm nowadays, in The Business, is that job posters want either a resume which includes a recent photograph, or they want you to send a recent photograph separately. It’s an easy way to discriminate without blatantly appearing to do so. I’m blessed with not horrific looks, good genes, and I stay fit .So personally, this requirement usually works in my favor. Look, this is an extremely cutthroat and populous town. Outside of trust fund babies and lottery winners, it’s difficult for anyone in any business to tread water, let alone excel. Every little bit helps. I hate to point this out, but in most cases, you need to look the part to get the job. If you’re not confident, hit the gym. Diet. Head to the salon. Ditch the comb-over if you’re balding. Get some tooth whitener and do something about the halitosis. Brush up on your diction, grammar and presentation skills. Practice. This advice is not limited to bartending people. This is all common sense.

The day of the interview (or open call), be appropriately dressed. You should be dressed in a manner that reflects the atmosphere, vibe, and decor of the particular venue. That means you cannot, under any circumstances, interview at Splash, Le Cirque 2000 and Pug Uglies in the same damned outfit on the same day. Walking into an interview at 230 Fifth in a bowtie, tuxedo pants, and spit-shined shoes will get you as far as committing the same crime at a Cipriani sporting Chuck Taylors, dirty-wash jeans, a plaid shirt and 2 days of stubble. In short, know your audience.

If you have a “pop-up” interview or no advance warning of an opportunity, you can rarely go wrong with basics. Guys: dark, solid color button shirt with sleeves rolled up, 1 or 2 (max) open buttons, dark pants and leather shoes or low leather boots. Girls: sexy (but not slutty) dark dress, or skirt blouse ensemble, with low heels/platforms. No hoop earrings, 20 clanging bracelets, dirty clothes, janitor key chains, loud colors, or pet Chinchillas. Be professional and presentable. You’d be surprised at how many people don’t get this concept.

If you’ve been doing nothing but pouring Bud Lights in plastic happy hour cups and “mixing” Jack & Cokes for the last several years, it behooves you to brush up on classic and common drinks. In New York, even at dive bars, you will occasionally encounter a customer asking for a Cosmopolitan, an Old Fashioned or a Negroni – all standard drinks. I won’t go into the full list here but you can easily use teh Google and re-educate yourself. More often than not, interviewers will grill you on both common and uncommon (but standard) drinks. It’s fairly common practice these days for bars to require a written drink and service test. Don’t be surprised if you get obscure questions asking about cocktails like: Grasshoppers, Hurricanes, Slings, and Brandy Alexanders. Any idiot knows how to make a Woo Woo, or do they? You’d be surprised…

Show up prepared to work. I’ve walked into cattle calls only to be asked to step behind the bar for half-an-hour or so for a real-time evaluation. At minimum, your kit should include (a) 3 pens [they always fail or explode at the worst possible moments] (b) a two-stage waiters corkscrew with a sharp knife (c) a flat bottle-popper. You shouldn’t need to travel with anything more (shaker tins, staplers, flashlights, dupe pads, strainers, etc.). Those are house supplies. Ideally, you’re also going to want to wear cotton slacks with outside pockets that allow your tools to slip somewhat easily in and out without bottoming out and forcing you to fish for them. Cotton generally has decent give or a slight stretch, and breathes decently.

Regarding the pen thing…  Nothing would infuriate me more as an owner or hiring manager, than the complete disrespect of showing up to an interview unprepared with basic tools – a functional writing implement, a pen – being first and foremost. I wouldn’t even take the time to speak with you or look at your resume. To me, that’s grounds for automatic disqualification. Yet, I see candidates show up and ask to borrow pens all the time – no shame.

Here’s the number one rule of preparedness. If there’s one thing you take away from this article… scratch that – if there’s one thing you take away from this entire blog, it would be this: Grow balls. There exists not one other thing you can do, learn, bring with you, display or say that can get your further in this profession, or any other, than your own attitude. My old stockbroker boss used to tell us young Cold-Callers “act as if.” Basically, believe you’ve already made it – that you’re already a success. How the hell do you expect anyone to have faith in you if you don’t have faith in yourself? You must believe that you are deserving of the job, that you possess qualifications above and beyond every other candidate that steps through that door. If you believe that, you will walk taller, smile more frequently, ooze a little more swagger, speak with more authority, and not stumble when asked to explain a simple cocktail. You’ll drinks will taste a little better and you’ll make them measurably faster. Obviously, you have to have skills to back yourself up, but believing is being – seriously. That’s most important thing I can convey.

OK. You’ve done your homework. You’re ready to walk into a bar and demand a job. What now? How the fuck do you do it? Where and when? How the hell do you find out about opportunities?

NOTE: If you’re fortunate enough to be a really hot, curvaceous (read: T&A) young girl, take every single thing I document in this article and throw it out the window. None, or little, of it applies to you. As I’ve mentioned before, this is your world and you own it. Despite appearances, the law, and general fair practice, this is a hot chick’s town – they dominate. If you’re naive enough to believe Liberalism and Feminism have progressed to the point of leveling the employment field, especially the night life sector, think again. You’re dead wrong. Nothing, and I mean nothing, will ever win over innate desire. Dudes in this business think with their dicks first and foremost. Everything else is either secondary, lip service, or keeping up appearances. If you’re foolish enough to think attractive women strive to eliminate misogyny in the work place and don’t take full advantage of horny goats, you’d be wrong – again. Nothing either side does is unintentional.

So let’s get to it, shall we?

Craigslist
The Grand-Daddy. The 200 pound gorilla. Someway, somehow, through voodoo magic, our man Craig Newmark, not The Zuck, has succeeded in cornering the market for classified ads. That includes cornering the market on all listings for cars, boats, junk, jobs and apartments – much to the dismay of ScamBay, traditional print rags, and your local, thieving real estate brokers respectively.

When it comes to bartending jobs, Craigslist is the source that all NYC bars, restaurants, lounges, and hotels deal with. Doing so has implications both good and bad. The bad good is that there are tons of listings. Every day, there are literally dozens of new bartending opportunities in this city alone.

The bad, is – you guessed it – there are tons of listings. There are shit listings, fantastic opportunities and everything in between. Craigslist is positively deluged with job openings in Hospitality. As such, it’s a bloated pig – rife with scams, new operators who don’t know what they’re doing, and spam. Finding a good there is sometimes like trying to find the perfect blouse or slacks at Cheap Jacks [who isn't cheap at all] or The Salvation Army. Don’t be dissuaded though, Craigslist is still the best source to go to for advertised, open, bartending positions – at least in New York City.

The other major problem is that everybody and their mother has the same opportunity. Craigslist = Cattle Call. Seeking a bartending position in New York in general is not unlike an actor auditioning for a role. 99% are unfit or don’t make it. With Craigslist, the problem is exponentially more pronounced through the magic of an instant and widespread communication medium – The Interwebs. It’s not unusual to source a listing, show up to bar, and be surrounded by 50 or even 100 competitors at once. Your odds become slim even if you’re a Rockstar Server. Still, Craigslist is the home of the greatest concentration of known opportunities – the defacto Gold Standard bar/restaurant respository. So it doesn’t hurt to look. Of all the job acquistion methods, this is the one which will yield the greatest I/O – results per investment – in the least amount of time, despite the competition.

Pounding the Streets
One of my least favorite activities. Initially, you might be inclined to think that going bar to bar would be inefficient. You wouldn’t be entirely wrong for coming to that conclusion. However, where the wide audience of Craigslist and other mass information distribution services are a detriment of sorts, plastering a neighborhood with your fat smile, awesome swagger, and tarted up resume kind of works in the exact inverse – only with caveats.

Making your way, door to door, puts you and you only (maybe) front and center in bar owners’ and bar managers’ minds. There are no throngs of sexier-than-thou competitors to deal with. You become the focus. The problem, as you’ve likely surmised, is that more likely than not, there are no fucking job openings where you’re applying. However, if you’re able to sell yourself as the tastiest muffin this side of the Pearly Gates, guess what? They’ll make room for you. You’ll have to put on an awfully good show in order to make that happen. Strangely, they’ll be a job opening when just prior, the manager was insisting there were none.

So that seems a little far fetched, ay? It is. It rarely happens unless again – you’re a hot piece of ass with charm exploding out of every orifice. I hate to belabor the point, but’s it’s just true and quite frustrating if you’re not little miss vixen.

The other way walking the beat can work for you is blind luck. You may happen upon a pub or lounge that is just about to clean house, turning over their entire staff for whatever reason (usually theft). They may have been one day away for posting an advertisement on the aforementioned Craigslist. Their bartender of 10 years may have broken a leg just yesterday. In New York, you could easily run into a new spot under construction or renovation that needs staff ASAP.

My main issue in walking door to door, at this point in my career, is the time factor. You can put just as much energy into doing the Craigslist thing and have more consistent and quicker results for the investment in time, energy, and transportation costs.

One uber-important word of advice: timing. Don’t be a complete buttmunch by walking your idiot ass into a bar on Thursday night at 9:00pm. In 9 out of 10 bars, you’ll get laughed out the door. I can’t stress this point enough. Do not look for a job during peak hours. In reality, you have somewhat of a small window of opportunity. With rare exception, establishments will be most welcoming early in the week, between lunch and dinner. That translates into Monday – Thursday, 2pm to 4pm or thereabouts. Countless buffoons have approached me, asking to drop off a resume or speak to the manager about a job, in the middle of a Saturday battle with drunken revelers. It’s taken every ounce of restraint not to crack a cheap bottle of Triple Sec over their heads in disgust. Needless to say, they haven’t gotten the job. As a matter of fact, they’ve done themselves a massive disservice by branding themselves as retarded for when next they do come in. I have photographic memory not only for non-tippers, but for half-witted job applicants as well.

Getting a bartending job on Craigslist is a glaring failure however, in one major area. With their service, 95% of the time, you’re not going to get that stellar gig; where you earn ludicrous, fat stacks of cash and are the envy of the town. No. That is the domain of word of mouth and the foot beat.

So, get off your ass!

Word of Mouth
The most elusive and rewarding method for last.

Have you ever walked into a landmark prohibition or late 19th century pub (or one purporting to mimic the flavor) and marveled at the bow-tie sporting, grizzled and greyed Irishman slammed to the gills with customers, but never to busy to smile and greet you properly? I personally conjure up fine establishments  like (the original) P.J. Clarke’s, Old Town Bar, and McSorley’s. Pete’s Tavern and Fat Black Pussycat (formerly Kettle of Fish) also come to mind. Have you ever in your life seen or can you imagine any of those places placing an advertisement on Craigslist for bartenders?

HELL NO! So how in the world do those bartenders get to work there? Answer: Illuminati. Yep. The secret world of hospitality “favordom.”

Having worked in the industry my entire adult life, I’ve come across and have gotten to varying degrees of intimacy with a log of industry people. This is particularly true of corporate establishments in the City. It’s a very small world where many people know each other. There are a couple of dozen restaurant management groups that own and/or manage the majority of trendy mid-size clubs, restaurants and lounges in New York. Folks bounce around from one to the other like an incestuous West Virginian trailer park family.

Most of the better jobs (by better, I mean where bartenders stay for years and make many hundreds or even thousands of dollars a shift) are never advertised. They’re handed down from father to son, to nephew, from bartender to boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse, and from current worker at venue X to former coworker from venue Y.

There’s not a whole lot you can do to break into the club other than paying your dues, starting at the more menial and lower earning bartending gigs, getting to know people and proving your worth along the way. You should strive to absorb as much information from every establishment you happen to work in, and from every bartender, manager, waiter, owner, etc.  you come across. If you want to prosper, you need to not only learn drinks and how to tend bar, but you must network. Open your mouth – be gregarious. Hang out with people. Get to know them and allow them to get to know you. That includes customers at times. Wouldn’t you want to get to be chummy with the owner of a half a dozen nightclubs around the city if he/she has become your regular? I would. Because when push comes to shove, who do you thing that impresario is going to lean on when he’s short barstaff? When you’re ready to make your next move, wouldn’t you feel a whole more more comfortable asking him/her for a spot if you had become friendly? If you’ve earned your stripes as well as become buddy-buddy with that person, you stand a much better shot than most to be considered.

Barbacking. That’s right. Swallow your pride and suck a little ass once in a while. It’s far easier to get a job barbacking than it is to get a job as a bartender. Barbacks are a dire necessity for a busy bar. However, the job is much less prestigious and thus, less profitable than being an actual bartender. In many bars, barbacks even fill in making drinks for both service bar and bar customers when necessary. It’s not glamorous. It’s a dirty, gritty, backbreaking job. You should consider barbacking in certain circumstances because that’s often the best (if not the only) way to get yourself into a desirable bartending position. I’ve seen countless barbacks move up from barback to bartender. It’s an easy succession once you”re already in the door. When a bartender leaves or is about to leave, the barback is often the first one to know.

Lastly in this category, we have impropriety. You all know what I mean, yes?. Right or wrong (mostly wrong in the law’s eyes although many a John would argue that fact), nothing can get you a job or get you moved up the ladder quicker than sexin’ the boss. I’m not trying to persuade or dissuade anyone. I’m just saying it happens (maybe a lot, maybe not).

In closing, you have options. They are many… plastic surgery, and….uhh…. no. This article just scratches the surface of what you should consider (or what I consider and has made me successful) in finding a bartending gig. Honestly, it’s mostly common sense and can be applied to seeking employment in many different fields. Think with your…. er… head, and follow some of my logic. Like anything else in life, you get out of it what you put into it. The more prepared your are; the more experienced you’ve become; and the more industry people you’ve aligned yourself with over time, the more bartending opportunities will open up to you.

Good luck.

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8 thoughts on “How to Get a Bartending Job in NYC

  1. Thank you for this article. I do have a question, please dont be offfended. I find that there aren’t many male bartenders in NYC my nationality (Afro-American). One owner actually told me to go to a black bar. I will be using you tips and pointers, however if there is any more advise you are willing to give Ill be thankful.

    • No worries. I’m a bartender. There is zero filter from customers’ mouths. I’ve heard everything there is – with no restraint.

      Anyway, you’re kind of right. There are very few minority men bartending. Despite the fact that discrimination is illegal, that doesn’t mean it’s not practiced extensively. The truth is that in most downtown neighborhoods, you’re probably going to have to look a LOT harder than your white counterpart, and a a HELL OF A LOT harder than your white female counterpart. I wish that wasn’t the case. But, take a look around. Drop in a dozen or so bars and you’ll instantly see what the playing field is like.

      My advice is to get into the best physical shape you can and dress really well – in a way that highlights your fitness. Be professional, articulate, and slightly humorous. If you have experience, target nightclubs where it’s high-volume. Target areas of town that fit the (I hate to say it) demographic.

      It’s impossible to get owners – or hiring managers – to communicate to you exactly who and what type of bartender they’re looking to hire.

      That said, it’s really a numbers game and keeping polished to increase your odds.

      I wish you luck.

  2. Thanks for the article, it’s really generous of you to post this kind of information to people, and I agree with a lot of what you wrote. I’m currently a female bartender in NYC with around three years of experience. I’m currently looking for a position in a nightclub or lounge. I’m at a loss for how to “hit the streets” for this kind of job, as I’ve never worked in a nightclub before; only ever restaurants and bars. Any advice?

  3. 1

    Get experience, if you haven’t already worked as a bartender, by first working as a bar-back (bartender’s assistant). If you are planning a move to New York City but haven’t yet arrived, get bar-tending experience before you come.

    2

    Look for job openings on Craigslist.org, in New York City, Jobs and then food / Drinks / beverage / hosp. Most bars, restaurants and clubs that post help-wanted ads on Craigslist hold open calls, where they set aside a day, or part of a day, for all applicants to come down in person. Bring a resume with you. Other sites such as Indeed.com also have some listings, mostly for chain restaurants and hotels.

    3

    Walk into any bar where you would like to work and ask to speak to the manager. Go during off-hours when the bar is not busy. And Leave a resume.

    4

    Look for other jobs in restaurants or bars if you are unable to get a job right away as a bartender. There is less competition for jobs such as busboy or server because the pay is usually lower and the jobs don’t have bartender’s aura of glamor. Make contacts on those jobs to help you get bartering work in the future.

    5

    Tell everyone you know that you are looking for a job as a bartender. Word of mouth is important.

    6

    Be persistent, but not annoying, in contacting bars where you have had interviews to inquire about current openings.

    Best Of Luck.

  4. thank you for this article! I found it very useful to other Bartenders who are not currently employed and very inspiring to those who wants to learn and undergo Bartending classes. Keep it up! More power to you.

  5. Thank you for this! I wasn’t sure so sure about Craigslist until I read this post! Also I FIRMLY agree with a lot of what you’ve said about the business.

    I’m a Renaissance Woman kind of bartender from New Mexico, moving to New York this fall.

    I am not blindsided with excitement and I know that looking for a job a month ahead/expecting a Skype interview is pure insanity. I plan to keep one ear to the ground with my connections but I am still in the throws of pre-moving, looking-for-work, anxiety. That said–

    1) Do you think it is safest to look for a barback job first?

    2) How ridiculous is it that I am researching bars online and writing down places to pop into before getting there?

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