Bartending Myths Debunked

Bartending seems pretty cool, doesn’t it? You’re sitting on your couch 4:30am, after a long night of partying, inhaling Cheetos, toking a bong, and wishing you hadn’t sucked down those last two shots of Jager. The TV is glaring and - wouldn’t you know – Tom Cruise is spinning bottles, without spilling a drop of precious booze – go figure. “Cocktail” is on again. You’re captivated by this ultimate display of Flair and enthralled with the “the good life” bartending can offer… a playboy lifestyle on a Caribbean island, and endless string of doting groupies – ready to rip of your clothes, travel, fast cars, easy drugs, blaa, blaa, blaa.

You want to be a bartender above all else. Screw the post-graduate work, your parents ambitions for you, law school, or whatever. You’ve got your eyes set on getting behind the stick. I mean, how hard could it be? Any monkey can pour drinks, right? Let’s find out…

Myth: Bartenders get immeasurable quantities of quality ass
Reality: Bartenders do get immeasurable quantities of quality, and easy ass, whether they want to or not. Quite often, they have to literally fight it off. Luckily, I don’t fit the following description… but, I often tell people that you could weigh in at 400 pounds, be a few teeth short of a smile, and stink like Limburger and you’d still get laid unintentionally so long as you worked the bar. It’s simply the way it is.

Myth: Bartending is a 24/7 Party
Reality: Part of the job is facilitating, and making it appear as if you’re part and parcel of the festivities. The reality is that you’re working and are responsible for thousands of dollars of the bar’s income, and hundreds of your own. You cannot get afford to get sloshed. It’s unprofessional but more importantly, completely impractical. Quite often, particularly at corporate management group-owned bars, you’re forbidden drinking at all. There is routinely a ton of work to do… and that isn’t restricted to simply serving drinks nor macking on the lovely lady who strategically has her bosom bent over the bar, pointed in your general direction. More often than not, you’re getting off work when the sun is nearly on the horizon. You’re sweaty, grimy, sore, bleeding from a random fingertip, bruised at the hip, and your shoes are squeeking from having waddled in murky, grey mystery floor water all evening.

Myth: Bartenders is a means to an ends. It’s a transient occupation.
Reality: Bartending can often be a career for many. Yes, it’s true that (in NYC in particular) the field is filled with 20-something year old actors, models, and other folks who haven’t quite figured out what they’d like to do in life. But it’s also rife with industry professionals with decades of experience – folks who live, breath, and shit their craft. I for one, actively chose the profession and it’s been quite good to me and my family. It’s enabled me to buy my own home, several cars, a couple of motorbikes, and sent and my family on the occasional vacation. It’s funded my kids’ educations in parochial school and generally, puts bread on the table. I have no shame. I’m proud to be a career bartender. I’ve known dozens of graduate-degree holding former financiers  lawyers, accountants and other professionals who wound up abandoning their “traditional” jobs (many by choice) in order to sling hooch. Many use bartending as supplemental income – a second (or primary) job when they simply can’t get the job done with another. That’s actually pretty common place in New York.

Myth: Bartenders are all tattooed, uneducated, sexually deviant, socially unfit alcoholics and drug addicts
Reality: Many Bartenders are tattooed, uneducated, sexually deviant liberal, socially unfit alcoholics and drug addicts. Many bartenders don’t fit the white picket fence crowd’s “traditional” view of productive society members. Maybe that means they twist their mustache, sleep late, rock neck tattoos, gig out in band (as opposed to buying friends at the Greenwich country club), ardently support pot legalization, and avoid committed relationships like the plague. So fucking what? Most of them are productive, tax-paying, often Bohemian, artistic, fun-to-be-around, creative types who contribute to the world going round and round. Nothing makes their suburban, cubical-loving, starched-shirt and pressed slacks-wearing, Bimmer-driving counterpart any better or worse of a person. They’re both people… people with different visions of happiness. Diversity makes the world great.

Myth: Bartenders don’t pay taxes
Reality: The overwhelming majority of bartenders pay extensive Federal, State, and local taxes and are often “in the hole,” having to write a check to the government come April 15th. Almost all bar/lounge/club/restaurant owners these days are under extreme scrutiny from The Man. That not only includes the Health Department but the IRS and municipal Taxation & Finance departments. Among other things, these gestapo routinely investigate employee comings and goings and all books and records. In particular, they like to pay attention to gross revenue and employee records. As a result, many owners will report their bartenders’ individual incomes as a percentage of sales – whether you’ve been tipped or not. The end effect is that bartenders and servers sometimes get taxed even when they’ve been totally stiffed. That goes for every single check. In the old days, most bars would operate under the “$40 dollar per shift rule.” In other words, at the end of your shift, you’d simply take $40 bucks out of the old-school, mechanical NCR register and call it a day. That “shift pay” plus your tips, was what you’d walk with – plain and simple. Well, those days are long gone. Practically everyone, from the smallest pub to the largest multi-bar hotel chain, makes use of Point of Sale systems to track every single aspect of sales, inventory, buy-backs, revenue, hours, payroll, and taxes. I don’t know one bartender that is still paid “off the books” as it was before.

Myth: Bartenders get paid by their employer
Reality: Yes – kind of. But they receive nearly nothing in compensation. New York State law mandates that employers pay their tipped staff a certain rate anyway. That rate typically varies between $5.00 and $8.00 (on the high-end) with a “tip-credit” of $2.25. Basically, the state is trying to ensure that all workers receive a minimum of $7.25/hour in compensation. They key here is that servers and bartenders are defined as employees that work for gratuities. They are not salaried, nor hourly compensated workers despite the preceding. The state expects that the overwhelming majority of their income be derived from tips. As a result, that small hourly rate translates into a zero dollar paycheck most of the time. That tiny sum of money goes right into the Federal and State coffers. There are rare exceptions, where servers/bartenders can receive substantial salaries. Those include high-end hotels and “starred” uber-chique restaurants – mostly union gigs.

Myth: All you have to do to become a bartender is memorize drinks
Reality: Wrong. Memorizing drinks is the easiest requirement. In just about all NYC bars, you’ll need a working knowledge of about 100 or so standard cocktails. Most establishments will require you to commit to memory their own cocktail menu (usually 10 – 20 unique concoctions) in addition to what you already know. As mentioned, that’s pretty much child’s play. What is much more difficult to learn, is (a) how to determine when you’re being scammed (b) how to cut off drunks (c) when to intervene – if at all – in an altercation (d) how to prioritize customers in addition to the service bar when you’re neck deep in drink orders (e) how much of your personality is called for and what level of engagement is needed for various customers (f) how to deal with irate customers of varying degrees (g) what to do when the Point of Sale systems takes a crap on Friday night at 11:30pm. The list goes on and on. I can’t possibly detail everything you’ll need to know, and that experience will teach you. Most importantly, your upbringing, street-sense, awareness, dexterity, observational powers, thick skin, and the like must be born of a particular mold – an adaptable one that allows you to learn and constantly be on point. Bartending is not about making drinks. If it were, they’d use vending machine. Bartending is all about people management.

Myth: Bartenders just make drinks
Reality: It really varies with the type of venue you wind up in, but bartenders have a shit-ton more responsibilities than simply pouring drinks. Let’s list some of them, shall we?

  • Re-filling double-dipped ketchup and mustard bottles (yes, really. I always opt for the fresh bottle when I’m dining out)
  • Marrying liquor bottles
  • Counting, sorting and handing hundreds/thousands of dollars at the till and in tips at the end of the evening
  • Wiping down mirrors, sticky bottles, filthy speed rails, milk-encrusted back-bar coolers, sugar-laden bar tops, glass shard-infested beer bins, etc.
  • Repeatedly lifting and maneuvering 160 pound kegs in cramped walk-ins
  • Sorting and stacking hundreds of disgustingly dirty, empty beer bottles for recycling
  • Completing seemingly endless paperwork such as cashouts, checklists, and inventories
  • Committing to memory and preparing sometimes 4, 5 or even 6 different drink orders while having 2 other orders being shouted at you
  • Bussing 50 pound dirty-dish bus bins then emptying their gross  contents in the dish-room
  • Washing glasses - all night
  • Taking out trash
  • Dragging out rubber floor mats, hosing them down, and bringing them back in
  • Stocking cases of beer, wine and liquor – often carrying them fairly long distances and up several flights of stairs

Myth: The staff has eaten everything on the menu and dine like kings
Reality: Though bartenders and servers may have been privy enough to once sample a few menu items or the day’s special, the idea that we partake of the house’s finest noms (like Porterhouse and Lobster) is ludicrous. The venue could never stay in business if that were true. Typically, we get a “Staff Meal” either before or after our shifts. The Staff Menu typically consists of a limited number of (relatively inexpensive and quick to prepare) menu items. Alternatively, some bars/restaurants prepare a “Family Style Meal” for their staff – a cold-ass buffet of cheap eats that passes for food. The nicer venues, large hotels, may even have a staff cafeteria. On the downside, a lot of these places will impose a $2 or $4 “penalty” on their employees for the privilege of being fed. Working a 10 hour shift without eating can be difficult. As a result, and despite the rules, many staff members will pick at what they will via illicit kitchen hookups or simply placing an order. They’ll then crouch, hide in an alcove, or whatever and inhale whatever they can.

Myth: Bartenders are all Douchebags
Reality: Douchebags do not achieve longevity. The overwhelming majority of restaurant/bar management groups have extensive By-Laws. Part of those By-Laws are almost always, the Employee Handbook or something of similar description. Bartenders are usually required to read through it, study it, and be able to pass a resultant test (or not be allowed to continue working). Those manuals always contain things like: Sexual Harassment Polices, Dress Codes, Disciplinary Policies, Scheduling Policies, Media Contact and Confidential Information Policies, and – you guessed it – Guest Policies. Guest policies almost always dictate the who, when, where, why, and how you are expected to interact with Guests. Typically, they favor the guest in almost every situation - even when said guest has been clearly acting like a total asswipe. That said, there is often a marked distinction between what is written/accepted/lawful, and what is actually practiced. The degree to which the Guest Policies are enforced will vary between types and sized of venues. You simply have to learn it on the job.

My point is, douchebag bartenders do exist – particularly at high-volume, low-customer interaction nightclubs. They’re governed, however, by two things (1) the preceding diatribe and much more importantly, (2) money. Douchebag bartenders will flounder and earn far less money long-term. That is, if they are routinely assholes for no good reason. That last part is key. What guests often fail to realize is that bartenders are dealing with the retail public; a public who has the added lack of inhibition of “liquid courage” combined with the full knowledge that ownership/management will typically bend over backwards, and give them a blowjob, to placate them in the event some sort of disagreement. Many guests attempt, sometimes sometimes unsuccessfully to take major advantage of this situation. All these factors sort of build ruffles on bartenders’ feathers, you know? It’s not that bartenders aren’t always far from friendly, but we’ve learned to “read people” and react to the public in certain ways. Though bartending opens many doors, establishes great relationships, and teaches you that most people are pretty cool, it also has a way of making your more and more defensive and leery of folks. Sad but true. Bartend for a few months and you’ll see what I mean. Don’t equate defensive and cautious with douchebag. Even when slammed, the most hardened bartenders will easily open up and be responsive to nice folks. You get what you give.

I’m far from one to dissuade anyone from pursuing their ambitions. If your ultimate goal is to follow in my footsteps, then more power to ya. Just keep in mind that it’s not all prancing through the flower-covered green hills by the brook. You actually have to bust your ass to get paid.

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8 thoughts on “Bartending Myths Debunked

  1. “Bartending is all about people management” so true, and like the rest of your post, captures your job description perfectly. I wish I’d had this to show to a know-it-all barback we once had (he claimed to be a “mixologist” on his resume, and, despite a lack of real experience, thought he didn’t have to listen to any of us). Is that your smiling face in the pic? Hi!

  2. Agree!
    Giving hints about the here called “life behind the stick” is what your blog is intended for and contributing to, isn’t it?
    I would then say that bartending has foundations on good product preparation skills and knowledge, in term of drink recipes, bar food, wine, beer, cafeteria and so on, according to the bar kind.
    After all, with no good bar product to sell, there won’t be any bar business to run, at all.
    I’ve never seen a bar serving only smiles, entertainment or words of wisdom, at least not so far.

    Upon these foundations, a professional bartender should “pour” lots of other skills that includes the ability to DEAL WITH people facing “sunny” and “cloudy” (hopefully not “stormy”) situations.
    This is actually something else than people MANAGEMENT skills, that are only requested to be the bar owner.

    Looking forward to keep on reading about those “sunny” and “cloudy” situations, so called “experience”, that the bartending job has given you through the years.
    A sparkling ton of greetings!

    • Hey there. Thanks for the contribution! I completely disagree with the “bar owner” talk. Degrees of importance surrounding cocktail programs and drink preps are completely relative to the type of bar you wind up in. But again, even at a craft or throwback bar, it’s of far, far less significance than your people skills. But whatevs. Variety and diversity are the spice of life I guess.

  3. There might be a problem with the reply posting, since no picture or avatar was expected to be included, nor the displayed picture belongs to my reply.
    In order to avoid any eventual legal problems, I thank in advance the webmaster (or who is in charge with that) for removing the picture/avatar from the blog.

    Moreover, I see that bar owners are only a small portion among the bartenders, assuming that their “management” duties will still leave them enough time to keep on “bartending behind the stick” and with the “hands busy on bottle flipping”. To clarify, my reply refers to, and is at the moment mostly addressed to experience acquired during this “behind the sticks” and “bottle flipping” activities than “bar boss” issues.

    A layered shot of greetings.

  4. See that the picture/avatar of this unknown lady, taken from who knows where, is still present beside the posted message.
    Since no avatar and/ore pictures were expected to be included in the message, I again kindly ask to remove it from that post.
    Thanking in advance.

    A squeeze of greetings.

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