As much as you might despise your current gig, looking for and starting work at a new bar, will almost always suck more (initially). In an existing bar with several tenured barkeeps on the schedule, some of the downsides a new gig presents are: (a) squeaking out a living by bottom-feeding; working the seemingly least desirable (but available) shifts and (b) managing a royally life-invasive, frequently dynamic, week-to-week work schedule. Let’s face it: no one in their right mind actually wants to work Sundays. Religious zealots aside… most righteous adults have become well-accustomed to Sunday = FunDays and straight-up chilling. How the hell are you expected to earn a substantial living – for example – on a Monday closing or Tuesday opening shift? The short answer is rooted in: consistency, personality, salesmanship, and time. I frequently earn far more on shifts no other bartender wants than I would on the weekends. In the photo above, is Monday night’s haul – a couple of dollars shy of $700.
So how, pray tell, is that even possible? The answer is multifaceted. It’s not difficult, but it does require a significant investment and some patience.
Schedule: Particularly in a new gig, you’re likely going to have to fight tooth-and-nail over the course of weeks/months or even years (in a well-established and trendy club for example) to earn regular shifts and/or the consistently profitable shifts. Hell, you may even have to wait 30 years for a “lifer” to retire or kick the bucket – no joke.
Almost no one gives up a good thing. Bartending is no exception. Just think about the ultimate bartending Halo Job we’ve all heard about – that union hotel bartender (think The Four Seasons) “saddled” with a $25 – $35/hr base salary, obscene tips, paid vacations, and mucho benefits. Those jobs are out there albeit few and far between and virtually never advertised.
The tenacity, patience, and ass-kissing, combined with consistent displays of skill, promptness, cleanliness, imagination, tolerance required to keep a top-tier bartending gig, are combinations of art/science that I cannot possibly begin to teach in a book let alone a blog post. Those values and skills begin at birth and are crafted throughout your bartending career. Maybe you were dealt some bad hand in life or otherwise lack the appropriate knowledge and necessary skills required for excellent hospitality service. Regardless, what you can do immediately to improve your situation is continually observe, read, learn, and make small adjustments as you plod along.
Without a consistent weekly shift or two, you’re likely to have an extremely challenging time making large sums of money bartending. What you should strive for is to build a rapport with your clients. The key to making money, the most important tip you can possibly glean from this entire post, is to establish and maintain repeat business. You need to get people to like you, the bartender, not the bar itself.
Consistently friendly, flirty, tolerant, knowledgeable, and crafty bartenders will make far more money than those who are not. One exception: exceptionally attractive women – something I’ve been over a number of times – don’t have to follow the above conventions.
Undoubtedly, there are going to to be some customers with whom you bond and (inexplicably) those who despise your presence. On the same token, the bartender next to you might have the completely opposite relationship with those same customers – weird. But whatever… that’s life. There are a bunch of less than memorable customers who fall somewhere into the ambivalence camp. Those folks may be there simply to hookup and really couldn’t care less about who you are or what else you do. You may have spent 10 minutes kindly talking up the differences between Bourbon vs. Lincoln County Process Whiskies, and how Charcoal Filtering, aging and hardwoods impart particular flavors. You may have recommended a classic Whistle Pig Old Fashioned or a Rittenhouse Sazerac only to have them blow you off the rest of the night. So be it.
What you want to do time and time again, is to try and win over every single customer with dignity, respect, humility and outstanding service. You want to take at least a minute or two to strike up an appropriate level of conversation of some sort – feel them out. Everyone’s different and you can’t simply treat folks like soulless transactions. They’re not going to bond with you nor come back and demand that you be they’re bartender – what you’re ultimately after.
If you can’t get to a customer immediately, you’ll want to – at the very least – acknowledge their presence within a few seconds. If you’re in the middle of pouring a pitcher at the far side of the bar, and it’s loud, eye contact and a simple finger (indicating a second or minute) could suffice. Otherwise, a “hey brother, welcome… be with you in just a sec” has a way of disarming folks and stroking their ego. Don’t ignore anyone – ever. Always greet folks on the way in and on the way out. Never drop a check without a “here ya go… thanks for coming” or “have a great night!” or whatever. Live by: A.W.D. – always wipe down the bar. I have bad OCD. There’s never not a damp rag nearby with which I wipe the bar in preparation for my next customer. Make any guest who has bought a few drinks or has returned for a second time feel as if they won something – received a little something for nothing, or gotten over on the place (even though they may not have). That may mean a “free” coffee, house shot or two (with or without you), some “secret” recommendations of where to go, a basket of fries with their order, or a Sambucca or other digestif after dinner.
The list goes on and on. Net-net, you’ve got to form a relationship with your Johns and Janes if you expect them to come back, spend money with you, and become your loyal customers.
What the hell is this? One would think the bar owner or management would be well-equipped and experienced in promoting the place, right? Maybe. But really, that should be secondary to the desire or responsibility to promote yourself as opposed to the establishment. I’d argue that most of my earnings come from clients who come mostly to see me, not the bar in which I work. For this reason, some lifers/insiders/craftsmen/mixologists with several years on the job are feared by owners and management. Many of those folks have such a devoted following, that were they to quit or be fired, they could fairly easily command dozens or hundreds of their minions to follow them to the next bar. Quite often, these types of much-loved barkeeps have established social media platforms or even personal phone numbers and email addresses of their followers/clients.
I can’t tell you exactly what will work for you. However, I can tell you that I’ve managed to take completely crappy shifts – that no other bartender was willing to work – and turn them into some of the biggest money nights of the week. I’m not saying they’re the busiest nights of the week – far from it. I’m simply referring to the fact that I’ve drummed up a regular following and work those folks to the bone. I give them what they want – me. I bend over backwards to accommodate them even if I can’t service them the second they sit down. I greet, converse, listen intently, smile incessantly, and service their needs better than Tommy, Dick, and Jane at the next bar. I thank every singly customer for coming (before looking to see if they even tipped me) and make sure to invite them back again noting the shifts which I work.
But, how have I gotten them in the door in the first place? Well, that’s complicated. Obviously, there are many random, initial walk-ins which have nothing to do with my dastardly sales efforts. I embrace those folks and do everything in my power to make sure their experience that evening is nothing short of memorable.
Here’s my real secret however, to making a shit-ton of money on off-beat shifts: luring Hospitality employees. I’ve turned those shifts into the defacto neighborhood Bartender/Server/Manager nights. How’s that? Well, it starts with what I think is a personality trait that seems hard to ingrain in most folks: being way early to work. I’ve always been a huge fan of the belief that: (a) being on time = late (b) being 15 minutes early = on time. That said, I actually show up in the area at least 1 hour before my shift starts. I initially did it for reasons unrelated to recruiting – hunger. I hate being disturbed when I eat. Working 10 – 12 hour shifts, I get hungry. Similarly, I despise eating behind the bar or sneaking into the kitchen to inhale a Quesadilla in 30 seconds flat, as many other employees do. It makes me feel inhuman.
When (previously) unwanted shifts were offered to me, I leapt at the chance with an enthusiastic “yes.” I’ve been through this situation before and knew that a consistent schedule was a far more important factor to making money than which particular shifts they were. What I would do with my hour of pre-shift down-time (and what I still do) is frequent many of the bars/restaurants surrounding mine. In NYC, and even more so in The West Village – where I currently work, seemingly every other door is a bar/restaurant. There are something like 14,000 – I think – on the island of Manhattan alone. I have a virtually unlimited supply of like-minded, excellent-tipping clients to tap. Before work, I walk in, sit at their bar, order a couple of drinks and something yummy from the kitchen. I’m not aggressive – nor do I represent any type of hardship (problem customer) for the barkeep. I’m uber-patient. I don’t strafe a busy bartender, don’t wave, whistle, yell “hey” or “yo,” or make any kind of fuss. I don’t argue or make make stink-face when asked for a credit card and/or ID to hold a tab. Most importantly, I never cough up the fact that I’m bartender unless asked. Combined with normal (excessive for most) tipping – always in cash, within 2 visits, I’ve left them asking “who the hell is that guy?” … in a good way. It’s not much longer before I’ve befriended the bartenders and am getting them to invite themselves to come visit me when I’m working. Not surprisingly, they frequently do and return the favors I’ve dropped on them many times over. On any one of my given “quiet” nights, I will easily have servers, bartenders and managers from 8 or 9 different neighborhood establishments – sometimes dozens of like-minded alkies and foodies. Just about all of those folks are just as overly-generous as I am when I go out. As you might imagine, I go out of my way to take extra care of these folks.
There are many other salesmanship and promotion tactics. I’m simply sharing with you one in particular which has worked quite well for me.
Everything I’ve just mentioned takes time in order to see results. Everyone’s situation and personality will be different. When I first got my crappy (but consistent) shifts, I wasn’t making half the money I am now. Some of us are more efficient at certain tasks than others. Some of us may need attitude or process adjustments. Yet others need to hone their craft and become better educated in the spirit, wine, beer or service fields. What took me a few months to ramp up may take someone else a few weeks. Be patience, consistent, and always be learning. Neither Jerry Thomas (back in the day) nor Sasha Petraske (today) knew everything about bartending despite their legends and impact on the business and culture today.
There are numerous other factors that go into creating an attractive and appropriate atmosphere – enough so that customers will be drawn to return during your shift. That runs the gamut from attractive lighting, music choices, drink selections, pricing, scene, etc. Books can be written about those topics. Though very important, they’re not nearly as important as the handful of nuggets I’ve touched upon above. Make your mark. Draw your regulars. Develop your following. It’s not difficult.