How To Become A Bartender
It may seem improbable to imagine bartending in the time of social distancing, especially as restaurateurs grapple with turnover and closure due to lockdown measures. But while the future may seem uncertain in the presence of the coronavirus pandemic, tomorrow will come. Look at how quickly guests returned to restaurants after reopening, eager to shake off the months of cabin fever from quarantine. More than half of your guests want a stiff drink to ease the tension of a stressful week. Serving drinks is more than just having a steady pour and a basic knowledge of cocktails. The job includes an assortment of responsibilities from managing stock to understanding your local Dram Shop Laws. Working as a bartender can pay off big, with an estimated annual salary of 62K per year, including tips. Our guide on how to become a bartender will walk you through the steps you need to take to get the job you want.
For anyone who has ever watched a movie, been to a bar, or made cocktails at home, it seems easy enough to get started. There are recipe guides aplenty on the internet, and tech solutions for new bartenders to learn on the job. Still, there is a lot involved in bartending. To get started, do you need any education for this position? Do you need a special certificate to qualify? For any prospective job seeker, it’s worth knowing the requirements and a path to employment, and what the return is on your investment, be that through your money, time, or both.
While there is no formal education requirement to become a bartender, some states in the U.S. require either a bartender’s license or certificate. As the liquor laws are determined on a state-by-state basis, there are a variety of paths you can take. For example, a bartender license may only grant you the right to serve and sell beer and wine, whereas a certificate may allow you to serve any type of legal libation on the market. Both licenses or certificates involve learning mixology courses, as well as the laws local to your area.
As you might imagine, because a certificate offers more opportunities, earning one takes much longer than earning a license. Typically, it takes just a few weeks to acquire a license, whereas it can take much longer, and sometimes involves an exam to complete a certification. The costs of the courses for your license or certificate spans anywhere from the low price of $13 in Texas to around $500, depending on where you are.
Landing Your First Gig
Studies indicate that word of mouth is imperative to landing your first job bartending. As mentioned above, while licenses or certificates are required depending on your location, there is no need for formal schooling. Still, there are bartending schools that can walk you through the steps necessary to become a bartender, with the secondary goal of helping you break into the profession. The dilemma is the same with bartenders as anyone else: experience begets work, but work requires experience. For that reason, any prospective bartender should expect to start at the bottom, and as always, to network whenever possible to make connections with people you might want to work with later.
What is a Bar Back?
The chances are that you’ll start small. The lowest rung on the ladder is a barback, but that’s not to diminish the job’s importance. A barback is the backbone of the bar, the background player that keeps everything running smoothly and invisibly. Barbacks clean glassware, maintain stock during shifts and help with breakdown and setup, rarely directly interacting with customers. To be a barback is to learn the bar area’s pain points, the bottlenecks that slow down service. As such, not only is the position invaluable, but if you aspire to a bartender, barbacking will teach you everything about the minutiae of bartending.
What Not To Do
Once you get started, it’s important to remember a few things to avoid. While it may seem inviting, don’t drink on your shift. You’re right there with the product, serving delicious drinks for hours, but getting tipsy –or worse– on the job is a fast way to lose your position, not only because you lose focus, but because it’s not yours to drink. A good bartender is alert of their surroundings and ready to serve, and that’s not possible if you’re intoxicated.
Likewise, bartending is a social job, which means that you’re spending time with friends new and old. It’s easy to lose time talking with a chatty customer or pal that stops to visit. Those friends may even ask or expect (quietly or otherwise) a free drink. Avoid free drinks without the consent of the manager or owner of the establishment, unless you plan to comp it out of your earnings, and carefully and politely curb long talks with guests, who may take away from your ability to serve incoming customers with the same frequency.
Lastly, while it is your job to remain courteous and attentive to guests, avoid flirting on the clock. Of equal importance, you’re not expected to endure anyone-the-job harassment. That includes sexual harassment, which is an unfortunate occupational hazard, but one you can manage by setting strict boundaries. Don’t feel that you can’t say “no” to unwanted advances of any nature. No one should feel uncomfortable at work, but fortunately, there are a lot of people on your side, should you go into the field.
Technology isn’t exclusively necessary to run a bar, but it certainly doesn’t hurt, especially as we continue to grapple with the coronavirus. As many places around the world are dealing with in-store traffic closures due to coronavirus-related restrictions, there are technological solutions to tending your bar. For example, while a kitchen display system (KDS) is typically employed in the back-of-house (BOH), it can help you organize your orders. With in-house traffic down and off-premise traffic up, you can utilize a KDS for incoming curbside or takeout orders, especially with an increase in alcohol delivery opportunities. If off-premise requests continue to grow, there are aggregators to help keep your orders straight.
The Business of Bartending
There is much to the day-to-day affairs of bartending, well beyond just having a steady pour and an ability to multitask on busy evenings. Like anything else, bartending is a business, and like any business, you have to stay on top of the details which minimize tomorrow’s problems today. A bartender’s business responsibilities may include managing stock, taxes on tips, and general management of other employees in some circumstances. Depending on your role in the organization, you may even be responsible for making sure that your liquor license is in order, which like every other liquor law here, varies based on location.
How to Pay Taxes on Tips
A substantial portion of the wages that you might bring in is your evening tips. Tips and tipping culture changes depending on where you are so that mileage will vary. In the U.S., tipping is an expectation, if not an outright social obligation, with people who tip poorly often subject to public scrutiny. It’s best to keep a daily log of any dollar values above $20 to manage your wages from tips. Failure to report your tipping wages may catch up to you. Furthermore, proving what you earned can be a hassle down the line.
Managing Your Stock
Just like any other item for sale in your restaurant, managing your stock is imperative to your long term success. First and foremost, be mindful of Tied House Laws, which protect retailers and restaurateurs, when determining a distributor. There are online resources for various alcohol pairing. Still, as the bartender, it’s prudent to establish your drink list in advance and know how it might best complement your menu.
During day-to-day operations, conserving alcohol is an important step. For beer or wine, using the right glassware is an essential step to measuring the volume of each drink served. While free pouring is a skill in and onto itself, it’s not the most accurate way to monitor your serving sizes for consistency or accuracy. You might consider employing a cocktail jigger or a measured pour spout, which can give you carefully measured drinks that allow you to plan for your stock. Keep a list of usage every day, and you can employ data analytics via some KDS platforms to help navigate your future stocking needs.
Every bar or restaurant has a stock that doesn’t move. What do you do with it? How do you turn it, if at all? If your dead stock is a spirit of some sort, consider offering limited time offers, drink specials to help move it out via a new or specialty drink. For beers or wines, try special pairings or deals to help move it out. For either, you may even consider moving it to the kitchen as a special ingredient; beer is an excellent ingredient in chili, while wine is a flavorful marinade.
Bartending is no small feat, but an obtainable and realistic goal for anyone who aspires. While there are many responsibilities to the job, there is likewise a lot of fun to be had. You have opportunities to try new drinks first via distributors, and you can experiment with cocktails to perfection. Despite the licenses mentioned above or certifications, the return on your investment can pay off in a big way. Ultimately, you are working with people who are in one way or another celebrating or commiserating something. Is it difficult? Absolutely, but anything worth pursuing is. Just remain mindful of your customers. Make sure they get served timely, know when to cut them off, and measure your drinks out to maximize your profits.
Subscribe to the blog for more interesting restaurant content!
About the Author
Syd was a content marketing specialist, which are fancy words for writing pretty to tell a good story. He likes writing things about food, drinks, and music. He’s a musician himself, a father of two, and loves his wife a whole lot. At home, like the rest of the world right now, he’s finding time to play with the kids and create art.