Let’s paint a picture. You work in a local sports pub. It’s 3:30 in the morning. Finally, the bar is empty. Things are a disaster. There is still a good chunk of cleaning ahead. Throughout the evening, you tried to keep up, but you probably won’t go home for another hour. The tip jar is overflowing, always a bonus. Then you wonder, nay pray, “I hope I made good money”. You have survived the rush.
Slammed all night with drink chits piling up quicker than you could make them. Servers waited on you; guests waited on their drinks, broken glasses, mixes needing to be made. You ran for ice more times than you could count. The night was insane. A couple of drunk drivers, many cocktails made and luckily no police tonight. You head home, $400 bucks in your pocket, exhausted, but there is no way you will be going straight to bed. If this sounds like something you would enjoy, bartending might be for you.
I started bartending at 26 years old, perhaps a little later than some, but I started in the business until I was 25. I was living in Vancouver as an actor and needed a job with flexibility that would allow me to audition, so I started looking for a serving job. After months of looking, I got lucky breaking into the right restaurant.
Now let me define lucky. I landed Bridges, the busiest and biggest summer restaurant in Vancouver. It boasts a patio over the ocean that seats 350 people plus three different sections to the restaurant inside. It is huge! I went to open interviews for summer staff, and they hired me as a hostess. Not where I wanted to start, but with no experience, it was a foot in the door at one of the best restaurants in town. I started at the bottom, and you should be prepared to do the same. It sounds harsh, but it’s the truth, and most people do. Not one bartender I know started off behind the bar.
I worked two summers as a hostess on the busiest patio in Vancouver. It was awesome! I had the best tan of my life! I also busted my ass every day, working opens, closes, offering to stay when everyone else wanted to duck out early. I picked up every shift I could, working more doubles than I could imagine.
Once I worked a whole weekend consisting of two back to back doubles and a Sunday open with a sprained ankle. I greeted guests sitting on a barstool at the host stand because I couldn’t walk or stand without my crutches. I earned my stripes, as they say. I had a plan!
Moving into my second summer, I knew I wanted to stay on for winter, and my goal was to move into bartending. I started expediting, or food running; it goes by different names at different places. Then after another awesome summer, I went to my manager to ask for a promotion and stay on for winter. It wasn’t handed to me right away. It took three meetings to get there. The first was with the manager I had the best rapport with, then with his manager, and finally with my general manager. Reading this, I don’t have to tell you she said yes.
I always worked hard in my position, and that is the greatest break in tip I can give you. Be prepared to start at the bottom, where they have room for you as long as it is front of the house (i.e., working with the guests). Then shine! Work harder than everyone else and show your stuff. Be the best you can be at the position you are in. Then after you pay your dues, ask for what you earned even if they don’t offer it to you.
In my experience, you usually need to ask. If they don’t say yes right away, do not get discouraged. Keep taking steps, keep working hard, your moment will come. That is how my first and second summers went. I took what they offered and made the most of it. To this day, that hosting job was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.
That fall, after the summer season ended, I moved into bartending. I spent the winter learning on the job. I learned different cocktails, practised mixing them, and tested every drink I made, making sure it was right before I sent it out. The biggest thing I learned was how to multi-task, how to be quicker, faster, more efficient for when I would need it…the summer. I learnt in the trenches by making things over and over and over again. I learnt by being thrown to the wolves. Sometimes I got it right, sometimes not. My first busy night taught me what it would really take. These are listed in no particular order of importance.
- Know your drink recipes and basic cocktails inside and out, because when it’s busy there is no time to check. That being said, carry a bartending guide in the beginning for emergencies. I had a small one with all the basic cocktails, shooters, ect. So when I really didn’t know, at least I had somewhere to go. That little book saved my life many times in that first year.
- Know the difference between a cocktail, a highball and different types of beer and wine. This will make you a more marketable hire when eventually you start looking for other jobs or go asking for that promotion.
- Be prepared to be behind, because even the best end up in the weeds. Stay calm and keep pushing. It will pass and the cash will be worth it.
- Get your provincial liquor certification when you start in the biz, don’t wait until you need it.
- If you work in a sports bar, pub, lounge or nightclub, where you have direct interaction with the guest, be prepared to be strong. People will try to push your limits to allow them to drink more and drink longer. Say no! It’s not worth losing your job or being sued. Do not be afraid to cut people off, good management will always back you up.
- You will at some point in your career deal with people trying to drive. Drinking and driving should never be a negotiation. Be strong. I have always given fair warning telling guests, “If you force my hand I will call police.” Calling police when absolutely necessary can save your job, prevent you from being sued and most importantly it can save people’s lives. I can tell you I believe I have saved a few in my time by maintaining this practice.
- Someone will eventually stiff you on a bill or not tip you. It happens, dust it off, don’t let it get you down and know it usually all evens out in the end.
- Have fun! Bartending is a great job. You meet loads of interesting people, can create awesome cocktails and be the difference between a great night out for people and a lousy one. The cash is pretty good too!
- When it’s not fun anymore, get out!
These are the things I wish I had known before I got into bartending, but I would never give up my experience for anything. I worked hard, learned as I went and earned my way to the top. Sometimes the hard way! I have dealt with drunk drivers, fights and aggressive people more than I would like. However, I have also enjoyed awesome relationships with wonderful regulars. Developed new friendships with great co-workers and enjoyed working for some outstanding establishments with very supportive people. I also made bucket loads of cash.
Like any job bartending has ups and downs. I loved many years of bartending and still enjoy it at parties mixing for friends and family. That was always one of my favourite parts, making the drinks or mixology as they call it in the biz. I loved the art of bartending and the challenge of being busy. You will have your things you love about it that drive you. So go out, have fun, practice on your friends and family and just have a great time.
In parting, my last piece of advice is this, do not get into it for the money. You can make money at any job that has far less stress and chaotic moments, do it because you enjoy it and think it might be fun because bartending, in my experience, was one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve had. To those just getting started, best of luck, may the next brilliant cocktail be mixed in your shaker.
Jennie has worked in the bar and restaurant industry for nine years. She has been a host, expeditor, bartender, server and manager. She still works in the industry today part-time as a server at Milestones. Find her on Twitter @jenniedleaver.