The transition from barback to a bartender is a turbulent time. You’re often thrown to the wolves for your first night and the last thing you want to do is hammer other bartenders with questions and spend the evening looking up recipes you’ve never heard of. The transition time depends on a few factors.
Hiring on as a barback is supposed to be a streamlined way of becoming a bartender. The truth is, it could take a shade under a month to a half year to make the leap, depending on knowledge, social skills, work ethic, customer service, initiative, and likeability.
The last one may sound unfair. Perhaps you have an introverted personality, or you aren’t much of a social creature. However, this is business, and those who lack a likeable personality are automatically two steps back when it comes to the bar and restaurant industries.
Steps from Barback to Bartender
Oftentimes, the prospect of becoming a bartender looks fairly complicated. You may want to serve drinks, but the status quo is school, obtaining a bartending license, and memorizing a whole lot of drink mixes.
In reality, you don’t need any experience to hire on as a barback. There are a lot of advantages to doing it this way as well.
- You get a foot in the door immediately
- No experience is required to be a barback
- You will gain firsthand experience on the duties of a bartender
- You’ll learn all the brand names as you stock the liquor
- You’ll get comfortable interacting with customers
- You will gain some important familiarity with the tools of the trade and garnishes.
- Supporting a bartender will get on their good side, leading to better training opportunities.
- You’ll be a first-hand witness to the bartender and how they run the show
Of course, there are some drawbacks to this as well. You will be the donkey of the bar, bearing all the loads, stocking most of the liquor, and working long hours, and you’ll be the low person on the totem pole. Of course, everybody has to start somewhere, and we don’t all start out as CEOs.
Step 1: Be an Outstanding Barback
If you want to make it from barback to bartender in a month, you had better be on your absolute best behaviour. Never show up late, shirk a task, take unnecessary or unapproved breaks, argue with the bartender or the staff, or fail to do what’s asked of you.
Yes, that means you will have to put your smartphone in your back pocket, preferably powered down. Your group text and Facebook profile will survive until you make your triumphant return after clocking out.
Remember, if you can’t do your job as a barback, you will be a barback for the next three years unless you decide to throw your hands up and go away. No one wants to be that barback. Being a bartender is a big responsibility, but it’s also a blast. That’s where you want to be.
It’s rare to bust your tail in such a small environment and not get noticed. If you’re killing it each and every day and management doesn’t notice you, it might be time to move on. At the same time, don’t expect management to notice you after your first two days of work, either.
You will need to do everything well but there are a few things you will need to be exceptional at or, at the very least, stand out from everyone else.
- Covering your duties
- Ability to anticipate
- Learn the bar lingo
Bar lingo? Yes, you need to learn the lingo. When a waitress screams “Behind!” or something similar, it’s not because you have a cockroach on your behind; it’s because she’s about to plough into your backside, half-empty cocktail glasses and all if you don’t move out of the way.
Bars get busy, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, and it’s so much easier for everyone to have a quick, precise language that all the employees understand. Be sure you learn to anticipate the needs of the bar, not necessarily the bartender, and have everything in place on time.
Step 2: Learn and Learn Quickly
As a barback, you have a front-row seat to a bartending education, and you are getting paid for it, rather than the other way around. You could always shell out the money to go to bartending school, but why bother when you have this? There’s nothing in a book that can beat the real thing.
The learning doesn’t stop at the bar, either. When you go home, there are YouTube videos, articles, blogs, and free courses available all over the web. Colleges still make money today because they have convinced employers that they have to hire college graduates.
Hands-on experience and doing your own research is a level beyond collegiate work that employers have yet to grasp. However, as a barback, you have a unique opportunity to make it work for you.
Step 3: Open Your Mouth and Ask Questions
It doesn’t matter how many YouTube videos you watched the other night if you run across something you don’t understand and fail to address it. You have to ask questions and not when the bar is firing on all cylinders, and the bartender is working.
If you want to understand why bartender does something the way they do, you need to ask. For instance, a lot of customers like to see their drinks poured and mixed in front of them before the liquor goes in the shot glass or glass.
However, you might notice that while the bartender mixes these drinks for patrons who are sitting at the bar, there might be an already-mixed jug in the fridge that is the same drink poured out for those at the tables. There’s a reason for that. Ask.
Step 4: Don’t Settle
Everybody has to do their time and that includes you. However, that doesn’t mean that your hard work and dedication shouldn’t be rewarded. Keep your fingers on the pulse of both management and fellow employees but most especially on the bartenders.
Your goal is to be a bartender, and those who already work there (assuming you get in well with everyone and are sociable/likeable) will fill you in on the things they hear. If you know, you are ready for the job, but months continue to drag by without any upward mobility granted through management, consider leaving.
If you know you’re ready, you can potentially bartend somewhere else. You shouldn’t wait on management. Oftentimes, management is guilty of stagnating their workers because they are good at what they do right where they are.
Managers don’t want to risk hiring a replacement barback when you’re excellent at the job right now. It’s not your responsibility to tolerate this but neither should you burn bridges. Put in some applications and speak with management at other bars, while you are still working as a barback.
If you get hired, it’s a simple thing to step right out of your barback job there and into a bartending position elsewhere.
Step 5: Timeframe
It’s really easy to think you’re ready when you’re not but it’s also easy to stagnate and get comfortable where you are, afraid to move forward. Don’t be that person. If you get in there and bust your tail, learn the ropes, and tackle bartending 101 like a pro, you can become a bartender in a month’s time.
Or, it may be that you’re ready and there isn’t a position available for you yet. That’s when you need to make a hard decision, especially when management wants to promote you but they just can’t right now because their bartender roles are filled.
You can either start hunting elsewhere or keep at it with being a barback. However, once you know you’re ready, you shouldn’t wait around any longer than a couple of months. For some, that may be too long. It’s entirely up to you.
If you are a barback at a premium bar, something like Top Golf or Southern Gentleman in Atlanta, it will take longer to land a bartender position. It’s usually because you have a lot of things working against you. Picky management, long-term bartenders, and there’s much more to learn in a place like that.
Prepare yourself for the potential for an entire year or more at a premium bar. Don’t worry, though. So long as you are doing what you need to, that year or more wait will rarely be because you’re not good enough. Far more often, it’s a matter of sheer volume and more complicated learning curves.
All Things Considered
It’s true that you can go from barback to bartender in as little as a month. However, that’s a rare circumstance because it’s a combination of skill, fast learning, and availability. If you follow the above steps, you’ll be ready to make the leap faster than you realize.
Not only that, but if your bar isn’t moving you up, you’ll have learned and earned the skills necessary to bartend at another location. It’s a win-win scenario, and your employment window opens up much wider any way you look at it.