What is a Barback? The Ultimate Guide to the Bartender’s Sidekick

“The bar. So gorgeous.” flickr photo by ironypoisoning https://flickr.com/photos/ironypoisoning/13582473975 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

 

If you have no experience as a bartender and want to work your way into a bartending position, the barback position is one of the traditional ways that you would work your way into a bartending job. I always imagine the barback as the person that is bailing water out of a cruise ship. While the guests are having a great time, and the staff is working hard, the barback is bailing out water like crazy trying to keep the ship afloat. A good barback will keep the ship afloat and no one will ever know there was a problem, and if you have a bad barback on the other hand, everyone notices.

The main role of the barback is to support the bartender or team of bartenders. Each bar or restaurant will have different responsibilities, but the core tasks are usually the same.

 

What does a Barback do?

Before the shift their main responsibility is to get the bar ready for service. This can mean that the barback is putting away the liquor and beer delivery that came in during the day, stocking each bar station with straws, napkins and coasters, prepping juices for service, cutting garnish and back ups. They basically work with the bartenders to ensure that  the bar is fully stocked and ready to open for business.

During the shift the barback position is typically one of the busiest in the bar/restaurant. If you ever see a young person that is constantly moving behind the bar and rarely interacting with guests, most likely that is the barback. During a shift they will typically be responsible for cleaning and refilling glassware, changing kegs, cleaning the bar top and restocking everything in the bar from spirits to syrups. Rarely will you see them taking drink orders or mixing drinks.

When the bar or restaurant closes for the night, the barback will work with the bartenders to break the bar down. This could mean taking out the trash, restocking bottles and cleaning all the glassware.

 

How much is a Barback Paid?

The bar back position is often found in high volume bars and restaurants. They are usually paid minimum wage and will often get a portion of the bartenders tips. Depending on the bar, barbacks can make a lot of money, but they work for every dollar they get. I’ve know many barbacks that work at a busy night club or bar that make more money than bartenders at high end cocktail bars.

 

Things to Know Before you Start:

If you are looking into becoming a bar back, (which I highly recommend for starting out in a bar) there are a few things to take into consideration:

 

It’s Physical

First and foremost, is that this is a physically demanding job. You’ll probably be lifting kegs, carrying multiple crates of booze around all night, lugging around buckets of ice to multiple bars and basically running from the minute you are on the clock until the minute you leave. If you ever wanted to get a high score with your Fitbit, this is the job for you.

 

It Can be a Thankless Job

This role also takes some thick skin as most of your co-workers will be asking you for items throughout your shift and some of them won’t be nice about if when they ask (especially in the beginning). There’s very little glory in barbacking, and unfortunately it’s too rare to get words of appreciation from bartenders, managers, or guests.

 

The Schedule

Since this role is only needed when the bar is busy, you may only be working Thursday, Friday and Saturday. This could be good if you are going to school, or working a second/third/fourth job during the day.

 

 

Traits of a Good Barback:

Got yourself a barbacking job and want to knock it out of the park? Here are some traits of a great barback. Follow this example to get noticed – and possibly even get an the opportunity to work your way up to a waiter or bartender position.

  • They Hustle – In this role, speed is important. Moving with a sense of purpose and being quick behind the bar is key for a good barback. If the bartender needs something on the fly (aka right now) the barback makes it happen quickly and then gets back to their normal duties.
  • Masters of Observation – This shows itself in many forms. First it can be them noticing that supplies or products are running low, or that the bartender in station 1 usually likes the garnish tray on the left instead of the right and they will set it up that way. It can also be them noticing how a particular bartender can pour more drinks then any other bartender on the team and learn how they do it, or how another bartender makes higher tips than other bartenders. Great barbacks realize this is a good training ground for when they become bartenders and take the opportunity to soak up as much information as possible.
  • Multitasking Geniuses – The best barbacks I’ve worked with always have a running list of items they need to accomplish. For example if a bartender needs a bottle of Grey Goose on the fly, they’ll head over to the liquor room, grab the bottle of Grey Goose as well as a stack of plates, or straws, or a 6 pack of Corona to restock the fridge. They maximize every minute, especially when it’s busy.
  • Anticipate the Bartender’s Needs – As a bartender your mise en place is your lifeline and there have been many times that I have noticed that I’m running out of ginger beer only to have my barback replenish it before I need it. Restocking a bartenders garnish tray, syrup bottles and mixers before they run out goes a long way.
  • Have a Plan when Things get Busy – This goes hand-in-hand with multitasking. By planning ahead you can better use every minute. For example: “I’m going to overstock bar A with XYZ so I can concentrate on helping bar B and C with glassware and then I’ll come back to bar A in 45 minutes.”
  • They know “the Dance” – This is something that you can only learn with time behind a busy bar. After a while you begin to develop a sense of when and how to move as a team, sliding past each other without impeding each others movement. Watching a busy bar team that knows how to move together can be like watching a choreographed dance recital, but if one person does not know how to move with the team and someone’s going to be wearing a beer the rest of the night. If you’re brand new, know that this takes time – but paying attention to how everyone in your bar moves and communicates will help you pick it up quickly.

 

 

Traits of a Bad Barback

On the other hand, not every barback is great. Here are some bad habits to avoid:

  • They never quite “get it” – This basically applies to all of the traits listed above. If time goes by and you haven’t developed the traits listed above, you may find the role frustrating and struggle to move up and out of the barback role. Learning is key – if you’re not taking the time to learn as you go, you may want to look at a different position or line of work. (Especially if you want to become a bartender!)
  • Houdini syndrome – Breaks are highly encouraged when things are slow, but if the bartenders are 3 deep and you take that moment to grab a smoke or a Chalupa from Taco Bell, you’re probably not going to last long as a barback.
  • Inability to multitask – If you are only getting one thing done at a time you are going to have a difficult shift and probably not going to make a lot of money at the end of it. While you are standing in front of the dishwasher, waiting for the cycle to complete, you could be clearing the bar top, writing a stock list, replenishing garnish stations, anything other than watching the shiny side of the dishwasher. Be aware of everything going on and make sure your hands are never empty.
  • Try to run before they Crawl –  Some new barbacks are so completely focused on becoming a bartender that they miss many of the basic steps of their position. Instead of wanting to make drinks, pour wine and beer for the pick up window or chat with guests, concentrate on making sure that everything you need to get done is already done. Then maybe you can practice free pouring – if time allows. Dropping the ball on your own job is definitely not going to impress your manager into giving you a bartending shift.
  • Wants to talk to everyone – A restaurant and bar is a very social place and building relationships with regulars and staff is essential, but if you spend most of your time at the host stand or try to spark up conversation with everyone at the bar, you’re probably going to cause a lot of frustration for the bartenders that you work with. Remember your job is to support them, and if they aren’t getting the support they need because you’re chatting up a guest, they will not be happy about it!

 

Choosing Where to Barback:

Still want to give it a try? Before you apply to any bar, it’s important to get a sense of the place:

  • Are the bartenders friendly? (You’ll be working with them!)
  • Is it busy? Which days are the busiest (That’s when you’ll probably be working.)
  • Is the bar more than one story tall? (You’ll be carrying cases of booze up/down those stairs)
  • Is the manager friendly? Do they promote barbacks to bartenders?

A few visits and a couple conversations with the people there can tell you a lot about a bar and can save you a lot of physical and mental stress down the road.

 

 

Make no mistake – barbacking is a tough job. But it’s absolutely vital to our industry and to any high volume bar. And it’s also a fantastic stepping stone to work your way up to a bartending job. If you work hard, pay attention, and try to get better every day, then you’ll make a fantastic barback!

 

What is a Barback? The Ultimate Guide to the Bartender’s Sidekick

“The bar. So gorgeous.” flickr photo by ironypoisoning https://flickr.com/photos/ironypoisoning/13582473975 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Chris Tunstall
Co-Founder of A Bar Above and career bartender and mixologist. I love experimenting, creating cocktails, and drinking Green Chartreuse.