Barback to Bartender: How to Get Behind the Stick
So you’re a Barback – Now What?
With all due respect – chances are pretty good you didn’t become a barback because you want to barback. You became a barback because someone told you it’s a great way to get bar experience so you can work up to bartending. And they were right.
But becoming a barback is just step one. Here’s how you can do your job well and move up to the stick quickly, so you can get started doing the job you really want.
Be a Great Barback
The quickest way to kill your chances at getting a bartending shift is to be a bad barback. Bartending is seen as the next step – why would they promote someone who can’t succeed at a simpler job?
The Bartender’s Assistant
In a way, a barback is the bartender’s assistant. That means you’ll do the work the bartender doesn’t have time for, because he/she is making drinks. It also means that the best barbacks – just like the best assistants – will keep an eye out for what the bartender needs before they ask.
- Watch for bottles getting low or garnish that you’re about to run out of and replenish them
- Are there any messes that need cleaning up?
- Is there a pile of glassware that needs washing?
It’s all about the Attitude
You can always train someone to make great cocktails, but you can’t train someone to have a good attitude. Being a barback is hard – sometimes grueling – work. But the difficulty of the job can be a great way to see someone’s real personality shine through, quickly.
Do your job with a smile on your face. Pay attention to what’s happening around you and show that you’re interested in learning and growing. If they offer training, ask to join, even if it’s intended for bartenders only. If you can show initiative in everything you do while keeping a positive attitude, it’ll be a giant step towards getting your name on the bartending schedule.
Positioning for a Shift
Once you’ve established that you’re a hard worker and a great member of the team, you can start making a case with management to get your first shift. From a manager’s perspective, by now you should have established yourself as someone with a good attitude – but he / she won’t necessarily have the confidence that you’re ready to take over as a bartender. It’s your job to fill this knowledge gap and build the manager’s confidence.
Always be Learning
As I mentioned earlier, you’re barbacking mainly to learn how bars work and understand the ropes. So it makes sense to make the most of this opportunity.
- If the bartenders are invited to a training event, ask to join – even if it’s on your own time.
- Before or after your shift, practice your speed-pouring with water in an emptied liquor bottle
- Even though you aren’t making drinks, make sure you know the recipes for the house cocktails and common drinks.
- Watch the more experienced bartenders and watch how they make drinks. If there is one bartender who is particularly quick, watch them to find out what they are doing differently. The same applies if there is one bartender that makes a higher tip percentage than the rest, watch them to find out how they are doing it.
- Ask the bartender if you can help fill beer, wine, ice tea and soda orders. This will give you experience with pouring the right amounts and help you learn the rhythm of the bar.
If you want a bartending shift but nobody knows, it’s not going to help you. Make sure your manager is aware of your long-term goals, and check in regularly. It doesn’t hurt to ask – “What skills do you think I need before I can be eligible for a Bartending shift?”
Finally, offer to take on the shift that nobody wants. Usually this will be a very slow shift, like Monday lunch or Sunday afternoon. Not only will nobody fight you for it, but the manager should feel more comfortable giving it to a “new” bartender since it is likely to be slow.
Your First Shift
So you got a Monday lunch shift – or someone called in sick. Either way, you’re in! Ideally you’ll be working alongside a more seasoned bartender who can show you the ropes. Here are a couple things to keep in mind.
- Listen carefully and learn quickly. There’s a lot to learn – pay attention to the other bartender and try not to ask twice. You thought being a barback was hard – now you have to do the dishes and make the drinks!
- Keep Busy. Behind the bar, you are never done. There are dishes to clean, garnish to prep and bottles to dust. If you don’t see anything, ask the other bartender if there’s anything you can do – it will show that you’re a hard worker and will give you another opportunity to learn while someone is there to guide you.
- If it gets busy, get out of the way. This is a but of a judgment call between doing your best to help and knowing when to just “stand back.” If it gets busy the bartenders on shift will fall into their well-choreographed pattern, and you may do more harm than good if trying to help.
… and You’re in!
Congratulations, you survived barbacking and made your way into a “real” bartending job! In some cities this is a very tough road to maneuver, so you should be proud.
Keep working hard, keep a good attitude, and remember that the job is all about hospitality and hustle – and you’ll do just fine.
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