So, you want to become a bartender? Maybe it’s because you’ve heard the rumors of the “mad” money these wizards make slinging drinks. Maybe you’ve been wowed and inspired by a bartender or mixologist (yes, they are different things) and decided that you want to do that. Either way, bartending can be an extremely fun and profitable career choice, however it’s not for everyone.
For most people becoming a bartender will constitute a change of lifestyle and will also come with the need to learn a whole new trade. Even the keenest of home bartenders can find it difficult behind an actual bar. The reasons? There are multiple differences between other careers and careers in the service industry and we’ll cover them and everything else you need here.
Do You Have to Have a License to Be a Bartender?
There is no license required for bartending in the United States, although Responsible Alcohol Training is mandatory in most states. The aim of this is to provide bartenders and servers with the skills, knowledge and confidence to protect customers from becoming overly intoxicated. The most widely accepted version of this is the TiPS Alcohol Training Certification. As of June 2018 the online TiPS course cost $40.
If you work in a location that serves food a Food Safety Certification may be required. Requirements vary by state and this can mean different courses from different agencies.
Your work location will ask if you’re TiPS and Food Safety Certified and you’ll provide them with your cards to copy and keep on file. In many states you have 30 days from the day you start working to obtain these certifications.
Top Tip: Even if you’re in a state where Responsible Alcohol Training isn’t mandatory it’s good to get certified, and not only for the educational aspect. If one of your patrons gets into an alcohol related accident and harms themselves or someone else being properly trained is the basis of a good defense if any charges get pressed against you. See Dram Shop Laws for more information.
How Much Does It Cost to Go to Bartending School?
Bartending schools are available in most major US cities and prices usually fall between $200-$400 but can be higher. The quality and duration of courses vary with the price. Cheaper courses are usually less reputable, but that does not signify a lower quality. Do some research on courses, what they included and how others have rated them. Look for renowned magazines or industry professionals taking note of a course; it’s usually a good sign.
Online courses are much cheaper than bartending schools, falling in the range of $30-$100. These are usually full of information on spirits, cocktails, their histories and cocktailing techniques. I have taken, and recommend, BarSmarts by Pernod Ricard, preceded by their BarStarts course.
How Much Schooling Does it Take to Be a Bartender?
You need zero schooling to become a bartender because bartending is a skill that is learnt rather than taught. Although schooling can definitely be advantageous if one wants to become a mixologist instead of a bartender (more on the difference later) it is not required.
It is worth noting here that there are two distinct camps when it comes to bartending school. The first camp is made up of those who think bartending schools are next to useless. They believe that bartending is a skill and a craft that has to be learnt and a position that has to be earned. The second camp consists of those who see the value of bartending school and the solid basis which it can give a person wishing to make a career of bartending or mixology.
I myself, give some context to this article, sit very close to the first camp. Whilst I can see the benefits of bartending school for creating a knowledge base I know, from experience, that good bartending is a skill, an art form, perfected through years of trial and error.
What Kind of Experience do You Need to Be a Bartender?
It’s rare that anyone will hire a bartender who has no trade experience. Schools will teach you cocktail recipes, a wide variety of terminology, and will give you an insight into the different aspects of bartending. However, no amount of education can train you to actually tend bar.
Tending bar is not something that can be taught it is something that has to be learnt; like carpentry or metal work it is a skill learned and honed through practice.
Almost all the bartenders you’ve ever met will have either begun their careers as a barback or will have been a server for an extended period before moving behind the bar. Expect to have to follow this route.
How Much Can You Make as a Bartender?
You’ve probably heard of bartenders making crazy money -up to and over $100,000PA- for the job they do, maybe that’s what inspired you to look into bartending as a career. Whilst the above may be true it is not universal. A bartender’s wage mainly consists of tips and is therefore dependent on business volumes, check total and customer generosity. There are multiple factors that can affect how much a bartender makes. The major ones are explained here:
Actual Wages: Tipped employees receive a lower minimum wage than other minimum wage employees, as they’re expected to make it up with their tips. In fact, as a percentage, the pay a bartender receives from their employer is often negligible compared to their tips.
The Shifts You Work: No set salary means that if you don’t work you don’t get paid and pay varies by volume. Evening shifts, for obvious reasons, are busier and more profitable. A Friday night is predictably going to be busier than a Tuesday or Wednesday daytime shift.
Business Volume: Friday and Saturday nights are busy because that’s when most people go out to the bar; and more customers equals more tips. Tuesday day is slow because everyone is in work, and no one wants to day drink on a Tuesday -besides industry folk- be it day or night. They save it for the weekend.
Where You Work: Where you work will affect business volumes. Do you work on the outskirts of town or in a busy city center? Not only where it is located but the general popularity of your location will also have an effect on your business volumes and your earnings.
Where You Work: Yes, the same title again. If you work in a dive bar pouring $2 drafts and serving $6 wing baskets your check average is going to be low, as is that 20%. If you work in a chic cocktail bar you might have fewer customers but $15 drinks and $25 entrées make for a bigger check, and, therefore, a bigger tip.
These factors all affect the amount of tips you could potentially earn and therefore your potential wage. In the service industry we think about how much we earn a night or a shift, not per week or month. In the right place you can walk with up to $400 on a Friday night, but you can leave that Wednesday night shift with only $50 in your pocket.
Top Tip: It’s worth noting that in no other job does how you do it so directly affect your pay. Sure, if you’re slow or forgetful in a desk job then you may not get a good performance review and a raise. Boo hoo. However, if a bartender cannot take care of their customers properly, realize their needs, keep his bar clean, provide the information customers want and a multitude of other factors his tips -and therefore his pay- decreases. In no other job can your pay be so impacted.
Also, if you’re performance isn’t up to standard then you’ll find yourself dropped from the busier shifts (which are the more profitable) to ones which suit your skill set and speed of work. This is nothing against you, it’s just business. This is the service industry after all.
The following points come from my years of experience working in and running bars. If you’re considering bartending as a career change or just as a side gig then all of these are points worth considering.
Bartending is Hard but Enjoyable
Shifts are long and you don’t get off your feet until you’re finished. Breaks are dictated by business volume and things can change drastically within 2 minutes and if you’re not on top of your game then you’ll be playing catch up (which is not fun).
Working in the service industry is a very different work environment to what many are used to. It is mentally and physically stimulating all at once and when you’ve finished you definitely feel like you’ve earned your money.
Say Hello to Your New Family!
If this is a career change for you then you’re going to have to say goodbye to your old friends, and you’ll also be saying goodbye to weekends and public holidays. Your schedule will change completely to working long hours, nights, every weekend, and all public holidays. Why? Because this is when everyone else goes out! Also, this is where that “mad” money is made.
As a result, the people you work with will become your family. We’re a mismatched group in the service industry and the trade (the long hours, odd days off and hard work) can do things to people that other work environments don’t.
My Five Core Principles of Bartending
Attentiveness. Organization. Knowledge. Teamwork. Skill.
These are what I believe make the foundation of a good bartender. There are other necessary skills (explained below) but here’s a run through of these and why they’re important.
Attentiveness: Your guests are there to be served. If you can’t remember names, look ahead and see when refills will be needed, know when guests are close to finishing their food, or remember to check on them during their meal then this job isn’t meant for you.
Organization: A bar is a shared space, between you and your colleagues on this shift and on the next. There is a reason that everything is where it is; physical organization helps to keep your mind organized. Time organization and planning is also an essential part of bartending. Being able to foresee the future order of events and organize them to keep everyone happy is key.
Knowledge: It goes without saying that a good knowledge of beer, wine, soft drinks, liqueur, liquor, cocktails etc., is essential when bartending. Local knowledge is also a necessity what’s on, where to go, how to get around, etcetera. A bartender is a trusted source of information that people turn to; even before asking Google.
Teamwork: It’s rare that you’re alone on your bar while you’re working and in reality, you never are. Again, a bar is a shared space, someone will work it with you, someone will work it before you and someone will work it after you. You’re a team, be it on the same shift or not, and working together makes things immensely easier for all parties involved.
Skill: Bartending is almost an art form. Like with any other art, the basics will be taught to you and you will hone the skill over time. That is not only the skill of making a good cocktail. It also includes the skills of entertaining and appeasing guests and the skills of time organization and order juggling.
Other Necessary Skills for Bartending
Bartending is a job which requires you to be multi-faceted, personal yet distant. Some people will already be adept at the following things, some will have to acquire them.
Conversational Skills: People expect you to be interesting and to be able to carry a conversation. People also expect you to know when you shouldn’t be involved in their conversation.
Sports Knowledge: You should know what’s on when and have your TV’s primed so people don’t have to ask for it. You should probably also know last night’s score, you will be asked and just knowing earns you brownie points.
Humility: You can have principles but, generally, you should be neutral as a bartender. It’s alright arguing politics and sports at the bar, but as the person behind the sticks you should be detached from the emotions in the conversations happening on the other side.
Tactful: The enjoyment of your guests is your priority and your tips are based on this. If someone is having a bad night or an argument is boiling over it’s your job to turn things around. Knowing when and how to intervene is the sign of a good bartender.
Different Locations, Different Bartenders
There are different styles of bar, from dive bars to high-end cocktail bars, and each requires a different style of bartender. You can be blunter and more social and opinionated with your local dive bar guests whilst high-end cocktail bar guests expect more sophistication.
Bartender vs Mixologist
A bartender is a person who can make a good variety of drinks and will ensure that you’ll enjoy yourself at their bar; it’s what most people look for when they go to a bar. A mixologist is someone who has perfected the art of mixing drinks, knows almost every spirit out there, what it tastes like and what it’ll do in a cocktail. In short, a mixologist is someone who makes drinks you’ll never forget, a bartender is someone who’ll give you a time you’ll never forget.
Being a bartender is fun! The learning curve is short yet steep, and the lifestyle change is what eventually puts many off. If you enjoy hard work and can handle the lifestyle change then bartending could be for you. Mentioned above are the bartender and the mixologist and these are two very different routes you can go down if you’re looking at this as a career choice. I’ve been doing this for over ten years and I love it! Like everything else you do in life, you have to enjoy it to do it well!