Starting out behind the bar can be rough. While making mistakes is a given, there are certain steps you can take to make your learning curve a little bit smoother. From a veteran of the bartending scene, here are eight essential pieces of advice to help all you new bartenders.
1. It’s okay to ask for help.
This is true in almost every field and especially behind the bar. Asking a barback to help you move a keg or an experienced bartender for pointers on technique is totally normal. Don’t come to work unprepared (have your main drink recipes memorized and always have your wine key/bottle opener), but asking for help when you really need it will help you learn faster.
2. If you don’t know a drink, be honest.
Even if you have a hundred cocktail recipes memorized, you will one day be asked to make an unfamiliar cocktail. In this situation, the best policy is honesty. Admit that you are not familiar with the drink in question. Often, the bar guest can tell you how to make it. If not, you can always look up the drink recipe on your phone or in a reference book at the bar. You learn a new drink, and it makes your guest feel extra knowledgeable.
3. If you’re getting your ass kicked, adjust.
Many new bartenders want to do everything perfectly. A ten-minute shake on a Ramos Gin Fizz, pristine ice for each drink, a perfectly measured lemonade. But when you are in the weeds, sometimes done is better than perfect. When giving drink recommendations, suggest a simpler cocktail. Push wine sales. Try to get multiple drink orders at a time, so you can build drinks more efficiently. Don’t lower your standards, but adjust your service to accommodate the situation.
4. Get to work early.
One of the hardest parts of bartending, especially when you are starting out, is all the prep work involved in setting up a bar. Depending on the bar, you may have assistance from barbacks and bar managers, but you will still be expected to prepare garnishes, syrups, batches, and stock/re-stock the bar. Giving yourself extra time is crucial. Glasses break, bars get slammed all at once, and computers go down, so anything you can do to be ready will help you manage the inevitable crises.
5. It’s okay to interrupt people.
Tending bar is a little different than serving tables. When you walk up to a table, guests usually pause their conversation and give you their attention if they need something. At the bar, that’s not the case. Many times, bar customers will be in the midst of a conversation but also ready to order another round. Interrupt politely by offering another drink. If you wait for a lull in the conversation, you could be there all night.
6. There is always something to do.
Whenever you have a spare moment at the bar, find something to do. Can syrups be topped off? Or bottles polished? Or straws restocked? If there is no side work to do, taking the time to engage with customers can be a great way to build your clientele. Not only will you look good to your managers, but you will also keep your momentum going. Keeping your energy up is really important because you never know when you will get a rush and need to gear up.
7. Your energy is the bar’s energy.
On that note, be aware of your energy because it can be contagious. At the bar, you are the host of the party. If you are angry, frustrated, or stressed, often that emotion will be absorbed by your customers and reflected back at you. When you are feeling negative, try your best to fake it. All it takes is one nice customer to turn your night around.
There will come a shift when you are so busy and overwhelmed that you want to cry. But instead of tears, try taking a deep breath. Yes, multitasking is important, but it is a skill you will improve upon over time. When you feel completely overwhelmed, breathe and focus on the next task at hand. It’s okay to do one thing at a time when you are starting out. Make sure to acknowledge your guests, so they know you are there, but it’s your bar. If guests can see that you are busy, 95 percent of people don’t mind waiting a few extra minutes.