When you’re learning how to become a bartender, breaking into the industry is one of the most frustrating problems you’ll face. I hear people complain about this all the time, “How the hell do I land a bartending job when every venue requires me to have a minimum of 2 years experience…”
These frustrations are understandable but there’s a simple way around it. Start out as a barback first.
Some people don’t like to hear this (especially if they’ve been to bartending school), but starting out as a barback is seen as the most RELIABLE way to break into the industry and become a bartender.
Even bartending schools recommend that their students start out as a barback first…
For one, you don’t need any experience to be a barback. It’s an entry-level position and anyone can do it. But the main reason is because no other position will prepare you for what it’s like to be a bartender than working as a barback will…
So today we’re going to look at this position in detail. And then we’re going to go through what you need to do to be an awesome barback so you can become a bartender as quick as possible.
Let’s get to it.
What is a barback?
Essentially, a barback is the bartender’s assistant. They’re the humble servant there to help the bartender sell as much booze as possible. They do the grunt work, the heavy lifting, and they’re often the hardest working staff members behind any bar.
You’ll often see them hunched over the dishwasher cleaning glasses, mopping up vomit, fetching stock, cutting fruit, carrying beer cases, collecting glasses, changing kegs, and doing any other job that no-one else wants to do.
That’s what they’re there for. They’re there to help the bartenders in any way they possibly can.
But the truth is, being a barback is so much than that. If you approach this position correctly, you’re more like the bartender’s apprentice than their assistant because you get to learn what it’s like to work behind the bar from the bartenders themselves.
This kind of experience is invaluable when you’re starting out and it’s the main reason why so many industry professionals recommend breaking into the industry as a barback first.
Why starting out as a barback is a good idea
Like I mentioned earlier, you don’t need any experience to be a barback so it’s a great way to break into the industry and get your foot in the door. But the main reason why you would want to start out as a barback is because it will prepare you for what it’s like to be a bartender better than any other position in the industry.
You’ll learn how to be quick & efficient in all of your movements, you’ll learn how to work hard, put up with shit, work under pressure, the bartender lingo, product knowledge, bartending techniques, what good service really means, and you’ll get to learn all of this from bartenders working in the industry.
It’s impossible to learn this kind of stuff by reading books or attending bartending classes. You’ll only learn this from experience and that’s why starting out as barback is a good idea.
It also means that you’ll be getting paid from day one. This is HUGE when you’re looking for a job. Suddenly, that bartending course/school/book doesn’t seem too expensive because when you’ve got some money coming through, they’re NOT!
And finally, even though you have to put up with some shit as a barback, it’s worth it. Not only is copping shit great for your ego, but it will earn you the respect of your fellow bartenders. Almost every decent bartender started out as a barback first so we all know what it’s like.
You’ll also find that when you look back on your time as a barback, you’ll crack a smile and laugh. Even though it can suck in the moment, being a barback is bloody fun!
Barback to Bartender – How to get Behind the Stick
Progressing into a bartending position requires patience, hard work, practical experience, mental fortitude (you’re going to cop shit), and being ok with it.
Essentially, going from barback to bartender requires you focus on these three steps:
- BECOME THE BEST BARBACK ANYONE HAS EVER SEEN!
- Learn EVERYTHING you can
That’s really all there is to it. But like most things in life, these things are easier said than done. So let’s take a look at these steps in detail.
1) Be an Awesome Barback
If you’re a terrible barback, what do you think your chances are of being promoted into a bartending position?
Next to zero…
If you can’t perform in your job as a barback, you’ll never be trusted to perform in your job as a bartender. It’s as simple as that… So if you’re ever going to get promoted, the most important thing you need to do is become the best barback anyone has ever seen.
More often than not, you won’t need to do anything else. The management team will notice that you were born for this and they’ll want to train you up as a bartender because of it.
Here’s what you need to focus on to become a great barback.
Everywhere you work as a barback will be different. Some jobs will require you to clean the toilet, some will require you to run food, some will require you to collect glasses, and others will just want you washing dishes behind the bar.
It’s important that you figure out what’s expected of you in the beginning. That way, you’ll know exactly what to do to prove you’re worthy of a bartending position. If necessary, write what’s expected of you down (I’m serious), so you don’t have to keep on asking.
Here are some duties you’ll probably need to do regardless of where you work:
- Top up the ice wells (there’s nothing worse than running out of ice) – You’ll need to find out where the ice machine is.
- Wash & polish glassware
- Re-stock the bar: Top up garnishes, fruits, liquor bottles, condiments, napkins, coasters, straws, towels, fridges, beer, wine. – You’ll need to find out where the stock rooms are located.
- Prepare fruit, cut garnishes, pre-mix spirits.
- Change Kegs (if/when they need changing – the bartender will usually yell out)
- Empty the trash
- Clean as you go – even if you didn’t make the mess. You want to go above and beyond in everything that you do.
- Anything else the management team or bartenders tells you to do.
Remember, all of this is GREAT for your ego ;-).
Have you ever wondered how bartenders and barbacks manage to work so quickly together in such a small space without ever crashing into each other?
The answer, my friend, is communication.
Whenever they walk/run/appear behind someone, they’ll yell “BACKS!” or “BEHIND!” to let their colleagues know they’re there. It’s important that you start doing the same because there’s nothing more frustrating than constantly crashing into the ‘new guy.’
You want to avoid being that guy you as much as possible.
You’ll also need to yell out “BACKS!” or “BEHIND!” whenever you’re behind someone in the kitchen.
At the end of the day, the goal of the barback is to make the life of the bartender as EASY as possible. When it’s busy, the bartender shouldn’t have to think about anything else other than serving people.
You, the barback, should be doing everything else without them needing to ask. In other words, you should be anticipating the bartender’s every need.
To the bartender, it should appear that the ice wells are magically topped up, the spirit bottles, fruit, garnishes and fridges constantly full, the bar top sparkling clean, and the bins should seem like they’re bottomless pits.
The reason being, you’re doing all of this and the only way you’ll get this good is through experience (yes, unfortunately, it won’t happen over night). You’ll need to know the bar like the back of your hand and you’ll need to know the bartender’s job almost as well as they do.
This is the kind of level you should focus on getting to because these are the barbacks that naturally get promoted. Not the lazy barback that has to be told to do anything…
2) Learn EVERYTHING you can
More often than not, becoming an awesome barback will be enough to get you noticed and pushed into a bartender’s role. But sometime’s it’s not. Sometimes you’ve also got to show management how keen you are to be a bartender.
The best way to do this is by learning how to tend the bar before you officially tend the bar.
There are a few ways you can do this. You can read books, blogs, take a bartending course, practice at home, or even attend bartending school on the side. If you’re really interested in learning the craft of bartending, I recommend you do these things anyway.
But the single best way to learn how to tend the bar is by learning from the bartenders you work with. You should be asking your fellow bartenders question about EVERYTHING (liquor, cocktails, wine, beer, service, techniques, etc), listening to their answers, practicing what they teach, and observing their every movement.
Once you’ve built up a base level of skill, you’ll find that the bartenders will naturally ask you for help. They’ll say “cover the bar” when they run to the bathroom. Or when things start getting busy, they’ll ask you to “jump in and help for a second.”
Then before you know it, John calls in sick on Thursday night, management needs another bartender to fill his shoes, they know you already know how to tend the bar, who do you think they’re going to call??
Do you see how going from barback to bartender just works? That is, if you approach being a barback in the right way…
Finally, if you’ve become a great barback, you’ve learned everything about tending the bar, and you still haven’t been promoted, it’s time to ASK the management team what you need to do to get there.
Ideally, you’ll have already let them know that this is where your interest lies. But even if you haven’t, if you’ve followed step 1 and step 2, it should be pretty obvious by now. So simply remind them that you want to be a bartender and ask them this question,
“I really want to be a bartender, do you think I’m ready?”
If they say no, ask them what you need to improve on to be ready. Then go out of your way to be awesome in those areas and ask them again a few weeks later.
Whatever happens, don’t skip this step! Because you don’t want to wake up in 2 years time and find that you’re still a barback.
A Word of Caution
This industry isn’t perfect. Some bars and managers are dodgy and they might try & screw you over. For example, they’ll lie to your face saying that they intend to promote you ‘when the time is right,’ even though they never will.
They’ll play the excuse of being fully staffed behind the bar but in the mean time, they’ll be hiring other full-time bartenders in front of you.
This is why it’s so important to continually ask management when/if they’re going to promote you. You want to find out if they’re screwing you over as soon as possible so you can go find work elsewhere.
**Note** This only matter if you’re a great barback and you’ve learned the basics of bartending. If you’re not there yet, see step 1 & 2.
Fortunately, these kinds of situations are rare, but if you suspect it’s happening to you, talk with your fellow bartenders and get their opinion. Ask them how long it took them to progress into a bartending position and you should get your answer.
If you find out that you’re getting screwed, leave. They’ll likely never promote you so start looking for work elsewhere. And rest assured, the experience you’ve gained from working there will still be valuable for your next job so it’s not like you’ll be starting again from zero.
If you’re lucky, you might even land a bartending position and skip the role of the barback forever!
How Long Will it Take?
Anywhere from 3-6 months of full-time work should be long enough to become a solid barback and learn the basics of bartending. If I were you, I’d be aiming to progress into a bartending position around the 6-month mark.
That being said, if you’re lucky enough to land a barback position in a high-end, high-volume craft cocktail bar, it’s going to take longer. In fact, it could take as long as a year because you’ll need to learn a lot more until you’re good enough to step up behind the stick.
But that’s a good thing. Because the more you can learn in the beginning, the better. As it will make every subsequent bar you work in that much easier.
And let me know how you go. Also, if you’ve already gone from barback to bartender before, make sure you let everyone know how you did it in the comments section below. I’m sure we’ll find it useful!