Most bartenders agree with me, one of the hardest parts about becoming a professional bartender is breaking into the industry and landing your first bartending job.
I hear these frustrations all the time:
- How do I become a bartender if I don’t have experience?
- Do I need a bartending license to become a bartender?
- What should I put on my resume?
- How do I look for work? Should I apply for jobs online or apply to bars directly?
- Should I go to bartending school? And what are my alternatives?
These are all valid questions. And believe me, I understand your frustrations! When I was starting out, I went through exactly the same thing.
I always wanted to be a bartender so as soon as I was old enough, I scoured the internet and applied for every bartending job I could find. I was excited, I was ready, and I was confident I’d find a job within a week. But nothing happened.
I didn’t even get a call back for an interview or a reply email informing me that my applications were unsuccessful.
So I gave up and I blamed my lack of experience for being unsuccessful. Sound familiar?
It was the wrong approach and it’s one of the only things I regret about my bartending career. Instead of wasting 3 and a half years fantasizing about tending the bar, I wish I dealt with the rejection like an adult, figured out what I needed to do to, and broke into the industry sooner.
The truth is, I could have become a professional bartender a lot sooner. I just didn’t know how.
An Overview of the Hiring Process
Landing your first hospitality job is essential to becoming a bartender, that much is obvious. The sooner you get a job, the sooner you’ll be getting paid and the sooner you’ll be learning how to tend the bar in a real-world setting.
What might not be as obvious is how valuable learning these job-hunting skills are.
So let me explain.
Knowing that you have the skills & ability to get a job almost anywhere in the world is incredibly liberating. It gives you the freedom to travel long-term without having to worry about money because you’re able to pick up work along the way – one of the many benefits of bartending work.
It also allows you to be more picky about where you work. If you get sick of your current job, you can confidently look for another one. You’re also able to work for better venues and make more money in tips.
Needless to say, these skills are useful. And believe it or not, anyone can learn them. Regardless of your experience, age, IQ, or gender.
It’s a simple process and it’s what I have reliably used throughout my entire career to land almost every single bartending job.
Here’s what that process for becoming a professional bartender looks like:
- Meet the Requirements
- Write a Solid Resume
- Look for Work
- Nail the Interview (not always necessary)
- Smash Your Trial Shift
- Make the Transition
- Live the Dream
Clearly, there’s more to each of these steps. For instance, you need to know what to put on your resume and how to look for work. So let’s take a look at these steps in more detail.
Step 1: Meet the Requirements
One of the best things about bartending is that there aren’t any ‘real‘ barriers to entry. As long as you’re old enough, and you’ve got your bartending license (not always necessary), you can become a professional bartender.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock your whole life, you’re aware that there’s a minimum age requirement to be a bartender. It differs from country to country, and in the United States, it differs from state to state. But generally, it’s between the ages of 18-21.
If you’re not sure what the minimum age is in your country, state or city, check out this break-down here.
The other requirement you may need to get is your bartending license. It’s also called a liquor serving license, alcohol awareness serving license, or responsible service of alcohol certification, depending on where you’re from.
Note: This is NOT to be confused with a bartending certificate you might receive from a bartending school upon graduation. You don’t need one of these to be a bartender.
Basically, these licenses are programs run by a state’s government to certify that you’re aware of how to serve alcohol responsibly.
They’re easy to pass, inexpensive to get, and they take less than a day to complete (usually less than 4 hours). Whether or not you need one depends on where you’re from.
If you’re not sure what the bartending license requirements are in your country, state and/or city, here’s a country to country, state to state breakdown of license requirements around the world.
Step 2: Write a Solid Bartending Resume
Assuming you meet the requirements, it’s time to sort out your resume. I know writing your resume can be a pain, but it’s an essential step in the job-hunting process. Don’t worry though, it doesn’t need to be too complicated.
In fact, some of the best resumes I’ve seen were simple in their design and content. Simple actually works better here because managers are only going to give your resume a quick scan anyway and decide within 30 seconds whether or not they’ll proceed with your application.
That means that if it’s poorly laid out, hard to understand, has spelling errors, it’s too long, or it includes too many irrelevant details, they won’t think twice about throwing it in the bin.
That’s why keeping your resume simple, clear, clean, accurate, and relevant makes a big difference in how successful it will be.
As a general rule, your resume should never be longer than 2 pages. If you can keep it to 1 page, even better. Any longer than that and it’s likely that you’ve included too many unnecessary details.
This is also true when it comes to resumes with fancy designs. Sure, they can work. A fancy design can help your resume stand out in a pile of white pages. But if the design makes it more difficult to read or harder to navigate, it’s not worth it.
Here are some other points to consider:
- DON’T FORGET YOUR CONTACT DETAILS! – you’d be surprised.
- Skip the cover letter and objective – they’re unnecessary.
- Include any special skills (coding, graphic design, marketing, etc) and languages – they’re useful and impressive.
- Detail your education – impressive and who knows, the manager might have a similar background.
- Highlight any work experience you do have (hospitality or not) and relate it to the skills you’ll need as a bartender – customer service, multi-tasking, working in a team, and working your arse off!
For a more detailed look at how to write an irresistible bartender resume, check out this article here.
Step 3: Look for Work
With your resume written, it’s time to get out there and start looking for work. For many of you, this will be the most difficult stage in the hiring process. It certainly was for me…
Don’t be Picky
The biggest mistake you can make when you’re trying to become a professional bartender is being too picky about your first hospitality job. There’s a reason why most bar managers don’t hire bartenders with no hospitality experience – it doesn’t work out well!
Whilst anyone can learn how to become a good bartender, it takes time because there’s a lot to know and do.
Think of it like driving a car for the first time. You’ve got steer, accelerate, break, change gears, and argue with mom & dad, all while keeping an eye on the road, the signs, the mirrors, the traffic lights, and the other cars around you.
Remember, while the above might sound easy now when you’re new to driving, you have to literally think about every move you make. Which pedal is the accelerator? What does that sign mean? Why the f*@% does mom keep telling me to slow down??
There’s even more to think about when you’re a bartender. You’ve got to know the products you serve (beers, wines, spirits, cocktails, food), their prices, and where they’re located in the bar.
You’ve also got to know how to serve & make those drinks (neat, on-the-rocks, the right glassware, the lingo, etc), how to talk to customers, how to change kegs, pour beers, prepare garnishes, polish glassware, use the till/POS system, close down the bar, open the bar, take payments, cut drunks off, etc, etc.
There’s a lot to learn.
That’s why most professional bartenders never started out as bartenders. They started out as servers or barbacks instead, learned the ropes and worked their way up.
And it’s the best way to start!
Firstly, it’s a lot easier to land a job as a barback or server (ie: you don’t need experience!).
Secondly, you get to experience what it’s like working in a bar from the ground up. Instead of jumping behind the bar on a Friday night, getting completely overwhelmed, giving up, and concluding that bartending isn’t for you, you’re able to ease your way into it.
In the long run, you’ll be much better off.
If you’re serious about becoming a professional bartender, give the job some respect and realize that it’s unlikely you’ll be able to jump behind the bar and be an instant superstar. Instead, take what you can get, learn as much as you can and progress into a bartending position later on.
How to Apply
There are several different strategies you can use to look for bartending work. A combination of them will always work best. In particular, I recommend you use both these strategies.
- Job advertisement websites
- The resume dropping method
1. Job advertisement websites:
By job advertisement websites, I mean websites like Craigslist, Gumtree, Seek, and Indeed. Applying for jobs using these sites is one of the easiest ways to look for work – which is why I recommend it.
All you need to do is search for hospitality roles and apply for the jobs that are advertised. Simple.
However, because this strategy is so easy, it’s the least effective and you’re competing against hundreds of other faceless resumes. That’s why you should always combine this strategy with the resume dropping method.
2. The resume dropping method:
This is the most effective job hunting strategy I’ve ever used. It’s so effective that the last time I used it, 8/10 jobs got back to me!
Here’s how it works:
Print off your resume and hit the streets during hospitality’s quieter times – ideally between 3-5pm.
The managers and staff have more time during this period because they won’t have customers breathing down their necks. If you can help it, never apply outside of these times.
Then, all you do is hand in your resume to as many bars, restaurants, cafes, nightclubs, and pubs you can find. When you drop it off, ask to speak with the manager and hand it to them directly.
When you meet the manager, shake their hand firmly, smile, introduce yourself, and ask them how they’re doing. Then tell them a little bit about yourself and why you’re there.
Say that you’re looking for a bartending job and you were wondering if there were any positions available.
He’ll tell you straight away if there is or isn’t. And if there is, tell him that you’d love to come in for an interview or trial shift whenever suits them best. If there isn’t any work available, thank them for their time and ask them to give you a call if anything pops up.
That’s it. Do that with as many venues as you can find during that 2 hour period every day for a week and I can almost guarantee you’ll find a job!
Step 4: Nail the Interview
If your application is successful, the next step is the interview. This is where the manager gets to see what you’re like as a person and whether or not you’d be suitable for their bar.
If there was only one piece of advice I could give you on how to nail your interview, it would be that preparation is KEY to your success.
I know, I know. Preparing for interviews is boring. But you don’t need to spend days studying a venue’s wine list to adequately prepare for a hospo job interview…
Generally, a couple of hours of intentional preparation is more than enough. Not too bad when you consider that preparation could be the difference between you getting the job.
For example, what if your interviewer asks you why you want to work there? (A common interview question you’ll likely be asked.)
If you’re well prepared and you’ve done your research, you’ll be able to respond with an intelligent answer. It could be as simple as something like this,
“I’m passionate about the hospitality industry and I love the craft of cocktails, which is why I want to learn as much as I can. [Insert name of venue] has a great reputation for its professional bar staff and creative cocktail list. So I know that working here will teach me a lot and help me hone my skills as a bartender.”
Finish it off with a bit of humor and you’ve got yourself a well-prepared answer that will go down a treat in an interview.
On the other hand, if you’re unprepared and you haven’t done your research. You’ll struggle to put together an intelligent response.
“Ummmmm… It’s got a cool atmosphere and the staff seem nice.”
Who would you rather hire?
Here are some other pointers that should help:
- Arrive 10 minutes early.
- Make sure you’re well-groomed and dressed appropriately.
- When you arrive, smile, introduce yourself, & shake the manager’s hand – first impressions count and first impressions last.
- Don’t worry if you’re nervous – we all get nervous for interviews.
- Prepare some questions about the job in advance.
For a more detailed look at how to nail your interview, check out this article here.
Step 5: Smash the Trial Shift
If you’ve made it this far, first of all, congratulations – you’ve likely gone through a lot to get here. Now, there’s only one more step in your way before you can start working and getting paid – the trial shift.
The trial shift is the most important stage in the hiring process. It’s where you put your money where your mouth is and the managers get to see whether or not you’re good enough for the job. Needless to say, it’s important that you do well!
I’ve found that there are 7 simple rules to follow for a successful trial shift.
- Come Prepared -Bring what they tell you to bring (e.g. bar blade, wine knife, pen & lighter) and wear what they tell you to wear. If you don’t have these items, go out and purchase them.
- Arrive 10 Minutes Early – This shows your keen, committed & reliable. All good signs to a manager.
- Listen & Ask Questions – Listen to everything the manager tells, you don’t want them to have to repeat themselves later on. If you’re unsure of how to do something or where something, always ask.
- Work Your Arse Off – This is KEY. Make sure you’re always doing something. If you’re not sure what to do, ASK! You should never be seen doing nothing.
- Smile & Be Friendly – Even though you’ll be nervous, do your best to show off your personality and people skills. At the end of the day, bartending is about people so the better you are with them, the more likely you’ll get the job.
- Keep Conversations Short – Don’t get stuck in long-winded conversations because there’s always something to do. See rule No.4.
- Communicate & Stay Out of the Way! – Working behind the bar is a team sport and communication is essential to an effective team. When you’re behind people, yell BACKS so they don’t turn around and run into you. This get’s annoying over time.
For a more detailed look at how to perform well during your trial shift, check out this article here.
Step 6: Make the Transition
Provided you followed my advice in step 3, your first hospitality job will likely be as a barback or server. Great! That means you’re getting paid and learning the fundamentals of working in the hospitality industry.
Now, it’s time to take that final step and become a professional bartender. And that means making the transition from barback/server to bartender.
Essentially, you’ll have to focus on these three things:
- Become the best barback/server anyone has ever seen!
- Learn how to tend the bar before you tend the bar
1. Become the Best barback/server anyone has ever seen
If you can’t perform well in your job as a barback/server first, you’ll never be trusted to perform well in your job as a bartender. It’s as simple as that…
If you’re ever going to get promoted, the most important thing you can do is work on becoming the best barback/server you can be.
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.
2. Learn how to tend the bar before you tend the bar
Sometimes management won’t notice and you’ll have to learn how to tend the bar before you officially tend the bar.
This serves two purposes:
- Management will become aware of how keen you are to bartend.
- You learn the necessary bartending skill-sets so that when you do get your shot, you won’t need any training – an attractive proposition for management. Plus, you’ll feel more confident when you do make the transition.
You can learn the essential bartending skills by reading books, reading blogs, practicing making cocktails at home, and even attending a bartending school on the side. If you’re not sure where to start, I recommend checking out our official bartender’s guide, ‘The Bartender’s Field Manual’ first. It was written for this purpose.
That said, the single best way to learn how to tend the bar is by learning from other bartenders. At work, you should be asking the bartenders questions about EVERYTHING (liquor, cocktails, wine, beer, service, techniques, etc), listening to their answers, and practicing what they teach.
Once you’ve built up a base level of skill, you’ll find that these bartenders will naturally start asking you for your help. They’ll yell “cover the bar” when they run to the bathroom. Or when it get’s busy, they’ll ask you to “jump in and help serve for a second.”
Then before you know it, John calls in sick on Thursday night, management needs another bartender to fill his shoes, they already know you know what you’re doing, who do you think they’re going to call??
Do you see how starting out as a barback/server just works?
Finally, if you’re great at your job, you’ve learned the fundamentals of bartending, and you still haven’t been promoted, it’s time to ask the management team what’s going on.
Ideally, they’ll already know where your interests lie. If they don’t, now’s the time to let them know. It could be as simple as asking 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 work hard in all those areas and ask again a few weeks later.
A Word on Bartending School
It’s natural to wonder whether or not bartending school is worth it. On one hand, they teach you the basics of bartending. On the other hand, they’re expensive.
If you don’t mind spending the money, these schools are great. Among other things, you learn the theory of alcohol and how to make cocktails under the supervision of a trained professional.
Plus, learning it now means you won’t have to spend as much time learning it later.
But here’s the thing, bartending school won’t help you get a job. Whether you attend a school or not, you’ll still be starting out at 0 when it comes to the job hunt. Unfortunately, the fact that you’ve graduated from a bartending school means nothing in the real world.
In some cases, bar managers actually discriminate against graduates!
So if you’re going to attend one, make sure you do it for the right reason – to learn the basics of bartending. Not as a shortcut into a bartending job – it won’t work.
If you don’t want to spend the money (don’t blame you), your best alternative is a solid bartender’s guide, like this one, combined with on-the-job experience as a barback or server first. First of all, it’s a lot cheaper. Second of all, a solid bartender’s guide will teach you exactly what you would learn at a bartending school anyway.
The biggest difference is that you won’t have the supervision of a bartending instructor. Instead, your colleagues at work will be there to answer all your questions.
Step 7: Live the Dream
If you love to socialize, travel, and party, bartending will be one of the best jobs you ever have. It gives you the freedom to travel the world, make great money, socialize for a living and learn an interesting craft.
You also learn invaluable life skills and make a bunch of great friends along the way.
Once you have 1-2 years of bartending experience behind you, the world literally opens up and bars will be lining up to hire you. If you’re good at your job, that is.
Using the job-hunting system detailed above, there’s no reason why you can’t become a professional bartender within 6 months.
It will take some work on your end. But when you’re bartending in the French Alps, making $600 in tips a night, and traveling the world, you’ll know it was worth it ;-).