Server to Bartender: How to Make the Transition

Some people think I’m joking when I tell them that if they want to become a bartender, they should look for serving jobs first. It sounds odd to someone who’s never worked in the hospitality industry before… They think “Why would I serve tables when I want to work behind the bar… Why don’t I just start there?

The problem with this approach is that most bartending positions require you to have experience. Believe it or not, being a bartender is hard and it takes some skill.

There’s a lot you need to know, there’s a lot you need to do, and it’s going to get stressful. So jumping behind the bar when you don’t have any hospitality experience is a recipe for disaster…

That’s why I recommend to newbies that they start out as a server or barback first because you don’t need any experience and it’s a lot easier to transition into a bartending role from there.

So today, we’re going to look at the server’s position in detail. We’re going to look at what you need to do to become an awesome server so you can make the transition from server to bartender as quick as possible.

Let’s get to it.

What does a Server do?

A waiter/server is someone who serves guests at their tables. They’ll greet customers when they arrive, seat them at their table, take their orders, bring them their food & drinks, and overall, ensure that their experience is as memorable as possible.

That’s why you mainly see servers working in venues that serve food (i.e. restaurants, cafes, pubs, etc). But you’ll also see servers working in higher end bars that want to give their guests the table service experience.

For someone new to the industry, it’s a great position to start out in. It will teach you how to manage tables, serve guests, provide outstanding customer service, and you’ll learn how to work within the hospitality industry in general.

When your interest lies behind the bar, it’s also one of the most reliable ways to get your foot in the door and eventually progress into the bartender’s role.

To start as a Barback or Server?

At this point, it’s normal to wonder what position would be better to start off in, barback or server. But before I explain the differences, I want to make one thing clear.

When you have no experience and you’re trying to break into the hospitality industry, DON’T be picky. Take what you can get, build some initial skills, accumulate some experience, and then go from there.

If you get offered a server position, take it! And if you get offered a barback position, take that one too!

Even when you’re looking for entry-level positions, it can take time to land a job. And the sooner you start working, learning how the industry works, and getting paid, the better.

That being said, if you’re lucky enough to have a choice between a barback or server position, take the barback position. Between the two, it will better prepare you for your time behind the stick and it’s easier to go from barback to bartender than it is from server to bartender.

One of the problems you’ll find when you make the transition from server to bartender is that you might have to be a barback first. You might have to go from server to barback to bartender because working behind the bar requires a different set of skills than working on the floor.

That means it’s going to take longer…

That’s why it’s better to start out as a barback. But that doesn’t mean you should neglect serving positions. Being a server will still teach you a lot. You’ll also get paid more than barbacks, you’ll learn how to better interact with customers and in the long run, you’ll become a more versatile bartender for it.

Bartending Vs Serving

Bartending Vs Serving

Although many of the skills you develop as a server will be transferable to your time behind the bar, there is a difference.

The biggest difference is how servers and bartenders work. Servers spend most of their time in their ‘section’ alone and they’re directly responsible for their guests’ experience. If something goes wrong, it’s their fault. On the other hand, if all goes well, they’ll likely be compensated for it.

Whereas bartenders work within a team and they don’t have to worry about the guests’ experience as much. They’ll spend less than a minute with each customer before moving onto the next and if anything goes wrong, there will usually be someone around to help them out.

Bartenders & servers will also focus on learning different things. Bartenders will learn more about drinks (cocktails, spirits, coffee, beer, & wine), whereas servers will focus more on food and service.

Finally, the type of clientele bartenders and servers work with are often different. Of course, the type of clientele you serve will depend on where you work, but in general, servers deal with a more sophisticated crowd as well as children & families. Whereas bartenders are more likely to deal with rowdy drunks, uni students, and anyone that loves a drink.

Even though these positions have their differences, being a server will still teach you A LOT about bartending. You might not get to make cocktails or change kegs, but you’ll learn a ton about customer service, you’ll learn how to work under pressure, and you’ll learn enough about drinks to be dangerous.

All of these skills are essential to being a great bartender which is why starting out as a server first works so well on your journey to becoming a bartender.

From Server to Bartender – Making the transition

Making the transition from waiter to bartender requires patience, hard work, experience, and mental fortitude (you’re going to cop shit!). The process is slightly different than going from barback to bartender, but the same principles apply:

  2. Learn the Basics of Bartending
  3. Ask

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 a Great Server

If you’re a terrible server, you’ve got no hope of being promoted into a bartending position. The bar manager won’t want you behind the bar if you can’t show them that you’re a decent server first.

So the most important step is to become the best server you possibly can. You’ve got to prove that you’re worthy of a bartending position by showing that you’re a hard worker, you’re willing to learn, you’re good with people, and that you can be a great server first.

Once you’ve proved yourself worthy, progressing into a bartending position will be relatively easy.

Here’s what you should focus on to become a great server.

The Duties

Waiter serving a customer

Everywhere you work, being a server will be slightly different. Some positions will require you to run food whereas others will prefer that you stay put in your own section the entire time. It’s important to find out what’s expected of you in the beginning so you can excel in those areas as quick as possible.

That being said, you’ll find that the majority of serving positions will require you to go through the same process with each of your customers over and over again.

Here’s what that process might look like:

  • Greet guests with a warm smile. Then seat them, hand them menus (if there isn’t a host), and ask if they’d like tap, bottled or sparkling water (no judgement here).
  • Take your guest’s food & drink orders. Write EVERYTHING down (Note down any allergies too). Messing up orders is one of the most annoying things you can do as a waiter. No-one likes receiving the wrong food after they’ve waited for so long and chefs hate making the wrong food even more… So it’s very important that you write everything down.
  • Put those orders through the POS system (Inform the chef and bar of any allergies and any unclear details).
  • Run food and drinks to tables. Ask the guests if everything is good with their food. If it’s not, do something about it (talk with a manager if necessary).
  • Clear tables (empty glasses and finished plates), wipe down tables, reset tables.
  • Polish cutlery, plates, glasses (when there’s nothing else to do).

Overtime, you’ll develop your own system for doing things. But this is how I used to approach serving tables.

What you need to Learn

There’s a specific set of skills that servers need to be competent in if they wish to excel in their job. Most of these skills are basic and you don’t need any prior experience to develop them. So as long as you practice them whenever you have the chance, you’ll learn them fairly easily.

Here’s are a few things that you’ll need to master:

  • Memorize the menus – Of all the things you’ll learn as a server, learning the menu off by heart will be the most useful. It will save you precious time when your guests ask you questions because you won’t have to run to kitchen/bar to ask the chef/bartenders questions. This includes the drink menu, the food menu, and the wine list (if it’s an extensive wine list, you don’t need to know everything. As long as you know the wines by the glass, that’s good enough).
  • Learn how to carry 3 plates and use a tray! – Carrying 3 plates and using a tray is essential as it allows you to quickly clear tables and run food/drinks out faster. You’ll also be seen as a rookie until you have mastered these skills. So if you can’t do this already, practice carrying 3 plates at home (don’t worry, we’ve all done it). And use the tray whenever you get the chance. Even if you’re only carrying one drink at a time, this practice will still be helpful.
  • Learn how to serve wine professionally – This includes presenting wine to tables, opening corked wine, opening sparkling wine, decanting wine, and topping up wine glasses as you go. It’s important that you ask a senior staff member to show you how to do this.
  • Use the power of suggestion – As a server, it’s important that you suggest items on the menu to your guests (this includes any specials). Not only will your guests appreciate it, but the owners will love you for making extra sales. That doesn’t mean you need to be pushy (you shouldn’t). Simply suggest/ask your guests if they’d like another drink when their glass is empty, offer entree’s & desserts, and suggest they look at the wine list. They can make the final decision from there.
Person carrying a tray

It’s all about the People

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, being a server is all about the people. Everything you do is aimed at giving your guests the best experience possible.

That’s why a lot of what you learn how to do as a server is customer service orientated. Using the power of suggestion, serving wine, and memorizing the menu is all so you can better serve your guests.

If you were to take it one step further, building relationships with your guests would be the next step. The more your customers like you, the better. Not only will it improve their experience by making them feel at home, appreciated, and looked after, but they’ll also spend more money and tip you better too.

That’s why developing your people skills is important. You don’t want to become the grumpy server that everyone complains about. Be the server that everyone loves instead.

Of course, it takes time to develop these skills. But to start, you should focus on smiling, maintaining eye contact, asking your guests questions, listening to their answers, never complaining, telling stories, and cracking the occasional joke.

If you can master the art of being likable, you’ll go very far in this industry.

2) Learn the Basics of Bartending

Once you’ve mastered your position as a server, it’s time to learn the basics of bartending. The reason you want to do this is because it will be easier to convince the management team, later on, to give you a shot if you already know the basics.

There are a few ways you can do this. You can read books, blogs, take a bartending course, practice at home, and/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. Whenever you get the chance, you should be asking your fellow bartenders question about EVERYTHING (liquor, cocktails, wine, beer, techniques, etc), listening to their answers, practicing what they teach, and observing them in action.

Not only is this a quicker way to learn than reading books, but it will show everyone you work with that you’re interested in being a bartender and that you’re willing to go out of your way to learn how.

Then before you know it, John calls in sick on Thursday night, management needs another bartender to fill his shoes, they know you’re learning how to tend the bar, who do you think they’re going to call??

More often than not, if you continually ask the bartenders questions and you get along with them, you’ll naturally progress into a bartending position anyway. But sometimes you’ll have to go one step further and ask.

3) Ask

Ideally, you’ll have already let the management team know that you want to become a bartender. But if you haven’t, now is the time to let them know and ask if they would be willing to give you a shot.

Simply say to the management team, “I really want to be a bartender, can you give me a shot?

If you’ve proven yourself as a server and you’ve learned the basics of bartending, they’ll want to keep you around. So the chances are they’ll say yes.

But if they say no, ask them why. If the reason is that they want to keep you on the floor (because you’re so amazing!), suggest that you work a couple of nights behind the bar and a couple of nights on the floor as a compromise.

If the reason is that they don’t think you’re ready, suggest that you take on the role of a barback first so you can learn how everything works from there.

Whatever happens, don’t skip this step! The chances are they will be willing to compromise with you in order to keep you around. But if they’re not and you never have this conversation, you could start working there as a server forever. 

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 give you a shot behind the bar ‘when the time is right,’ even though they never will.

They’ll play the excuse of being fully staffed but in the meantime, they’ll be hiring other full-time bartenders in front of you.

This is why it’s so important to ask management if they’re willing to give you a shot. Because you want to find out if they’re not as soon as possible so you can find work elsewhere.

**Note** This only matter if you’re a great server and you’ve learned the basics of bartending. If you’re not there yet, see step 1 & 2.

Fortunately, these situations are rare and management will likely be honest with you. But if you feel like you’re being screwed over, talk with your fellow bartenders and get their opinion. Ask them whether or not they think you’re ready and you should get your answer.

If you find out they never intend on making you a bartender, leave and find work elsewhere. 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 server forever!

How Long Will it Take?

It should take anywhere from 3-6 months to become a decent server. And then 3 months more to learn the basics of bartending. So overall, you’re looking at anywhere between 6-12 months before you’ll be good enough to step behind the bar.

If you have to be a barback first, it might take another 3 months on top of that.

But then you’ve made it! And what you’ll have learned throughout the entire process will be valuable for the rest of your bartending career.

Good luck!

And let me know if you’ve got any questions, cool experiences, and/or great stories to share with us in the comments section below.

Connect To A Top Bartending School In Your Area

Tom Drake
Tom Drake

Founder of Crafty Bartending, Tom is passionate about the hospitality industry. For the past 5 years, he has traveled around Europe, Asia, & Australia working as a professional bartender & bar manager. He loves consuming cookies, big macs, beer and wine.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *