How to Smash Your Bartending Trial Shift

bartending trial shift

I remember my first successful bartending trial shift like it was yesterday. It was at a quiet golf club bar/restaurant in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. The kind of venue you would expect to see your grandparents frequenting for a small beer on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Needless to say, it wasn’t very busy. And in hindsight, I didn’t have much to worry about. Anyone could have done that job. But at that point, I’d never worked behind a bar before.

So I was nervous…. Really nervous.

When I arrived, I shook the manager’s hand and asked her what she’d like me to do. She told me to go behind the bar and start serving customers.

That’s it!

So I kept my head down, listened to what the manager told me, served customers, worked as hard as I knew how, and somehow managed to survive my first 2-hours behind a bar.

And despite feeling terrified throughout the entire shift, it was a great experience. In the end, all I did was pour beers for old men who were trying to hook me up with their grand-daughters!

A couple of days later I found out I had worked hard enough because I was called up and told I’d landed my first bartending job :-).

Now, it’s your turn.

The Purpose of a Trial Shift

If you’ve got to this point in the hiring process, first of all, congratulations! You’ve (probably) worked hard to get to where you’re at. Writing your resume, applying for an endless amount of jobs, and going through the interview process. It’s hard work.

So you’ve done well to get to this point. And you’re almost there… You’ve just got one more challenge left until you actually have a job.

Before we continue, you need to understand how important your trial shift is. Writing your resume, applying for jobs, and going through the interview process, has all been leading up to this point.

And as you step behind that bar for your trial shift, nothing else matters. It doesn’t matter how good your resume was, who you know, or how well you interviewed. All that matters is now how well you perform on game day.


Because the trial shift is where you put your money where your mouth is. It’s where the manager gets to see how well you work behind their bar, how well you get along with the clientele & staff, and if you’re a suitable fit in general.

Essentially, it’s their chance to see if you’re good enough for the position you’re applying for.

Whatever You Do, Don’t Lie

One of the reasons why managers view bartending trial shifts as so important is because it separates the honest applicants from the dishonest ones.

It’s almost impossible to fake or lie your way through a trial shift.

So don’t even try.

If you’ve told the manager that you’re great at making coffee. You better be sure that they’re going to test you on it. And if it turns out you suck, they’ve just caught you lying and the trial shift will likely finish shortly after.

That’s why you should never lie in the preceding stages of the hiring process (i.e. on your resume or in the interview). There’s no point because you’ll end up being tested on it.

Slightly exaggerating how good you are is OK (and expected). But you should never say that you can do something you can’t.

7 Rules for a Great Bartending Trial Shift

Do you remember what managers are looking for in a potential applicant?

In Chapter 6: ‘How to Nail Your Bartending Interview‘ I described in detail what managers are looking for. If you can’t remember, make sure you go back over it.

But to briefly touch on it again:

Managers are looking for applicants who have solid people skills, hard workers, those who are willing to learn, experience that translates into knowledge and/or skill, and people who take pride in their appearance.

During the interview and resume stage, you need to convince the manager that you possess these qualities. But, during your trial shift, you need to PROVE to the manager that you possess these qualities.

How on earth do you do that?

Good question…

The simplest answer I can give you is that you prove you’re worthy through your actions. That means acting in the same way as someone who already possesses those qualities.

Now, that’s a lot harder to pull off than you think. So to make it as easy (and uncomplicated) as possible for you, I’ve broken down what you need to do into 7 easy-to-follow rules.

The best part about these rules is that they’re relevant across all FOH hospitality jobs out there. So it doesn’t matter what type of trial shift you have (barback, server, bartender). If you follow these rules, you’ll impress the manager and secure yourself a job.

Those rules are:

  1. Come Prepared
  2. Arrive Early
  3. Listen & Ask Questions
  4. Work Your Arse Off
  5. Smile & Be Friendly
  6. Keep Your Conversations Short
  7. Communicate & Stay Out of the Way!

Rule No.1: Come Prepared

Before you even get to your trial, you need to be prepared. It doesn’t look very good if you rock up late or you’re wearing the wrong clothes.

Trust me…

Coming prepared to a bartending trial shift is simple enough. All you need to do is ask the manager what you should wear, what time your trial shift starts, and if there are any specific items you need to bring. Like a pen or notepad.

And then wear what they tell you to wear, and bring what they tell you to bring!

If you they tell you to wear or bring something you don’t have (like a black shirt) go out and buy it. You need to act like a professional. And that means purchasing the right tools and the right clothing.

Besides, if you’re serious about becoming a bartender, you’ll have to get them eventually anyway. Regardless of what they tell you to bring, every bartender and server should always have the following items on them:

  • Wine knife,
  • Bar blade,
  • 2 pens (just in case one breaks or you lose it),
  • A lighter.

Make sure you bring these and any other additional items they tell you to bring.

Finally, remember that they’ll be judging you on how well you present yourself. So arrive well-groomed, showered, and make sure you look clean.

Rule No.2: Arrive Early

It goes without saying that you should arrive early for your trial shift. Arriving early shows that you’re organized, you’re reliable, you’re professional, and you’re serious about the position you’re applying for.

So get there 10-20 minutes before your bartending trial shift starts.

That will give you more than enough time to have a quick chat with the manager about what will be expected of you. And you might even get a chance to familiarize yourself with the menu before you get started.

Just as with the bartending job interview, when you arrive you should assume that the trial has started as soon as you walk through the front door.

When you arrive, make sure you greet the other staff members, shake their hands, engage in some small talk, and smile. Then let them know that you’re there for a trial and politely ask them if you could see the manager.

When you see the manager, do exactly the same thing.

After you’ve greeted the manager, they’ll either ask you to get started straight away. Or they’ll ask you to wait until they’re ready for you. If they ask you to wait, grab a menu to take a look at and start familiarizing yourself with what you’ll be serving.

Remember, they want someone who’s willing to learn. By reading the menu before you start, you’ll be showing them that you’re that person.

Rule No.3: Listen & Ask Questions

Throughout the entire trial, you should be listening intently to everything the manager says. Try not to zone out (which can happen when you’re nervous) because they’ll be giving you a lot of important information on what to do and how to do it.

For example, when you start your shift, they’ll probably give you a tour of the building and the areas you’ll be working in. When they give you the tour, they’ll likely show you where the ice machine is, where the keg and stock rooms are, and where to empty the trash.

Then they’ll give you a run down of the position you’re applying for, how it works, and what you’ll be expected to do throughout your shift.

Pay attention to everything they say!

Because you’ll need to remember what they’ve told you when you start working. And you want to avoid asking questions the manager has already given you the answer to as much as possible.

(Note: If they don’t tell you anything and they just expect you to know what you should be doing, see the section ‘Let’s Talk Specifics’ below.)

Most managers are reasonable and they won’t expect you to remember everything. So it’s also important that you ask questions when you’re not sure of something.

In fact, even if you don’t have any questions, I recommend that you ask questions. Because once again, asking questions shows them that you’re willing to learn.

A great question to ask when there doesn’t ‘appear’ to be anything to do is what can I do now?’

It’s a simple question that has powerful benefits. It shows the manager that not only are you willing to learn, but you’re also there to work.

And you would be surprised at how effective this question is. Especially with experienced managers. It get’s asked so rarely by new bartenders, that when a manager encounters someone who does ask it, they see it as a REALLY good sign.

Rule No.4: Work Hard

One of the golden rules of hospitality is that ‘there’s ALWAYS something to do.‘ That’s why the question above is so powerful. It shows the manager that you’re willing to go out of your way to find out what that ‘thing’ to do is.

In the long run, that will make their life easier.

So during your trial shift, you want to make sure that you’re always doing something. Basically, you need to work your arse off.

You want everyone in that building to see you constantly in motion. That could be wiping down the bar, restocking the fridges, serving customers, figuring out the POS system, studying the cocktail recipes, or reading the menu again.

If you’re not sure what you should be doing, ask.

Hospitality professionals work hard and the harder you work in this industry, the more you’ll be respected. If you’re not doing something, it means that someone else is going to have to pick up your slack.

And no-one wants to work with someone who doesn’t pull their own weight. So it’s very important that you work as hard as you can during your trial shift.

Rule No.5: Smile and be Friendly

friendly bartender

It’s time to show off your people skills and personality. This is one of the most important qualities managers will be looking for, because at the end of the day, hospitality is about people.

It’s about making sure your guests enjoy their experience so that they keep coming back for more.

There’s no doubt about it, the better you are with people, the easier you’ll find a job in the hospitality industry. So if you already have solid people skills, then great. You’re probably a lot stronger in this area than I am!

But if you’re more like me and you weren’t born with great people skills, I wouldn’t worry about it. As long as you can smile (even if it’s forced) and hold a friendly (i.e. not rude) conversation with a stranger, you’re good enough.

And remember, working in this industry will help you develop strong people skills very fast. So even if you start off weak in this area, you’ll quickly improve.

Rule No.6: Keep Your Conversations Short

There’s a fine balancing act between being friendly with customers & colleagues and working hard. On the one hand, you should be giving your customers the attention they deserve.

But on the other hand, you don’t want to be seen as someone who spends most of their time talking. If you want the job, you need to prove to your manager that you’re a hard worker. And that’s not going to happen if you’re talking all the time.

So don’t get caught up in long-winded conversations with a customer or one of your colleagues during your bartending trial shift. There is always something you should be doing, so make sure you’re doing it.

Rule No. 7: Communicate & Stay Out of the Way!

Behind the bar, there’s a subtle dance happening between all the bartenders. Everyone moves in sync with each other and despite moving quickly, they somehow manage to avoid running into each other.

Even when it’s extremely busy…


The answer, my friend, is communication. When it’s busy, bartenders move by instinct. They don’t have time to look where they’re going. So they rely on vocal cues to figure out where their colleagues are.

If it’s your first shift, you need to learn how to communicate with your colleagues so that they don’t turn around and bump into you. This is particularly true for barback and busser positions and it’s really simple to learn.

All you need to do is yell out ‘BACKS‘ or ‘BEHIND‘ whenever you’re behind someone or outside of their vision, to let them know that you’re there.

It can take some time to get used to, but knowing about it is more than enough to impress your manager. There’s nothing worse than working a busy shift with someone who keeps getting in the way and doesn’t do anything about it!

When you step behind that bar (or onto the restaurant floor), you’re a part of the team. And communication is essential to an effective team.

Rule No. 8: Have Fun

This isn’t really a rule. It’s more of a recommendation because, for some of you, this will be your first shift working in the hospitality industry.

So enjoy it!

I know it’s going to be hard (especially if it’s busy) when you’re feeling anxious, and everyone you’re working with looks stressed. But those moments of stress are usually followed by moments of laughter, the occasional shot, and a refreshing beer.

And in my opinion, that’s what makes the whole hospitality thing worth it.

Let’s Talk Specifics

**WARNING** Sometimes, the manager on your trial shift will give you absolutely NO direction. They’ll just throw you into the bar and expect you to already know what to do. It can happen and it happened to Darcy O’Neil, the founder of the ‘Art of Drink‘ bartending website, the first time he stepped behind the bar.

I highly recommend you check out his first bartending shift story here. Not only is it funny, but it provides some useful context on what could happen at your bartending trial shift.

(On a side note, if you find yourself at a trial where the manager gives you no direction and expects you to just ‘figure it out’. It’s a sign that it won’t be a great place to work. It might be a great place to get some initial experience. But if I was you, I wouldn’t stay there for long.)

Now, the situation Darcy found himself in is rare. But it happens. And if it happens to you and you don’t have any experience, you’ll end up standing around feeling useless.

So to prevent that from happening, you need to know some specific things you should be doing for the specific positions you’re applying for. That’s what you’ll find below.

You’ll learn the most important things barbacks, servers, and bartenders should be doing throughout their shifts.

Let’s get to it.

Bartending Trial Shift Specifics

A bartending trial shift is more complicated than a barback or server trial shift. And that’s because a bartender has more to do and they need to know more about their products. That’s one of the reasons why experience is valuable when you’re searching for a bartending position.

But at the end of the day, the job isn’t overly complicated.

Here’s a list of things you should be doing, in order of importance:

  • Take customer’s orders and make them drinks
  • Put those orders through the POS system/Till and collect payments (or start them a tab)
  • Clear glasses off the bar
  • Wipe down the bar
  • Cut essential fruits (lemons & limes) and prepare any garnishes
  • Clean up any mess you make
  • Familiarize yourself with the bar and where everything is
  • If there are no barbacks, you should also be doing all of the barback’s duties (see below)

Barback Trial Shift Specifics

Barback trial shifts are the least complicated, but they’re also the most difficult in terms of how hard you’ll work. Barbacks are given the jobs that no-one else wants to do. That means doing a lot of heavy lifting, running around, and cleaning.

Barbacks are generally the hardest workers in any bar. That’s one of the reasons why it’s such a great position to start off in when you don’t have any experience. Not only will it teach the basics of what it’s like to work behind a bar, but it will force to develop a strong work ethic.

Here’s what you should be focusing on as a barback, in order of importance:

  • Top up ice-wells (there’s nothing worse than running out of ice) – You’ll need to find out where the ice machine is
  • Re-stock the bar (fridges, spirits, wines, fruit, etc) – You’ll need to find out where the stock rooms are
  • Change kegs (if they need changing)
  • Collect glasses from the floor
  • Clean up any mess you see (even if you didn’t make it)
  • Wash & polish glasses
  • Empty the trash

Server Trial Shift Specifics

serving customers

Sometimes to break your way into bartending, you need to start out as a server first. Starting out as a server will get your foot in the door making it a lot easier to progress into a bartending position later on.

But starting out as a server isn’t that bad. In fact, it could be the perfect preparation for you as a bartender. Because working as a server/waiter is more people orientated, it will force you to develop solid people skills fast.

So if you struggle in this area, working as a server first could be perfect for you.

Server trials are more complicated than barback trials because you’re dealing with people. But they’re not as complicated as bartending trials.

Here are some specific things you should be doing as a server, in order of importance:

  • Seating customers and handing them menus (if there isn’t a host)
  • Taking customer’s food & drink orders (ALWAYS write them down on a notepad even if you think you have a really good memory. Note down any allergies.)
  • 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
  • Clear tables (empty glasses and finished plates)
  • Wipe down tables
  • Reset tables
  • Polish cutlery

After the trial

Once your trial shift is over, make sure you thank the manager for their time and say goodbye to the other staff members. Then run out of the building, search for the nearest bar, and order ANOTHER shot of Jaeger and a pint of beer!

Then give yourself a big pat on the back and congratulate yourself. You’ve made it through the entire hiring process in once piece. I bet you it wasn’t as hard as you thought it was going to be…

But before you completely relax, you’ve still got one thing left to do. You need to follow up with the manager to find out how your bartending trial shift went. Remember, following up could be the difference between you getting hire or not, so make sure you do it.

3-7 days is more than enough time after your trial shift to give the manager a call.

If you’re unsuccessful, try not to take it personally. It happens to the best of us. Just try and remember to ask the manager for some feedback before you hang up the phone. You want to find out what you did well, and what you did wrong so that you can improve upon those things for your next trial shift.

And if you get the job, congratulations!

You deserve it.

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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.


5 thoughts on “How to Smash Your Bartending Trial Shift”

  1. Ok so you never worked behind a bar before is what u start w, than ur behind a bar serving drinks, anyone could have done that job but u never did it prior, however don’t lie? So how did u get the job in the first place if you’ve never been behind a bar?

    1. Good question, usually, you have to start out as a barback or waiter first. That gets you a foot in the door so you can get some practice working in the industry, learning from others and becoming friends with the bar manager. That’s the most common route. But sometimes, people give you a shot, even if you have no experience. The more resumes you hand out, the more likely that will happen.

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