Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Reflections on Bartending

As mentioned in my earlier post, I recently spent three nights behind the bar covering for a friend. I've never been behind the bar professionally before - only at events & parties that I planned. I have been known to make several hundred drinks in a day, but they're all the same drink and I make it in batches. Plus I don't have to ring it up in the computer, etc. and take care of everything else.

To prepare, I went in a couple of nights beforehand to try and learn the computer system, menu, kitchen setup, etc. I was nervous, because
I wasn't working just any weekend, it was Valentine's Day weekend. As Erik put it in the comments to my last note, I "jumped in with both feet."

Here are some highlights of what I learned, now that I've had a chance to look back at the experience a bit.

Bartending is Physically Hard Work

I found I was running (well, OK, I'm exaggerating - I was walking very fast and hustling) pretty much from 6.30 pm until the end of the night on Friday and Saturday. Whether pouring drinks, entering food & drink orders into the computer or taking payment, carting dishes to/from the kitchen, drying glassware, or whatever, I was extremely busy, even with a coworker (who was just as busy, if not more so). I came home exhausted each night.

On Saturday night (V-day), we had a third bartender, who pretty much ran circles around me in term of speed on the service bar and dishes (he has worked in several high-volume bars). And to be honest, he wasn't very nice about it either. I've come to understand that's pretty common in the bar business too.

Bartending is About Service & Hospitality

Even though one's interests might lie in coming up with a new cocktail, or in certain types of drinks, bartending is primarily about service. And this is especially the case on a holiday like Valentine's, where people are out to have a nice, romantic evening, and your job is to facilitate that experience. I remembered a
post I'd seen on Neyah White's blog awhile back about lessons for a new bartender, and he was spot on.

On Valentine's day, I was assigned to take care of all patrons at the bar on Saturday night, and I knew I was in for a challenge. I would be not only the bartender making drinks & pouring wine for them, but also a server, because many people came in to eat dinner at the bar (couldn't get a reservation, so that was the option). And I would deal with all the people who were waiting for a table and wanted a drink. This was all a bit more than I could actually handle, but I did my best. Thankfully, the restaurant has wonderful customers who were patient, especially when it was clear that the bartender is in over her head.

Using Proper Technique is Challenging
I measured virtually all of my cocktails (not the vodka & sodas, or vodka rocks-type drinks, but the others). This really slowed me down compared to the free-pouring done by the other bartenders, especially when I was also juggling food orders, wine pours, dishes, etc. I am not experienced in free-pouring, and generally do not trust it to be accurate, so I did not do it. But it was challenging to take this stance - there was peer pressure and some funny looks. I've had other bartenders tell me I must not know what I'm doing if I measure, and I still haven't fully figured out the best response to that.

Making a cocktail with proper measurements takes a lot more time than pouring a glass of wine. However, that isn't necessarily reflected in the pricing - you get $10 either way for the restaurant, at least in the north suburbs of Chicago. Perhaps this is why the cocktails aren't overly emphasized in the menu.

Many Bartenders Work Really Hard for the Money They Get
The way money flows in a restaurant is rather complicated, and many bartenders work really hard for what they actually take home. Of course there are some rock star bartenders, especially in high-volume city clubs, that do quite well. But I think that's the exception, not the rule. I only brought home tips, but there was a huge swing in what I brought home that didn't necessarily relate to how busy I was or how busy the restaurant was.

I learned a lot from this adventure, and I'm really glad I did it. I haven't officially asked, but I hope the restaurant feels I did a good job for them too. I definitely have a whole new appreciation for how hard my friends behind the bar are working, and how many things they are juggling.


Slow said...

That's why I have no interest in tending bar. I'd love to get paid for mixing drinks but I have zero interest in the work & hassle to get there. I'm impressed that you survived.

Peter Vestinos said...

Congrats!!!! i think everyone, no mater their job or interest should spend some time as a bartender or server and realize how challenging the job really is. It's a mental and physical challenge. Making a cocktail is a small fraction of our job, we are greeting and saying good by to guests, talking to them about their day, making change, closing checks, dealing with odd requests, acting as concierges, helping servers, etc... And yes, it is physically grueling. I joke sometimes about blowing out my shaking arm, but there are mornings where I wake up and feel like I pitched 9 innings the day before. All while being very wrong move or broken glass can put us out of work and most bartenders and servers have no insurance. No work, no money.

Crafting a cocktail is an art, working a bar is skill.

So thank you and congratulations Sonja on working a bar!

-Peter Vestinos

frederic said...

The craft cocktail scene here in Boston seems to favor people who measure (higher points for bartenders who use Oxo cups). With that said, most of the cocktails served in this town are anything but craft; free pouring a drink that can take a lot of leeway in proportions and balance might make it ok (definitely ok for speed as you said).

One bar here went from measuring all of their drinks and the consistency and quality was high. When the head bartender left, the replacements are a bit more sloppy and I've heard people complain about how two of the same drinks ordered the same night were noticeably different (and in one case sent back).

~Sonja~ said...

Thanks all for the comments. Certainly here in Chicago we have some great bars where measuring is the norm, but I now better understand why & where it isn't. All in all, a great learning experience.