Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

Where Are All the Female Barbacks?

Image: Lauren Rebbeck

How many times have you walked into or worked at a bar and seen a nonmale barback? It’s not unheard of, but then again it’s certainly not common. After all, the job of a barback is not an easy one. There’s a lot of grunt work involved: heavy lifting, stocking, prepping, fetching. And it all has to be done while mastering the art of making oneself scarce so as not to interfere with service. As seemingly unglamorous as the gig might be, it’s often an on-ramp to a career behind the stick—one that, still today, women aren’t granted access to. Are hiring practices skewed? And if so, what can we do to fix it?

Megan Fraser, a bartender at New York City’s Union Square Cafe, lends some insight on how the disparity came to be. “Barbacking was born from a traditionally male role and developed into something more interactive, with prep, builds and a straight path to bartender as the industry changed,” she says. “This completely left out the women who came up serving, who had never considered this work and who were never considered for this work.”

At Union Square Cafe, the barback program was recently reformatted to include kitchen server shifts, prep shifts and, at times, help with cocktail builds or interaction with guests to take orders during rushes. “This really helps train a well-rounded team member and removes the physical burden of hauling ice five days a week in a three-story restaurant,” says Fraser. Bartenders are also required to work as a barback if needed on their scheduled shifts. I just had my first barback shift in my career.” This structure allows for less of a divide between barbacks and bartenders, creating a whole new dynamic and fostering a more level playing field, especially where gender is concerned.

“Men who want the opportunity to become bartenders have the option to find a barback job almost anywhere with little or no experience and slowly work their way into the bartending scene,” says Speed Rack champion and Los Angeles bartender Kat Corbo. “Sure, it can take years, but it’s a door. Most women do not have access to this door.”

In Corbo’s case, it was a female colleague who helped her forge a path to the bar from her position on the floor as a server. This is why allyship is important, and having allies in positions of power (particularly with hiring capabilities) is the key in bringing equity and equality to front and back of house. “It’s up to the women and men who are already behind the bar to start opening up the conversation so that anyone who has a passion can learn how to bartend,” says Corbo. “If a woman is capable, she should be considered for that barback position alongside men.”

At The NoMad (New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas), every member of the bar staff is required to start as a barback before advancing to bartender. The policy makes way for equality on both the barbacking and bartending fronts while also providing a practical foundation to its bartenders’ skill sets.

Sundry and Vice in Cincinnati operates in a similar fashion, with each bar employee completing a six-month apprenticeship prior to their first bartending shift. “Our program is a mix of typical barback work and intense hospitality, cocktail, spirit and product education, both classroom-style and in real time,” says bartender Halichea Edwards. “We’re all trained to answer any question that could arise within the walls of our space.” She says the current bar staff is split down the line, 50% men and 50% women.

Finding a bar with a dedicated program like The NoMad or Sundry and Vice isn’t always easy, especially for those seeking work in smaller markets. That’s where opportunities like Tales of the Cocktail Foundation’s four-tier Cocktail Apprentice Program (CAP) come in.

“[The program] was developed in 2008 to provide up-and-coming bartenders with an opportunity to apprentice under skilled veterans,” says Alex Smith, the foundation’s director of operations. “By working directly with seminar presenters, program apprentices hone their skills while simultaneously learning about both the history and future of their craft.” CAP members walk away from the program with strong technical skills and valuable networking, as well as eligibility to apply for the Cocktail Apprentice Scholarship Program, which funds a variety of projects and initiatives for former apprentices. Since the program’s inception, more than 400 apprentices have participated.

The bottom line here is twofold: Starting as a barback makes for a better bartender, and if that opportunity were more widely open to all, the industry would be all the better for it.