Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

6 Simple Steps for Bartenders to Make Bigger Tips

Glenn Hilario

While a handful of restaurateurs and hospitality groups have toyed with the idea of going tip-free, the reality is that gratuity remains a vital part of service industry work—and the livelihoods of those who do it. While there’s no substitute for well-made cocktails, good hospitality defines the overall guest experience. Bartenders are called such for a reason. They aren’t just slinging drinks—they’re tending to the needs of the bar and its patrons.

Outside of increasing sales, and thus check averages overall, providing stellar service is the only way to earn bigger tips. That being said, we could all use a refresher on the universal principles of hospitality. We’ve rounded up advice from industry veterans. These are their five simple steps to making bigger tips.

1. Greet Your Guest

Whether it’s saying “Hi, how are you doing?” or simply making affirmative eye contact even if you’re drowning in orders with a line out the door, guests want to be acknowledged when they enter your bar. At upmarket cocktail bars, this is a given, but it also applies to more casual settings, as well. At The Parlor, a high-volume sports bar in Los Angeles, general manager Patrick Morgan actively works to help his bartenders bring in better tips—clocking in around 20 or 25 percent in a bar format where hospitality is typically more of “a churn-and-burn” affair.

“It starts with a positive first impression, including the little things, like greeting guests when they sit down at your bar,” says Morgan. “Ask their name. Go beyond drink making to actual bartending.” Bar veteran Gaz Regan shares such similar advice when mentoring younger bartenders: “When you say ‘how are you?’ look your guest in the eye and wait for them to respond.”

2. Read the Situation

It’s easy to suggest that bartenders should have extended conversations with guests, but that’s not always the case. Learn to assess your crowd and figure out whether they’d rather be left alone or engaged throughout their stay. This kind of social awareness goes a long way in tailoring the experience to each individual visitor.

“Read your guests,” says Morgan. “Maybe it’s a slow time, and you have two guests sitting a few seats apart. What’s the harm in introducing them to one another? After all, you know their names, right? Where those conversations go can be magical. Of course, if someone’s sitting in the corner quietly sipping their drink and reading a book, that’s cool too.”

Josh Cameron, the head bartender at New York City’s Boulton & Watt, agrees: “There’s a line connecting attentiveness and isolation, and each guest has an exact ‘seat’ on that line they desire when leaving their world and entering a bar’s. Bartenders have to identify where each guest lands on that line and adjust accordingly.”

3. Anticipate

For anyone who has worked in hospitality, this is second nature. See a water glass that’s getting low? Make a mental note to refill it the next time you make a round. Notice your guests closing their menus? Maybe they’re ready to order. Be mindful of everything going on in your bar, not just in your cocktail shaker. “Anticipate wants and needs before they’re stated (or even realized) by the guest,” says Alex Schmaling, the head bartender at Beacon Tavern in Chicago.

Anticipating guest needs also gives you the opportunity to upsell and encourage a higher check average. Timely interactions with the guest can mean another round of drinks, thus raising your sales overall.

“Don’t keep people waiting for their next drink or even their check,” says Matthew LaRue, the owner of New York City’s Taqueria Diana. “If you see a glass is about to be empty, offer a refill or see if they need anything else. You never know if someone is already eyeing that seat ready to spend some money.”

4. Create the Right Environment

Cleanliness, organization and attention to detail are universal skills needed to succeed as a bartender, and this extends to earning better tips. Aim to make your bar a place you’d want to drink at or where you’d bring a friend visiting from out of town.

“Don’t just try to get the one tip from one table; try to create an environment where good tips are given,” says Rob Rugg-Hinds, the head bartender at The Eddy in New York City. “That’s where you get into details about keeping clean workstations, neatly set tables, fresh water in the flowers—the things that aren’t directly affecting any one table but are happening around every table.”

5. Work as a Team

Working effectively with your fellow bartenders and servers will ensure no guest is left behind (and for those using a pooled-tips system, a better outcome for the entire team). After all, what’s more frustrating than seeing three or four bartenders chatting among themselves while your order hasn’t even been taken?

“We also transition seamlessly from one job to another,” says Aaron Alcala, the senior bartender at Lineage in Wailea, Hawaii, on Maui. “For example, we run with two bartenders—one on the well, one on the bartop. Both are responsible for the bar. If, say, the well bartender is working with their guests and drink tickets start pouring in, the other bartender will transition seamlessly to make the cocktails.”

This also means maintaining consistent standards of training and menu knowledge across your staff so you present a unified front. “Our bar porters are armed with all the same knowledge as the bartenders,” says Morgan. “This ensures that regardless of who the guest asks, everyone has the answers.”

And of course, regardless of what’s happening in the background, do not allow personal issues to spill over into the guests’ space. “Bartenders should never allow guests to see frustration behind the bar, whether it be with the job, each other or the guests themselves,” says Cameron. “There’s a responsibility to standing behind the line. Oh, and we all need to stop texting so much.”

6. Don’t Think About the Tip

Hospitality may be a business, but at the end of the day, it’s a business that functions best when kindness and consideration are at the forefront. Don’t let one bad tip, even if undeserved, prevent you from providing good service for the rest of your guests that night.

“It might seem counterintuitive, but in my experience, the less a service person obsesses about a tip amount while working, the better they’re able to focus on the service itself,” says Schmaling. “The more you can make a guest feel that they’re being thoughtfully taken care of, the more likely they are to want to show gratitude through a little extra gratuity. It’s hard to attend fully to the quality of the experience you’re delivering if you’re constantly attaching dollar amounts to your interactions.”