Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

Crush the Rush: 5 Bartender Tips for Surviving the Weeds

Image: Lauren Rebbeck

No matter how seasoned you are behind the stick, there comes a time in a bar shift when the orders start flying. Welcome to the weeds, a place where tickets back up, glasses pile high and every customer in the place suddenly needs your attention at the exact same time.

Whether you work at a restaurant, craft cocktail bar or a stalwart dive, you’ll eventually get slammed behind the bar. What’s important is that you work through it with grace and professionalism. Often, the best tactic is to be as efficient as possible. In theory, that sounds easy enough, but as any bartender can attest, speeding through service without getting sloppy can be a challenge.

Though there are no hard and fast remedies to surviving the weeds, there are a few shortcuts you can lean on, from knowing when to excuse yourself from a conversation with a customer to the order in which to pick up your bottles. “It’s all about saving a few seconds here and there,” says Tess Anne Sawyer, a bar consultant and former National Speed-Rack champion. “Those seconds add up over a shift.” These five hacks will help you crush your next rush.

1. Stay Organized

Just like any job, the key to flying fast behind the bar is keeping a neat and tidy workstation. Make sure that all bottles are filled and garnishes are stocked before a shift and that every tool you’ll need is in reach, particularly components of top-selling cocktails. “Be organized and consistent,” says Sawyer. “If you can have everything you need within arms reach, you can keep your feet planted and bang out drinks.” Justin Lavenue, the co-owner of The Roosevelt Room, seconds this: “Set up the bar like you’re expecting to have your ass handed to you that shift.”

Sawyer prefers to have the same setup as her coworkers. “You all know where everything is, so you can let your muscle memory kick into speed you up.”

2. Maximize Every Moment

For Lavenue, organization extends beyond your physical setup. He continuously plans his next task. “I’m always making and updating a priority list in my head,” he says. Lavenue reviews this list while shaking or stirring a drink. Those 10 to 30 seconds of action, he says, are the perfect time to map out next moves.

The plan often includes sorting out your next bottle pickup. “Never grab the same bottle more than once in an order. As soon as you have it in your hand, use it until you don’t need it anymore,” says Lavenue. “Also, know what spirits/ingredients can be poured into a jigger without requiring a rinse before adding other ingredients. Cutting out that extra step makes a big difference.”

3. … And Every Movement

On a busy night, make sure every move is intentional. “Never have idle hands,” says Lavenue. “If you’re only using one hand, you’re working at half-speed.” Sawyer seconds this: “Don’t waste your movements.” Know where everything is, move with purpose and make each movement thoughtful. And if you do come across a free moment, clean!

4. Clean as You Go

Speaking of, just because you’re speeding up doesn’t mean you can stop tidying. “Cleaning as you go actually makes you faster,” says Sawyer. After every round of cocktails, Sawyer will clean her stirrers and shakers, then set everything back up for the next series of orders. This method adds a few seconds on to her overall time for each round, but she assures, “It takes far less time than throwing all of your tools into the sink and having to stop and reset in between each round. You’re in constant motion, rather than a start and stop approach.”

The same technique applies to wiping down your station. “I wipe down the bar after every round of drinks I make. If any bottle is sticky, I immediately clean it before I touch anything else.” It may sound repetitive to rinse and repeat after every round, but the key here is the habits that cleanliness instills. “If you have these systems in place, keeping things neat should fall into place naturally, whether you’re in the weeds or not.”

5. Batch, Batch, Batch

That deliciously complicated Tiki cocktail just added to your menu? Well, come service time, that 10-bottle pickup will be a real pain. Sawyer recommends batching before a shift to increase efficiency. “If you can batch your spirits and alcoholic modifiers for your house cocktails, you’ll not only speed up because you’ll have fewer bottles to pick up and put down, but your drinks will be more consistent.”