“What job can a young woman do at night to make decent money and still keep her clothes on?” This was the question I asked myself one afternoon three years ago after slogging through a shift at my dead-end retail job.
I was tired of folding and fussing, tired of pretzeling my schedule to accommodate the next big sale. Plus, I was getting nowhere closer to completing my degree. I needed to trade in my 10 to 6 for a gig that freed up my days to take classes. I know: I’ll be a bartender! I thought. The bartenders I had met seemed skillful, cool and charismatic and certainly made more money than I did hocking overpriced Italian knit skirts in the tourist quarter.
The next morning, I enrolled in a two-week crash course in the art of drink slinging from a well-Yelped bartending school boasting dozens of locations, from Seattle to South Beach. Four nights a week, I huffed it to a suburban office park where I learned to mix the hits of the ’80s and ’90s—the Grasshopper, Godfather, Sex on the Beach. I perfected the art of the four-count free-pour.
It was fun, it was exciting, it was interesting, but I can tell you now, after having worked the last three years as a bartender: It was an utter waste of time and money.
Of course, I didn’t think that back then. Our class culminated with a taste of “real work experience” in which we took over a local bar on a slow night and invited our family and friends to come support our education by ordering cocktails, made by our unsteady student hands.
We were then given a certificate of completion and told to go forth and share our spark and knowledge with the drinking world.
The following week, I beat the streets with confidence in search of my next job. I visited every bar, restaurant and hotel I could think of with my resumé in hand. More often than not, I was greeted by dead-eyed stares. The hostess at one fancy French bistro laughed in my face: “Bartender? Oh, honey, that’s cute!”
Certainly in a cocktail-rich town like San Francisco, there would be plenty of places looking to hire a certified bartender, right? Wrong.
“Twenty years ago, a certificate from a bartending school had a fair bit of merit,” says John Gersten, an industry veteran and bartender at San Francisco’s ABV. “It meant that you’d memorized some recipes and probably knew the difference between ‘well’ and ‘top shelf.’ But unfortunately, they’ve become a bit arcane. I’ve seen such huge change in the way people learn now. There’s no substitute for raw experience.”
I continued my quest for months before I realized I needed to adopt a different approach. So I started applying to be a barback—you know, those voiceless, faceless worker bees who hover in the shadows of your favorite bar fetching ice and glasses.
Before long, I got a phone call from an HR representative of an upscale restaurant inviting me to an interview. Ten days later, I was dressed head-to-toe in black wearing new nonslip shoes and ready to kick off my bar career.
Next came all the hard lessons they don’t teach in bartending school, like how to deal with foil cuts and lime rot, and the fastest way to break down the ice well once a piece of broken glass has creeped into it.
After long shifts of constant lugging (ice, glasses, cases of beer, dirty dishes), I’d pass out at home, my body numb from exhaustion, and wake up with sore muscles the next day.
There was also the hierarchy to deal with. Some bartenders—not all—treated me like an indentured servant or, worse, their personal assistant. Though the moment they walked away from the bar, leaving me alone with guests, I often broke into a mild panic. What is Armagnac? Make a what? A Remember the Maine? Can I recommend a good highland tequila? Help!
For the most part, I tried to stay out of the way and do my job. But more than anything, I absorbed what was going on around me. I watched the drink orders come in and noted the careful steps that went into their composition: the showmanship, yes, but also the obsessive attention to detail and measurement.
And when there was a lull, I asked questions—lots of questions: What is Armagnac, Remember the Maine, highland tequila? I didn’t know it at the time, but I was getting “real working experience,” and I was getting it at my own pace.
“I look for personality,” says Shirley Brooks, an industry pioneer and the bar manager at San Francisco’s Madrone Art Bar. “You can tell when someone comes in and has no experience working with people. I can teach you to make a Martini or a Negroni, but it’s how you handle messing up a drink that shows you who you are. It’s important to have a good attitude.”
Confidence has it’s limits too. “A lot of people who go to bartending school think they know everything,” says Brooks. “Somebody who got to bartend somewhere for six months without being a barback can be very cocky. They often come in to interview acting like they know everything, but many times they don’t.”
Another telltale sign that someone has properly come up through the ranks? “They clean up after themselves,” says Brooks. “I know people who’ve always had a barback and they are the messiest. Great bartenders, but they are so messy that they make it miserable for everyone else!” says Brooks.
I’ll never forget the day I was handed my official bartender uniform. It wasn’t glamorous—gray button-up shirt, black vest—but for me, it felt like a badge of honor, a diploma.
I wore it proudly as I made the long walk from the back of the house to my place behind the bar. A middle-aged man in a suit, one of our regulars, sat down, pulled out a laptop and began typing furiously. He noticed my approach and, without looking up, ordered a Mezcal Margarita, extra spicy, on the rocks with a smoke-salted rim. But he didn’t say that. Instead he said, “I’ll have my usual.” And I knew exactly what he meant.