Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Bartending School vs. Bar Backing

posted by /u/Twice_Knightley

Bartending School vs Bar Backing

I’d like to start off by saying that I went to Bartending School and later taught at a Bartending School for 3 years. I’ve seen people on this (and other) sites say things like “Bartending Schools are a SCAM!” or “You’re wasting your time and money!” and basically degrade bartending schools to the point of being completely valueless. I’m not here to sell you on attending a bartending school. I’m also not planning on dissuading you from attending one. I simply want people to understand the pros and cons of Bartending Schools, as well as the pros and cons of Bar-Backing as a means of becoming a bartender. Let’s start with some myths and facts about Bartending Schools.

MYTH This Bartending School has a 98% employment rate. I’ve seen this with nearly all Barschools, and at the end of the day – they do not. The number of students that go through a typical bartending school in a year is usually several hundred. Many of these students will find jobs on their own, many will go on to never bartend. Schools CANNOT guarantee employment.

FACT-Bartending Schools teach the basic skills and knowledge used in the bar industry. I always consider Bartending School to be to Bartending what Swimming Lessons are to the Ocean. To be clear, the skills that you learn will make you more comfortable, but that doesn't mean you can’t drown.

MYTH -Bartending School will turn you into a Rockstar Bartender. Unless you are already a rockstar in attitude, you will not suddenly become a rockstar bartender like in the movies. Style, Social skills, and Work ethic cannot be taught in a Bartending School.

FACT- Bartending School are diploma mills. A bartending school usually contains ~6 mock bar set-ups, a bunch of bottles filled with colored water, some real booze for demonstrations an instructor with 2-25 years of industry experience and a dozen students ranging from legal drinking age -65 years old, you’ll likely also get a text book with tons of information and a nice certificate at the end of the course. Now, I said bar schools are a diploma mill, but that doesn’t mean they’re useless…

MYTH- Bartending Schools are useless. Unless you consider yoga lessons, cooking classes, martial arts and music lessons useless; bartending schools can be a great value.

The first thing I want to address from the Myths and Facts above, is the Diploma Mill statement. Think of this from a business aspect; bartending schools occupy a space, to make a profit that space needs to be in use as much as possible. Most bartending schools run a day and evening course, and often run a weekend course as well. Other than the fixed costs of paying an instructor, monthly advertising, rent and utilities, operational costs tend to be in the range of $20-$40 per student. After about 10 students attending the course in a month, the schools owner starts to turn a profit. So, for every person (after that base 10/month) that comes into the school and drops $199-$599 on a 2 day to 2 week course the owner is making 90-95% profits. Pretty good deal as those minimums are often easy to meet. In 3 years as an instructor, there was maybe 2 months that I didn't see that minimum number come through but it was more than made up over the rest of the year. Now that you understand the business side of Bartending Schools, you can understand why they have so many students, but this doesn't make bartending schools bad.

What’s the difference between a good bartending school and a bad one? Usually it will come down to the instructor. I've always found that when the instructor is the Owner, they tend to be worse schools overall. This isn't a guarantee, but out of the dozen or so different instructors I've seen, the 3 that owned their schools seemed to be a bit of a knob. If you’re thinking of attending a bartending school, always meet with the instructor first and if you feel that you wouldn't get along with them, I’d recommend not signing up for the course. Most instructors will let you sit through a half a class before making any firm decisions, but owners will always put the hard sell on you right away. At the very least, even if you never go on to bartend outside your home, a bartending course should be a fun way to spend a week or two meeting new people and learning new skills.

Why do Bartending Schools use colored water? I know, you want to have some drinks and some fun, that is usually a given with a Bartending School, but during the course of an evening you’ll likely make 100-300 drinks. Using that much real alcohol is impractical and wasteful. The goal is to get a feel for the methods and the recipes. Most classes will consist of 20-40% lecture with the remaining time being simple practice time with other students. A typical course will go through making 50-150 drinks and shots, some classic, some unique. What does that matter to someone who wants to make highballs, jagerbombs and crack open beers? Not much, but it might give you a good basis if you want to become a more skillful bartender. Being able to offer customers options keeps customers in your bar which keeps them spending money, and keeps them tipping you. Not knowing how to make a Moscow Mule doesn't make you a bad bartender in my books, but knowing it does make me trust you a bit more.

So Bartending Schools should be fun, informative and give a new skill and confidence to the people that attend – Why is there such a big stigma attached to them? To answer this question I’ll have you think of a 13 year old that learns a magic trick. At first he shows it around and it’s a bit impressive, but it doesn’t take long before his new ‘skill’ is wearing very thin, but he doesn’t care, he thinks he’s a great magician. People that go to Bartending Schools can easily end up like this kid. They know a few cool tricks, some history of alcohol, about a hundred drinks, and they have a nice certificate. They feel that they have all the necessary skills to work in a place that pays minimum wage (or less) and that they are better than those that have not taken a course on bartending. And here is where the big flaw comes into place; Bartending School graduates are often far more technically knowledgeable than other bartenders they come in contact with, but they confuse that with being better Bartenders, which they are not. After encountering a few bartenders with this attitude but without the working skills to back it up, many employers and bartenders begin to hate all bartending school students.
So, does going to a Bartending School hurt my chances of working as a Bartender? No…however, relying on Bartending School to get you a job as a Bartender may hurt your chances. If you attend, or would like to attend a Bartending School prior to becoming a Bartender, please do so, but when you’re applying for jobs remember that you still have very little in the way of working experience. You may have a good foundation, but without the working knowledge of a bar you probably won’t fair as well as anyone else without any experience. Those that do get hired into Bartending positions right away would either have been hired off their looks and personality anyway, or are going to be working at a slower bar or pub.

So what’s the verdict? Bartending Schools can be a great place to learn some skills and get a bit of a taste for the industry, but they won’t get you hired as a bartender. If you’re a cool headed, reasonably intelligent person that isn't socially awkward and has a decent style, Bartending School may be a fun way to poke your head into the lifestyle of a Bartender. If, on the other hand you are a very introverted person that has a tough time striking up a conversation and you don’t have a good style – Bartending School won’t transform you into the life of the party that flips bottles and drops panties; you may want to look into becoming a Bar Back as a way of entering the Industry.

Bar Backs, Porters and Bartenders Assistants are all common job titles for the guys and gals that help a Bartender do their job smoothly. What does a Bar Back do? They typically help to set up the bar for the Bartender. This can involve loading fridges, ice wells, changing kegs, prepping garnishes & napkins, cleaning the bar, getting the alcohol and cleaning glassware…lots and lots of glassware. Often times Bar Backs will be in for several hours before the Bartenders and are arguably the hardest working people in the bar, after all even the hardest working of Bartenders can find a few minutes to chat or flirt with customers.

Bar Backs often make less money and work much harder than the Bartenders they are working with, but wait – it gets worse! One of the most common things I've seen employers do is to make it mandatory for men to be Bar Backs for anywhere from a few weeks to a year before being promoted to Bartender. I say men because women rarely have to do those more physically demanding jobs before moving on to Bartender. Women will often work in other areas of the bar before moving to Bartender, but not always. This doesn't mean that women can’t be Bar Backs (I've met a few) but those that say gender roles are dead in this industry are lying to themselves.

So what if it’s mandatory to Bar Back before becoming a Bartender? Well, the only downside is some employers use the position of Bartender as the proverbial Carrot to dangle in front of their Bar Backs, but those Bar Backs will never advance. They will use the excuse of being fully staffed on bar, being in desperate need of ‘good’ bar backs, and many more to continually pass over promoting a Bar Back. How can you avoid this? Ask some simple questions and be prepared to leave if you are getting passed over. Talk to the Bar Backs and the Bartenders, how long have they been working in their current position, how long did the Bartenders working as Bar Backs before being moved up, are there any Bartenders that didn't Bar Back before working on the Bar, if so why did they get to surpass the position? If the answers aren't lining up to the promises, then you might be accepting a job that has no potential Bartending future. If the questions are answered to your satisfaction and you start as a Bar Back and 3-4 shifts/weeks/months down the line a new Bartender gets moved into the ranks ahead of you, its likely time to talk to management and maybe be ready to leave that location. First off, every city seems to have a few dozen Bartenders that are just that good that bars will scoop them up if given the opportunity – one day that could be you. Barring this as an explanation, the management might be screwing you over, ask for a promotion and be prepared to either walk, or stay a Bar Back for a long time.

Hopefully this guide has given you some idea of getting into the industry. These are by no means the only ways in, and these only cover a general sense of the industry. I, for example, have been Bartending for 8 years, I ran a Bartending School for 3, I ran my own Private Bartending Services Company, I've had Drink Recipes published in print and have given presentations on the bar industry – but if I went to New York with the hopes of entering a top end Cocktail Lounge – I’d still probably expect to Bar Back for a year before being a Bartender.


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