Behind the Bar

Lessons from a Pro: How to Nail Your Job as a Barback

A man standing behind a bar.
Barback Cristian Galarza assists bartenders best by trying to anticipate their every need. Photo by Gabi Porter.

Holiday Cocktail Lounge barback Cristian Galarza tailors his job to each of the four bartenders he works with. “Erik Trickett has long arms and is a very long dude, so the bar is five millimeters wider for him than it is for any other bartender,” he says. Then there’s Joe Donohue, who uses the long, Japanese-style jiggers that Galarza sets out for him. “It’s amazing – he moves them so fast,” he says. Galarza is one to talk — he mentions only in passing how he can change the bar’s ice supply in two minutes flat, should a glass happen to break over it. “I have to go downstairs to the basement to do it, so it’s very fast moving and a lot of physical work — and I love it,” he says.

It was that need for speed that initially drew the Ecuador native into the bar industry, at a time when he was working in New York restaurants as a server. “I wanted to be in fast mode situations,” he says, recalling the first time he began considering the drinks realm. “I started studying everything, from the way the bartenders moved to the way they built cocktails, and I was like, ‘I want to do this.’”

A friend in the industry brought him into Ward III, where he met Michael and Danny Neff — two industry pros who became mentors for Galarza. “They were the ones who really showed me what the bar life was about, and the amazing way our industry is like one big family,” he says.

Galarza started barbacking between Ward III and Rum House, where he quickly learned his spirits and the steady rhythm that the bar requires. “Little by little I started doing things on my own, moving faster, and making sure my bartenders were fine — because when the bartenders are happy, the guests are happy,” he says. Galarza’s most surefire way to ensure his bartenders are content? Foreseeing their every need. “Anticipation and organization are the biggest keys for a barback,” he says.

He took that philosophy with him to a few other bars around town before landing at Holiday Cocktail Lounge for its opening last March. There, he kicks off every day by setting up the bar with bottle backups, garnishes, and whatever tools that eve’s bartender prefers to work with. Once doors open, he drops menus and fetches waters, and, if the bartender is slammed, he’s the one making your cocktail, too. “I can make the drinks because I have the knowledge to do so — it’s one of the main things for us to know.”

Whatever the task at hand is, though, Galarza makes sure to accompany it with a smile and a shot at conversation — an approach that not everyone is so used to. “I like to make sure the guests are comfortable, so I go right up to them and am like, ‘What’s up? How are you doing?’” he says. “Most of the barbacks in this industry put their heads down and try not to talk to anybody because the bartender is the main person people are speaking with.”

And it’s not something you can fault them for, either. Galarza notes that at many of the bars across the city, barbacks are discouraged from speaking to patrons. “It’s often because they don’t have enough knowledge to answer the questions people have,” he says. But he recognizes that more education is a small fix that can result in a far bigger payoff. “It’s important for barbacks to start meeting guests and building their own relationships with them, so that people are coming in to see us, too.”

He also credits that apprehension to the occasionally confused reactions coming from the other side of the bar. “Some people don’t understand how to talk to a barback — they’re like, ‘what do you do here?’” he says. “So I tell them, ‘this is what I do, and if I wasn’t here, my bartender would be in the weeds.’”

He speaks from experience. While Holiday Cocktail Lounge has now split their evening shifts into two, Galarza’s shifts used to be from 3 p.m. until 5 a.m. and entailed lifting and changing kegs, moving liquor boxes, and transferring heavy crates of glassware. “We’re not just the people who come and build a bar for a second and that’s that — we do as much as bartenders do, and even more,” he notes. “The team wouldn’t be complete without us because the bartenders need the backup.”

And though Galarza recognizes he’s close to stepping into a bartending role — he’s been barbacking for six years — he’s happy to take his time in getting there. “I want to see what else I can get out of my time as a barback,” he says. There’s also his insatiable quest to get quicker. “I’ve heard there’s a way to make 30 vodka sodas in 12 seconds, and I haven’t learned that yet.”

To new folks entering the barbacking biz, he offers three essential bits of advice: to be patient, to observe everything, and to have a thick skin. “Sometimes when you’re starting in this industry, bartenders can be tough — but even if I leave work upset one day, the next day I know you’ll give me a hug and we’ll be good,” he says. “At that point, it’s like ‘OK, let’s do this together today — let’s have fun.’”

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