Behind the Bar

How to Nail Your Dream Bartending Gig

A cocktail is poured from a stirring glass into a cocktail glass with a sphere of ice.
Hoping to serve up cocktails somewhere aspirational like The Aviary in Chicago, Leyenda in Brooklyn or Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar in Cincinnati? Leaders from these bars tell us what makes a candidate worth hiring. Photo via Flickr/star5112.

What a time it is to be a bartender! Techniques are evolving, and ingredients are getting ever more interesting. Even fun has returned. The joys of bartending are more appealing than ever but, for jobseekers, it’s a crowded market out there. Before you enroll in that bartending class or belly up to your favorite bar and slap a resume down, find out how can you make a great impression on the hiring manager and land that dream gig.

Get well acquainted with the business and use those connections:

Congratulations—you’re looking for one of few jobs for which copious hours spent swilling cocktails in a bar is genuinely considered research and/or networking. But don’t just stop there. Prior to interviewing, Charles Joly, former beverage director at Chicago’s The Aviary who now runs Crafthouse Cocktails, encourages potential hires to “do research on the place, check out their website, know what other bars and restaurants may be in the family and visit it ahead of time during service. All of these things will show that you have real interest in the venue and make the interviewer feel like they're not wasting their time.”

Ivy Mix is in charge of seven bartenders at Brooklyn’s Leyenda and has not needed to restaff for the last eight months (it’s only been open 10). “I recruit by word of mouth,” she says. “But at this point, people are reaching out to me to work here. It's quite the wait list!”

Mix concurs with Joly’s advice about checking out a bar’s extended family and utilizing those connections. She says she has found a lot of great bartenders via Speed Rack, the international cocktail competition she cofounded, which highlights women in the industry and donates proceeds to breast cancer research. “It's how I found Shannon Ponche who then started working at Clover Club and also here at Leyenda. It's about working hard and getting good recommendations, and making a good impression when you get to serve someone who you respect. I had a girl who wanted a job here and I said, ‘maybe.’ Then she invited me to the other place she worked so she could show off her skills. And they were great! I am trying to sort how to get her a position when one opens up.”

There is a little luck involved, or simply finding yourself in the right place at the right time:

If landing a job at bar X is your dream gig, chances are there are dozens of others also trying to get their foot in that particular door. Getting inside might just require a little luck. The bar managers we spoke to told us they are handed resumes all the time and that turnover is often low, creating a very small window of opportunity.

Molly Wellmann runs six bars in the Cincinnati area, with around 90 people on staff in total. Shifts at Wellmanns Brand bars vary from one person doing a weekday happy hour at Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar (OKBB) to eight or nine on a weekend night shift at Japps. Nonetheless, turnover is low. “Most of the time when I have to hire new people it’s because we’ve just grown,” she says. "I’ve had quite a few bartenders who have gone on and opened their own bars.” As a result, Wellmann has “resumes up the wazoo.” Cutting through the pile of resumes and into a bar job, she says, “is kind of like a right time, right place kind of thing.”

Personality (and work ethic) goes a long way:

First and foremost, Wellmann is looking for personality in her potential new hires. “People who have a great personality that can talk to any person; they’re polite and courteous and excited about talking to people. I’ll look for that trait first in anybody because you can’t be a bartender and not smile at people and not be able to talk to people. It’s that kind of job."

“Secondly, I look for somebody that has a good work ethic. If I see on a resume that somebody’s working a few jobs at one time, or has done, that’s a sign of a great work ethic … they’re not lazy. Then I look to see if they have bartending experience. It’s not a big deal if they do or don’t. I can always teach people to make a drink but I can’t teach somebody to have a good work ethic.”

“When it comes to my front of house staff,” agrees Joly, “personality will always trump a resume. Recipes, technique and the culture of a venue can all be taught. Drive, focus and hospitality are nearly impossible to instill in someone.”

Also, says Wellmann, watch your language and be respectful. “I don’t like pretentiousness,” she says. “I hate the word ‘mixologist,’ because sometimes that conjures up images of some guy with a curly moustache, sleeve holders and an old timey look and they act like if you order an appletini you’re going to fall into the depths of hell. I think that’s not okay. I don’t like that pretentiousness, and in a place like Cincinnati, nobody will respect anybody pretentious like that. So, I like my bartenders to be approachable. I like them to be welcoming. I like them to be able to talk to a novice or an enthusiast when it comes to drinks.”

Don’t fear commitment:

“One of the biggest red flags for me is candidates with many short term jobs,” says Joly. "We invest a lot into staff, especially in a more involved program. The last thing we want to do is have turnover.” Ivy Mix agrees, saying “it means a lot to me to see people who actually stick at their jobs for longer than one year.”

While out and about in the bars of Cincinnati, people regularly come up to Molly Wellmann and tell her they would like to take a stab at bartending, “I always ask them how they feel about training,” she says. “I don’t like it when someone says, ‘I would like to make a few extra bucks a week on the side, do you think you could give me a few shifts?’” Wellmann stresses that a job at one of her bars is not just something you can pick up on a whim. At OKBB, for example, new recruits train four to six months before they can step behind the bar.

The little things count (but social media doesn’t always):

Showing your nerves in an interview is a big no-no for Ivy Mix: “This is the service industry; I need you to be personable.”

It may sound obvious, but “make sure your resume is concise, free of spelling and grammatical errors and looks relatively professional,” says Joly. “It should go without saying, but show up on time. Being late for an interview is a deal breaker.”

Finally: got a huge social media reach? If you’re thinking a high follower count is the golden ticket to landing your dream job, you may be disappointed. At least according to Ivy Mix: “ It drives me crazy that social media is such a thing now,” she says. “Just because you have 100,000 followers does not make you a good cocktail creator and certainly doesn't mean you're skilled socially. I do ask my bartenders to post that they are working so their regulars know how and when to find them. But social media presence doesn't trump personality and work ethic in my book.”

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