Behind the Bar

The Secrets to a Successful Barback Program

Bartender focusing on preparing ingredients behind the bar
To minimize turnover and ensure barbacks feel invested in their work, make sure you offer them something other than just compensation: a chance to grow their skills, and to be part of something. Photo: zenjazzygeek via Flickr

When it comes to barback programs, there are aspects that seem industry-standard — bussing glassware, helping with bar prep, making garnishes, communicating to a patron that the bartender is busy. But as far as how bars train their barbacks, the possibilities are many and varied. Some places rarely promote them to bartender, others utilize them only a few nights a week, some consider it an apprenticeship. We spoke to a bar owner, a bar general manager, and a head bartender at three different establishments to get an idea of what works — and what doesn’t — in a barback program.

Andrew Friedman, founder and owner of Liberty (Seattle, WA)

At Liberty in Seattle, WA, founder and owner Andrew Friedman says they only hire people as barbacks — a practice they started five years ago — and there can be up to a year’s waiting period to get a bartending shift.

“We noticed that because of the special environment of Liberty — it’s a fifty-drink menu, 600-plus bottles, and has an educated clientele — so behind the bar you have to know the category of spirits and cocktails and be able to speak extemporaneously on any combination of things,” says Friedman.

Training on the menu, spirits, cocktails, history, coffee, technique and hospitality is all part of the program, which generally takes about six months.

“It takes a long time to learn the things we train on. We hire awesome people who have an interest, and hopefully that interest is dedicated enough that they’ll put in the six months before they start getting bartending shifts, which can take six months to a year.”

But, Friedman makes sure his barbacks have other opportunities during that first six months. Once head of the US Bartenders’ Guild chapter in Seattle, Friedman is often privy to events coming through town that need bartenders.

“Within a very short period of time our barbacks are qualified to bartend industry events and they often do.”

Liberty is open seven days a week, 365 days a year, with 3 bartenders working every day. Friedman says the bar is consistently pretty busy, and this makes the barbacks’ job crucial.

Their main role is support, allowing the bartenders to be present with the customers. But that also means being in that role, communicating when the bartender isn’t able to be that person. The barback then becomes the host or hostess until the bartender is back and able to make their drink. People at Liberty are used to tasting a lot of products. Barbacks are trained early on that that’s a great way to get people to hang out and enjoy their time before they’re able to get their cocktails.”

As Friedman looks back over the last ten years that Liberty has been around, he says the barback program is a huge part of its legacy.

“We give people a good primer about what their opportunities are in the future. We work with people who want to start their own bar, or become managers elsewhere. Our bartenders have gone on to Pegu Club, Death and Company, Anvil, Canon — that’s the thing I’m most proud of.”

Andrew's advice for other bars revamping or starting a barback program:

“Give them an opportunity greater than some financial compensation they’ll get at another bar. We provide them with a family — we’re a tight group — and the opportunity to become something, and create something, and work together on something has to be more compelling than making another 50 dollars a night elsewhere. We’re also working right now to sell the bar to the staff, which may be the first American co-op bar. The barbacks would have a chance to be member owners in a bar. That’s the kind of place that we are.”

Terry Williams, general manager of Anvil Bar and Refuge (Houston, TX)

In Houston, the folks at Anvil Bar and Refuge consider themselves lucky to have a reliable head barback who puts in 120 percent.

“Isaias Praxes makes the final decisions in hiring and firing barbacks with our input,” says general manager Terry Williams.

“He’s kind of my back of the house manager, and I defer to him on all that goes on behind the bar, as far as what they need and what we can do to make it better. He is my point man and I don’t have to train the barbacks because I have him.”

Williams says he would recommend someone like Isaias to handle the ins and outs of training and keeping up with barbacks, but only if, according to Williams, “you can be so lucky.”

“He comes in on Saturday with his leafblower, doesn’t clock in, and blows out the entire parking lot, then comes in and clocks in. He’s been doing that since the beginning.”

Isaias isn’t the only person who trains a new barback, though. Anvil’s philosophy is that it’s the entire staff’s job, because once a new hire begins, it’s essentially a hit-the-ground-running operation.

“They get hired on a Tuesday and spend the first two days with the head barback, and by Thursday they’re acting as the second. By Sunday, they’re on their own.”

“We don’t hire as an apprenticeship program. It’s happened, but we don’t hire with that in mind. The position is dishwashing, table bussing and cleaning, keeping up with garnishes, syrups, and ice. It’s not a glamorous job.”

Open every day but Super Bowl Sunday and Christmas Day, Anvil stays busy and pretty packed. It is rare that an Anvil barback ever makes the transition to bartender.

“But,” says Williams, “as Bobby, the owner, started opening more bars, there was need for head barbacks at those places. Like what Isaias does here. So, he took barbacks from Anvil to go be the head barbacks elsewhere.”

“We take good care of them as far as pay goes and are as flexible as we can within having a set schedule. It’s a positive work environment. And we’ve been lucky hiring people who enjoy working — it’s not an easy job, it’s high paced, and high pressure.”

Terry's advice for other bars revamping or starting a barback program:

“Just like you would with guests, be as nice to your barbacks as possible and make everyone feel a part of the team. And pay them as well as you can. Talk to your peers and see if you’re massively underpaying barbacks or if there’s a way to get them more hours.”

Chris Barrett, bartender at Ludivine (Oklahoma City, OK)

Ludivine in Oklahoma City has had difficulty in recent years with high turnover among barbacks. Bartender Chris Barret has recently changed the way they run their program to help foster longer working relationships.

“We were only having them work three days a week. I’ve changed that now, because it’s hard to find someone who wants to work part time three days a week and make okay money, but could go work somewhere else and make a lot more. So we’ve expanded the role. I’ve just hired a guy who I can work five days a week, and I will train him as an apprentice.”

The new plan has the barback coming in at 2 p.m. to set up, opening the place at 4 p.m., and bartending from 4 - 6 p.m., before barbacking at 6 p.m.

“He’ll be the opening act,” says Barrett. “I usually get to work at 3 p.m. and don’t leave until 2 or 3 in the morning, which makes for a long shift. If he comes in at 2 p.m., works and then barbacks at 6, he gets more money, and I can come in and work a shorter shift.”

Barrett is quick to remind me that they’ve just begun this new process.

“We’re going to see how it goes,” he says.

As for training, Barrett says he mostly plans to teach by example.

“It’s a lot of talking as you go, talking them through making drinks, explaining techniques and why you do what you do, repeating and correcting. When you only have two or three days a week with someone, like we did before, then five days go by and you kind of have to start all over again with that person.”

Hoping that someone stays for longer than the slew of barbacks who have left after one or two months — Barrett is sure that the experience will be valuable.

“A year of barbacking and learning here could get them a job anywhere in Oklahoma City. You don’t have a lot of people here looking at the bar industry as if they want this to be their profession. Most just want a part-time job. But if you really want to go somewhere to learn, then that’s why you’d come here.”

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