Bartender Salary: A Bartender Career Profile

Name: Craig Hysell
Job Title: Bartender
Where: Hilton Head Island, SC
Employer: Riders Lounge
Years of Experience: 12
Education: BA in Communications from Bowling Green State University
Salary: See the PayScale Research Center for the median bartender salary.

Bartender Salary: A Bartender Career Profile

Recently Britney Spears made the news, again, by inquiring about bartender jobs at a California hotel. Britney, or anyone who is interested in becoming a bartender, should read this Salary Story. We spoke to bartender Craig Hysell about bartender jobs, a bartender salary, bartending school and more. Many people wonder if they need to attend school to become a bartender. This interview provides the answer, plus insider info on what it takes to succeed as a career bartender. So pour yourself a cold one and keep reading!

Bartender Job Description:

If you want to be a good bartender, you have to know how to pour all kinds of drinks with all kinds of names. If you want to be a better than average bartender, you have to do the same thing and understand people; twelve years in a bar and I still see something new every week. Reading people, knowing how to get them to loosen up, calm down or put certain situations in perspective, is paramount to being a career bartender.

Bartending is about being a psychologist, sociologist, accountant, janitor, mediator, stock boy/girl, comedian, server and rock star, as well as a mixologist. Do all that while walking three or four miles a shift, shouting over bands or DJs (reading lips if the sound guy cranks things up to eleven) and dealing with second-hand smoke (if you have to), and you’ve got yourself a bartending job.

How did you become a bartender?

I did not attend a bartender training program or anything like that. I started working in the kitchen of a bar to pay my way through college. I also did some work as a bouncer and, eventually, because I was dependable (meaning I showed up to work on time which, in the bar business, can apparently be more difficult than it sounds), I got invited to start working behind the bar.

I learned everything I know from experience and listening to a few key people (career bartenders) who took me under their wing when I was coming up through the ranks. Experience has been my best mentor. Listening has been my best asset.

Any advice on becoming a bartender?

Some people go to bartending schools, some work their way up through the ranks of doormen, bouncers, barbacks etc. and some have no experience at all. I’ve trained people who have humped cases of beer and liquor through crowds on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights for years before they were allowed to try and tend bar.

I’ve also trained people who have never set foot behind a bar before. The best advice I can give is to ask around some of the spots where you like to drink or keep on eye on the classifieds section of the paper. Show up in person when inquiring within. Tending bar is a front of the house gig and you have to look as well as play the part.

Owners and managers want to see what they are hiring; look presentable and speak with confidence (not arrogance). If you’re unsure of your skills, ask bar owners or bartenders at possible places of employment what you need to do to improve your chances of being hired. Be outgoing, smile and keep your sense of humor. If you’re easily ruffled, bartending isn’t the job for you.

Do you need to attend school to become a bartender?

I’ve never been to a bartending school or met anybody who has, so I couldn’t say if they are worth it or not. However, if you’re considering tending bar and have never done so, it’s important that you have some knowledge of the industry. Do you know the difference between a pinot grigio and a pinot noir? How about whiskey and bourbon?

Do you know what a muddle is? A wine key? How many ounces are in a shot? A little homework and a willingness to learn can go a long way to landing a job. I’ve worked at plenty of bars and each bar does things a little bit differently. Bartending should be like life; never convince yourself you know it all.

What is the outlook for bartender jobs?

I don’t think America is going to quit drinking anytime soon, and the Volstead Act obviously didn’t take, so I can say with a significant degree of assurance that a bartender will always be able to find work. It might not be your ideal gig at first, but I don’t know many people who start out on the top rung of the ladder in any venture.

Any experience is good experience when you’re just starting out. Ask around some of your favorite watering holes or pick up the classifieds. Personally, as time has gone by, I’ve been hired more through more word of mouth than through the paper.

Do most bartenders earn tips and/or a bartender salary?

It’s different in each place. I work just for tips at my current job. I’ve worked for both before as well. As for “a secret” to getting good tips, that’s simple: there isn’t one. Be friendly, be outgoing; if it’s slow, ask people how they’re doing and what they’re up to that evening.

Start a conversation if you can tell people feel like talking (don’t interrupt dates or business meetings with your joke about the horse, the monkey and the pirate who walk into a bar), be an attentive, polite server and 80% of the time your gratuity will extend past the norm.

If it’s crowded, get your drinks out with alacrity and keep your smile. Your tips will reflect the hustle and charm. Then again some people are cheap and just don’t tip. If you’re just starting out and this kind of behavior becomes too much to bear, leave it to the senior bartenders to deal with these types of customers. However, the simple fact is, you are going to get stiffed occasionally.

If you throw a fit every time that you feel slighted, you won’t last a month tending bar. If you’re happy most of the time, then most of your crowd will be happy. You set the tone for the establishment and people, whether they realize it or not, look to you for guidance. Leave your personal troubles at home and bring your sense of humor.

What places tend to pay a higher bartender salary?

Gigs that pay the best depend more on the clientele than the venue. I’ve worked all kinds of places and I made the most money at a dive bar that sold beer and liquor after 2 a.m., when every other bar in town was closed. At some restaurants the tips are terrible and at others they are fantastic. For instance, my girlfriend, who pulls six figures annually at a fine Italian restaurant, is above the norm.

Every place is different, so do some scouting. Check the place out on a Friday night. Are people having fun and spending money? How many bartenders are working? Do they look weeded (busy)? Now go to the same place on Monday or Tuesday. Ask yourself the same questions. Nowhere is it written that because you have a bar it is always going to be packed; does the business operate and staff the place accordingly?

Is it more corporate or privately owned? Ask the bartenders in a polite way how they like working at the place and if the money is agreeable. Do this on a slow night. Asking these questions when a bartender is in the weeds will get you a look as if you had lobsters crawling out your ears and you will be ignored immediately.

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