A great way to get involved in the bartending world is to start off as a barback. As we mentioned in a previous post on bartending schools, sometimes you need experience to get the job you desire in the bartending industry. But even if you are not trying to work your way up to a bartending or management position, excelling as a barback is worthy endeavor.
Below are 8 helpful tips on how to be a better barback – and to set yourself apart from the pack:
Barback Tip #1: Stay Grounded
The best barbacks are grounded people and are able to slow things down when things get turned up to an 11. When the commotion picks up… when the orders back up… great barbacks move swiftly and effectively. This will spill over into other advice we’ll share later, but try to keep this in the back of your mind at all times.
Your focus whenever possible should be on the bartenders, and making sure that they’re operating at full capacity. Be their extra set of arms, and work behind the scenes.
Barback Tip #2: Always Be Learning
This next bit of advice goes beyond the bartending world and is something that is beneficial to many parts of one’s life. If you want to be a great barback, always be learning. There’s a plethora of opportunities for one to learn on the job, so constantly be on the lookout for them. Situations may come up where you might have to handle a drink or two, and you don’t want to be a deer in the headlights. See how your bar’s best bartenders do their job, and try to mimic them.
Another tip that goes along with this one is to always be asking questions. Ask questions to your bar managers, store owners, bartenders, and even other barbacks. Be a sponge, ask away, and soak in information. That being said, be careful to not do this when they are busy, as this is bothersome and could make you come off as an annoyance.
Sometimes bars offer bartender training (available to any aspiring bartenders), or even have optional days where they teach you the ins-and-outs of the bartending lifestyle. Do all you can to not miss these events, as they are a great way to learn bartending and to stand out as a future prospect.
If your job doesn’t do training days, you can still get some hands on experience by doing training on your own time cheaply and easily. For example, you could take a Bar Basics course such as this one. It’s affordable and we suggest it to every beginner bartender.
Barback Tip #3: Be Two Steps Ahead
Another great way to separate from the crowd is to be looking for opportunities where you can get something done before it’s needed.
Ice running low? You already knew about this, and have a bag in hand the second the bartender first notices it.
Running low on clean glasses? Have a clean batch already on the way.
When a bartender has you as a barback, the garbage suddenly becomes bottomless. You are always replacing it before it overflows, and the bartender can’t ever seem to see you doing it. Clean the bar when you can, grab bottles out of the way, spot-check, etc.
A great analogy for the symbiotic relationship between you and the bartender is thinking of them as the salesperson and you as the supplier. Bartenders make their profits from tips, and the more opportunities they can have to “sell” to their customers, the happier they’ll be. Bartenders love great barbacks, because they give them more opportunities to make great tips. There is no better feeling than going home at night as a bartender with pockets full of tips, because you never had to take time away from pouring drinks for customers. Be their hero, make them rich(er).
Other ways to do this is to be hearing what drinks are being requested (especially if things are picking up), and to get the supplies ready. You hear a Kamikaze being ordered? Make sure there are limes ready and cut. You want your bartender to look down, and all the things they need are “magically” always there and within their reach.
Barback Tip #4: Stay Busy
If it is your first time ever barbacking, just know it will require some getting used to.
Your first couple weeks may leave you coming home exhausted. Eventually your body will get used to this, so push through it.
When you feel you can finally handle the workload, do all you can to be working round the clock. There’s some downtime? Leave that for the bartender to enjoy.. ask them how you can help make their job easier before the next wave. You become more valuable, and it’ll help pass the time. A win-win in our book.
Barback Tip #5: Feel the Pulse of the Room
Another way to set yourself apart and to be a more effective barback is to learn the ins-and-outs of all the bartenders you could possibly be working with.
Every bartender has their own likes and dislikes, so it is your job to find them out. Either ask them or pay close attention. If you are the barback that knows that a certain bartender always wants clean towels, make sure you get it for them.
BLH side tip: A great barback isn’t just friendly with those behind the bar… Instead, they’re friendly with everyone in the entire building. This includes both front-house workers (hostesses, managers and servers) and back-house workers (line cooks, dish-washers, and head chefs). This is a little step most barbacks – and sometimes even the bartenders – overlook.
Any successful restaurant works as a collective team. There is a stickiness factor behind being well-liked.
Barback Tip #6: Keep Your Eyes Peeled
Bartenders will always have their eyes peeled for customers, but two eyes can only do so much. When they are dealing with 10+ clients at a time, they will probably miss things. You can fill this void by being an extra pair of eyes on the lookout.
Bartenders are supposed to be wary of those who’ve had too much to drink, but they can miss the occasional person. If you see someone drunk out of their mind asking for a drink and yet trying to pull off the “sober look” for the bartender, you can let your bartender know what they’re trying to pull off.
It’s important however when on the lookout to not overstep your boundaries. Don’t make judgement calls for which people could possibly be drunk or not. Leave that up to the bartender. If you try too hard here you can easily annoy the bartender.
Barback Tip #7: Stay Out Of The Way
The biggest pet peeve I hear from bartenders that a barback can do is to be in the way. ALWAYS make sure you‘re not in the way. This is obviously easier said than done, but it is arguably the first thing you should get good at. When things get hectic, you need to be helping out but never getting in the way.
What is a great trick to be good at this? Communication. Listen to what bartenders do with other bartenders/barbacks, and the words they use when moving around each other. In general, using words like “Behind”… “Corner!”… or “Side” are good ideas – giving people an idea of where you are in proximity to them. Another thing you can do is touch part of their upper back so they can a know where you are or where you’re coming from. It can be hard to hear at times, so sometimes this can be more effective.
Barkback Tip #8: Start From The Bottom
One thing that barbacks have to understand is the importance of what they are doing. Many high schoolers and college students will work jobs where their work output outweighs what they are getting paid. The ones who become successful are those who understand that life works this way initially, and that eventually you will profit when the roles flip.
Applying this to barbacking, you just have to think of yourself as paying your dues.
You may be undervalued, but that’s ok. Many exceptional bartenders got to where they are starting with barbacking.
Be the best barback you can be. Not only will it make your job easier and enjoyable, but your co-workers will thank you for it as well.