When I began bartending at 18 years old, I looked at it as a way to make some fast, easy cash while putting myself through college. I always knew that it was a temporary job; I would never be a career bartender, and in the beginning I didn’t take it too seriously. I was just grateful to have a job where I could walk in, do my thing for a few hours, leave with a wad of cash and not have to take any work or stress home with me.
I quickly realized that I could make my wad of earnings much larger by doing a few things differently. Damien, a former manager, once explained this to me and it made a lot of sense:
“You’re basically running your own business behind the bar. We provide you with the ‘office’ and ‘tools,’ but how you run your business is up to you. If you provide a great product (good drinks) that you know how to sell and upsell, and you give great customer service, I guarantee that you will make more money. It’s all up to you.”
I became a hustler behind the bar, and saw my money grow almost immediately. I loved the fact that I could give myself a raise on any given shift just by working smarter. I got better and better at what I did, and by the time I graduated from college, the money was so good that it was almost painful to walk away and start at the bottom of the internet marketing rat race.
To create cocktails and call yourself a bartender is not hard- a monkey could be taught to pour beer and shake up a martini. What separates an average bartender and a great bartender is not the competence to make drinks- it’s the ability to sell, satisfy the customer and keep them coming back. I’ll explain each in detail as I share a few lessons I learned that I have used to succeed both behind the bar and in the real world:
Know your product and sell the hell out of it
I’m going to break this one up into two parts, because each is equally important. It’s very hard to sell something you know nothing about, and even if you’re an expert on a product, it’s worthless unless you figure out a way to sell it.
It’s very simple: if you’re not selling something that people want, you’re not making money.
Cocktails in a bar sell themselves- that’s why the customers showed up in the first place. However, the customer may not necessarily know what they want, and it’s up to you to inform and sell them. This is your opportunity to upsell. As long as you can convince your customer that Grey Goose is better than Crystal Palace (yuck) your sales will go up, and most likely so will your tips.
When you walk into a bar, it’s very easy to spot the great bartenders- they’re the ones who greet you immediately, make conversation and try to sell you their products with enthusiasm.
Bad bartenders on the other hand tend to have the same bad habits I’ve seen struggling business people have. They’re either more worried about the drama in their personal lives, too lazy to put in the work, not interested in what they’re selling, or they fail to upsell.
When you’re trying to succeed and make money, it’s important to remember that selling comes first. Everything else comes second.
You must make people feel comfortable
Have you ever wondered why bartenders are also considered therapists? One of the main reasons that people go to the bar and pour their hearts out to an almost-stranger is because bartenders just listen without judging. Think about it- how many people in your life hear you out and ask questions without judgment?
As a bartender, I never told people what to do or judged their motives or actions the way I might do to my friends. By doing this, I earned the trust of my regulars. They were comfortable coming in and updating me on their lives (while spending money), knowing that I wouldn’t think any more or less of them.
Trust is huge in almost every facet of life, especially business. When people feel comfortable coming to you, it is much easier to accomplish things.
When you’re a team player, the results are usually better
Although you might consider yourself to be running your own little business, I guarantee that it’ll run a lot smoother if you accept some help from time to time. When you’re busy, it’s really helpful to have that extra person who supports you, whether it’s a bar-back refilling your ice, or a co-worker to share the workload with.
You can’t be everywhere, and you’re not going to be good at everything, so it’s important to surround yourself with a great team to keep you balanced. Make sure you treat those people well.
Know that you can handle a lot more than you think you can
I remember feeling excited, but absolutely terrified, before working my first Winter Music Conference. I heard stories from those who had been through it before of 18-hour shifts for five days straight, dealing with the most wild and drugged-up partiers ever.
In the days leading up to WMC, I rested, meditated and did my best to mentally and physically prepare myself for what laid ahead. By day 5 I felt like I had run a marathon and calculated more prices in my head than a math team- I was fried. But it was so motivating to look over and see the cash piling up in the tip jar.
The moral of this story- you can keep going much longer than you think you can when you need to. I’m not telling you to hustle for 18 hours every single day, but when the money is there, GET IT, because it might not always be.
Don’t let anyone disrespect you
Even though I was there to earn money, whenever a customer crossed a line and disrespected me, they were quickly shown the door. It didn’t matter if they were spending money- no negativity was allowed.
I know this goes a little against everything I have already said in this article, but I’m a firm believer in removing anyone who causes a great amount of problems and stress. This applies to both at work and in life. These people end up sucking your time and energy, creating a bad vibe, and will often badmouth you to other customers or ask for a refund after you’ve bent over backwards for them. It takes your attention away from the better paying customers, and in my opinion, it’s just better to remove these bad apples.