How to Hire a Better Bartender
It Takes More Than Skill & Media Appeal To Work Behind The Stick
Bartenders are the “cool kids” of the industry. The darlings of the food-and-drink scene. They refer to each other as “star-tenders,” “bartendresses” and “defenders of the realm.” There’s a lot of back-patting when they win competitive mixology contests, and reality TV series glamorize the profession as the thing to do when you’re in your 20s and 30s.
But does having a “celebrity” bartender behind the stick really matter for the average bar or restaurant proprietor? It could help elevate a fledgling mixology program and generate media attention, but if that attention comes with a large ego, it could possibly cause a lot of tension between the front and back of the house, say experts. That’s why it’s important to hire someone who possesses not only great bartending skills, but other important attributes as well.
“Word of mouth and placing an ad are both excellent ways to find bartenders, but you should never underestimate promoting from within.”
— Adam Robin
“If someone has an individualistic attitude, then it wouldn’t be the best fit here,” says Eden Laurin, a managing partner at The Violet Hour, an award-winning cocktail lounge located in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. “We are a really strong community, and the folks behind the bar and in the kitchen must be able to work with you.”
That’s why, Laurin adds, The Violet Hour is adamant about its policy of promoting from within the company. That strict policy — combined with low turnover rates — is a contributing factor that helped the bar win the prestigious James Beard award for “Outstanding Bar Program” in 2015. “Our last three bartenders were servers first,” says Laurin, who started her career as a host with The Violet Hour’s parent company One Off Hospitality eight years ago and worked her way up to bartender and then managing partner.
“Hiring new people is always a gamble; everyone can look good in an interview, but it’s hard to see if they will succeed on the floor.”
— Adam Robin
Adam Robin, the director of operations at Mexican-focused, Florida-based Cabo Flats restaurants, is in agreement with this method. “Word of mouth and placing an ad are both excellent ways to find bartenders, but you should never underestimate promoting from within,” he says. “A server who is energetic, has a great personality and is already comfortable with the menu and clientele can be a huge asset and can slide into a bartender position very easily (given that person has some bartending experience).
“Hiring new people is always a gamble; everyone can look good in an interview, but it’s hard to see if they will succeed on the floor. The best way around that is finding the best bartenders from local spots and being able to offer them something unique (such as a chance to grow within the company) in order to bring them aboard.”
“What’s (also) really important for us is that the bartenders are comfortable talking to customers who sometimes sit there for hours.”
— Eden Laurin
As one of the most highly regarded cocktail bars in the country, The Violet Hour adheres to strict policies demanding the absolute best out of its employees. But these practices shouldn’t only apply to upscale establishments, stresses Laurin. All bar programs should strive to hire the best of the bunch.
“We look for someone hardworking because you’re working really long shifts,” she says. “What’s (also) really important for us is that the bartenders are comfortable talking to customers who sometimes sit there for hours. They must know how to cultivate each experience for each customer.”
This all doesn’t mean, of course, that Laurin wants to suck out the creativity and all the liveliness of bartending. She encourages hopefuls to attend enrichments programs (The Violet Hour regularly hosts such training programs for its staff as well as for bartenders who work elsewhere) and do as much research as possible on new techniques, new ingredients and the classic cocktails.
“We are constantly looking at the potential of management (with them) because they will see the bigger picture and that’s really important.”
— Eden Laurin
“These guys (who work at The Violet Hour) are cool because they’re really charismatic, but all of them are extremely hardworking,” she adds. “We have to teach them the business side of it as well. We are constantly looking at the potential of management (with them) because they will see the bigger picture and that’s really important.”
All those great qualities — charisma, skill, work ethic — go out the door if you don’t trust the bartender. Adam Robin maintains that every bartender who works for you must be dedicated and trusted.
“You need bartenders who are honest,” he points out. “They have unparalleled access to liquor and money. If you cannot trust a bartender, they cannot be behind your bar.”
But in the end, it all comes down to the bartender getting into the groove and making great drinks. “The reality is that every bartender has an opportunity to have fun, be very creative and put on a show behind the bar,” says Robin. “You need to keep bartenders focused on creating and executing the simple items perfectly.”