The Many Faces of a Bartender by Lisa Wright

One of the best things about being a bartender is never knowing what to expect. True, like any other job, there are your basic job expectations: be on time, dress for success, and, of course, that perennial favorite that anyone in the industry knows to be a blatant falsehood—the customer is always right. But, as a bartender, so much of your job involves thinking outside the box, making adjustments, and even changing the way you interact with people on a case-by-case basis. Being a bartender is so much more than slinging drinks. It involves style, charisma, charm, and, dare I say it—panache.

When I first began my bartending career, I was no stranger to the foodservice industry in general, having worked in a variety of jobs that involved serving up edible foodstuffs to the general public. However, bartending was especially challenging for me as I quickly realized a one fits all approach is not conducive to a successful career in mixology. Unlike working behind a concession stand in a movie theater (been there), serving burgers at fast-food chain (done that), or even helping a customer find the right-sized sweater (retail is NO fun), bartending can often involve entering into a complex social contract with one’s customers that requires you to not only think on your feet and provide great service but also somehow be able to read people and anticipate what they are looking for in their bar experience.

Bartenders at Sloppy Joe’s bar pour a round of drinks on the house for a large group of smiling customers as it was announced that the 18th Amendment had been repealed and Prohibition had been removed from the US Constitution after 13 years, Chicago, Illinois (Photo by American Stock/Getty Images)

This approach is not only contingent upon the customer in question but is often situational as well. As a bartender you not only have to read the customer, but you quite often have to read the room. In short, you have to be the bartender that your customers want (and sometimes need) you to be. This may not seem like a challenge for some people, but when I was first starting out, I found it a little intimidating. At that time, I myself was relatively new to the bar scene and didn’t yet understand the complexities of being a bartender outside of speedy, efficient, and (at least minimally), friendly service. As the years progressed, however, I quickly came to understand that a bartender is so much more than a simple purveyor of spirits.

A bartender is an entertainer; a confidante; a therapist; a bartender is a means to an end; a consultant; a potential disciplinarian; a font of information; and sometimes even a babysitter. For every mask a bartender wears, the most important is the one that keeps you grounded, and as genuine as possible. Yes, it’s true—when you work with the public, you do sometimes have to, as they say, “fake it till you make it.” Your customers count on you to be smiling, pleasant, and courteous, which, let’s be honest, isn’t always possible. We all have bad days. The key is to be as genuine as possible, and if fakery is required, don’t overdo it. Simply keep the interactions as short and sweet as possible.

Over the years I have become somewhat of a chameleon when dealing with the general public, as I have found this is the only way to maintain your sanity in foodservice. However, this is not an approach favored by all bartenders. I have worked with many people who tend to favor a one fits all approach to bartending; i.e. good cop or bad cop, serve and go, or the party animal always looking to make friends and do a shot with the group. This may work for some, but I have always had success when I treat everyone as a new challenge, a puzzle to be unlocked, a new story to be told.

To succeed in bartending, you have to be both fluid and changeable; dependable and solid. You have to leave no doubt that you are in charge, while also maintaining camaraderie and approachability. When liquor is involved, people can behave erratically, and sometimes unpredictably. The key is to approach the unknown with an open mind, and the ability to listen, observe and relate as well as make an unforgettable beverage. It is a fine line that often has to be expertly straddled to ensure the best experience for your customers—and yourself. However, the rewards are more than just the money in your pocket, as being a bartender can help you understand human nature. For every customer, there is a new adventure as you tap that beer and foray into the unfathomable depths of human behavior. And that, in itself, is its own reward.

Lisa is a freelance writer, book reviewer, and (very) amateur photographer. In her spare time she likes to read, write, bake, cook, cook, watch U.K dramas/police procedurals and panel shows, and have her heart broken by the Philadelphia Phillies (during baseball season, of course). Though she generally avoids social media, you can sometimes find her on Twitter and Instagram @dolphy_jane.

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