Camper English, and some of us other writers, have been trying to get some sort of conference together for those of us that blog about cocktails and spirits.
Apparently, the food bloggers, wine bloggers, beer bloggers, and mommy bloggers have fancy conferences all the time.
Last year, during Portland Cocktail Week, Camper organized an event he called Drink.Write.2012.
The topics ranged from making money from your blog, (good luck with that,) to publishing a book, (good luck with that).
I was pleased to be in town one of the days and able to attend as well as participate on one of the panels.
I was on a panel with Matt Robold, of Rumdood fame, and Blair Reynolds, of Hale Pele and BG Reynolds Syrups. Our topic was “From Writer to Bartender”.
Tuesday October 23
1:30 – 2:30 PM
The Kennedy School Gymnasium
From Writer to Bartender
Have you ever thought about trying your hand at bartending? This sure-to-be lively panel will be hosted by three bloggers who made the switch either full- or part-time: Blair Reynolds of B.G Reynold’s syrups and the just-opened Hale Pele in Portland; Erik Ellestad of the Savoy Stomp blog and bartender at Heaven’s Dog in San Francisco; and Matt Robold, mild-mannered programmer by day, blogger at RumDood.com, and bartender at 320 Main in Orange County and host of the Rum Society at Cana Rum Bar in Los Angeles at night. We’ll hear stories of their greatest successes and failures and get advice on convincing bar managers to give you a chance on the other side of the bar.
Speakers: Blair Reynolds, Erik Ellestad, Matt Robold
Sponsor: Four Roses Bourbon
Figured, since not all of you were able to attend, I’d write up my answers to the questions here. Camper’s questions are the ones in bold quotes.
“Hi kids – Here is what I’m thinking of asking in the Writer to Bartender panel. It’s only 55 minutes long so everybody talk loud and fast.”
“Tell me about the first time you bartended – how did it come about?”
I started the Savoy Cocktail Book Project, “Stomping Through the Savoy” on eGullet.org in June of 2006.
While working on the Savoy Cocktail Book project, I had added a feature where I would take a selection of cocktails, send them to a bartender, and then go to a bar where they worked and have them make a few of the cocktails. Do a little question and answer, post a bio, and a cocktail they had created. For me, it was a way to give a little back to some of the bartenders who had inspired me attempt the Savoy Cocktail Book project in the first place.
Once I started meeting bartenders, I guess I started to wonder if I could do the job.
On the other hand, I’d worked in restaurants for quite a few years when I was younger. Why would I want to return to working that hard?
When I met Erik Adkins, I believe he had some curiosity about what would happen if he put an Internet cocktail geek behind the bar, so he gave me the chance to try out Bartending a couple nights at Flora in Oakland.
After trying the job out, Erik A. told me I had done as well as anyone else he knew on their first couple nights at the job, but asked me to think about why I would want to Bartend. I already had a good full time day job with benefits and Bartending would take away from the time I could spend with my wife.
He had some good points, I supposed, at the time, and slightly crest-fallen, put the idea of pursuing Bartending as a career away for a while.
But I couldn’t quite get the experience entirely out of my head. I had worked in restaurants when I was younger, and I was starting to feel like I missed it. I ended up doing some catering Bartending for Rye on the Road, restarted the Savoy Cocktail Book Nights at Alembic with the staff there, and eventually I convinced Erik A to give me a few shifts as a Bartender at Heaven’s Dog when it opened in 2009. When another of the bartenders left in 2010, I stepped up to 3 nights a week behind the bar at Heaven’s Dog and was able to cut my day job to half time.
“How did blogging prepare you for it?”
The best preparation from blogging is simply knowledge of spirits, cocktails, and other cocktail ingredients. To Bartend, you need to know what you’re working with, and all the research I did for the blog was great in preparing me for this aspect of bartending. Didn’t hurt that the project gave me a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of pre-prohibition and prohibition era cocktails. Also, I believe, especially, the job I did as a host on the forums of eGullet gained me some good karma and respect as a sensible, if somewhat prickly, expert in the arenas of spirits and cocktails.
“How did it not? What skills should one work on before even thinking about bartending at a real bar?”
First, when you blog, you usually do not have to talk to other people in person. The sort of flam-ey, virtual, you’re wrong and I am right, sorts of things you can do on the Internet, just don’t really work in person.
When Internet cocktail geeks think of bartending, they usually think of making different cocktails and mastering cocktail trivia.
For the most part, making cocktails is just a small part of the job.
You go to work in the afternoon, (or morning,) spend an hour or two getting the bar ready for service. Juicing citrus, preparing garnish, getting the stations set up, checking inventory, stocking, etc.
Then you spend from 6-10 hours making small talk with random customers and mixing the same few cocktails over and over.
Afterwards, you spend an hour or two cleaning the bar, stocking it for the next day, counting money, and accounting for credit card charges.
While it is important to know some cocktails and be able to make them consistently, a lot of the other parts of the job are much more important.
Finally, as a blogger, you don’t have to pay too much attention to personal hygiene. As a bartender, you may need to learn to iron and almost always need to wear pants on the job.
“What is the hardest part about bartending, or what did you have to learn on the job? How did you screw up horribly and embarrass yourself?”
There are a few completely unrelated skills which are necessary as a bartender.
First, you need the ability to relate to and remember random people, and coworkers, in a sincere, personable, and positive way no matter how you are feeling on the day.
Second, you should be able to handle money in a confident and accurate way.
Third, you need to be able to perform a repetitive task, making drinks, accurately and consistently.
Fourth, and most important, you need to do all these things simultaneously, and with the appearance that you are comfortable and relaxed with all of them. As my friend Matt Robold said, “You need to own the bar.”
For me the worst days, are the ones where a miscommunication with a customer leads to a misunderstanding and then some sort of escalation. You made the wrong drink because you or the customer asked the wrong questions. You misheard a food order or forgot to send the order for something. Usually, there is some way to salvage an interaction, but sometimes there just is not. Accepting that and trying not to take it too personally is hard.
Also, reading negative yelp reviews you know are about yourself sucks.
“How should someone who wants to get a bar gig prepare for it in advance?”
Don’t work for free for more than a very limited set amount of time. In my opinion, the so called “Stage” is nothing more than a scam perpetrated by restaurants to take advantage of over eager Culinary school graduates and lower their restaurant’s bottom line with free labor.
Working as a Barback is good experience, but generally will not lead directly to a bartender job, except in very rare circumstances. Also, Barbacks who spend all their time trying to learn to be Bartenders, instead of actually doing their barbacking job, are annoying.
The best preparation might be working in a restaurant as a Food Server, Barista, or Cook.
Other than that, know your ingredients, and be willing to work hard and learn on the job.
Also, working as a bartender for a catering company is a great way to get started, though a somewhat different discipline from working in a actual bar.
“How do you ask for a bar job? Just walk into a place like you own it and ask?”
First, spend some time at the bar or restaurant figuring out if it is the sort of place you would feel comfortable working. Stop by and case out the joint, make some small talk with the bartenders, barbacks, and servers. Do your best to make a good impression, but don’t appear over eager. Pay attention to the demeanor and apparent morale of the staff, it goes a long way towards indicating if it would be a good place to work.
If it seems like somewhere you would want to work, dress appropriately for the venue, put on your most outgoing demeanor, and drop by the bar or restaurant during a not too busy time of the day. Ask to see the bar manager, and if the bar manager isn’t there when you stop by, leave your resume and ask when s/he will have time to talk to you. Be persistent, but not annoying, we are all busy people. When you meet the manager pay attention to how s/he relates to you, remember you will probably be working for them closely.
Also, when you get the job, remember it is a real job. Showing up on time, behaving in a professional manner, and expressing a willingness to work hard will go a long way towards gaining you credibility.
Bartending, at its most basic, is usually a minimum wage (if you’re lucky), no benefits, service industry job.
Along those lines, as the joke goes, bartenders work where (and when) everyone else plays. Nights, weekends, holidays.
If you want to work in Food and Bev, you need to be willing to work those hours.
“What have you learned as a bartender – and how has it impacted your writing?”
While Bartending does open up some different subjects to talk about on the blog, it also tends to negatively impact the ability to write.
At least at first, if you are holding down a full time job, Bartending part time, and blogging, one of those things is going to suffer. Most likely the one which doesn’t pay, is going to be the one to suffer the most, and you will have a hard time finding the time and willpower to write.
As it is, you need to be pretty careful, unless you want to go all in, to set boundaries for both bartending and your day job so neither one is too adversely affected by your choices. If you’re just checking out Bartending, don’t quit your day job, and don’t let Bartending kill your chances to advance at your job. While professional bartenders usually don’t drink to excess while they are working, they often drink copiously when they are not working. If you are out until 5 AM drinking with your new bartender friends, you aren’t going to be in any shape to do a good job at your day job the next morning. Likewise, be forthright with your day job employers, if possible, and inform them about things that might affect your availability to do whatever it is you do during the day.
Speaking of being careful, you also need to be even more careful to balance work/family. Adding another job means less time with your family. You’ll have to work extra hard to make the time you do spend valuable and refreshing to yourself and your family. Not to mention, the whole, “out until 5AM drinking,” thing tends to be viewed even less favorably by your family than by your employers.
For me Bartending is an ongoing learning experience. It helps me to not just stay interested and informed in cocktails, spirits, wine, beer, and food, but also helps me to be more confident and loosen up my natural reticence to be outgoing and talk to strangers. I feel like I am a more well rounded person for having made the choice to pursue a career as a bartender.