My first days behind the bar were spent as a bar back. This was in the early ‘70s, the undeniable heyday of drinking. I worked at a busy college club where the bartenders were experts at what they did and did it extremely fast. The shifts were long and hard. I washed mountains of glasses, scooped endless buckets of ice and cleaned more than my fair share of ashtrays. But the most important thing I did behind the bar was to catch on to the rhythm and rhyme of bartending.
Such was my indoctrination into tending bar. To my way of thinking, a tour of duty as a bar back is the best way to become a bartender. You learn that bartending as a nightlong series of interactions and transactions interspersed with making a few hundred cocktails.
You discover what it’s like working on stage for hours on end. As a bar back, you learn how to appear calm in front of guests even when there’s ample cause to panic.
As a bar back, I watched as the bartenders were confronted with a steady stream of situations. They usually handled the demands of the job like butter, other times they said or did the wrong thing and sparks flew. I made mental notes of the good, the bad and the ugly. Everything left its impression on me.
As a bar back, I learned the difference between a clean glass and a beer clean glass. I mastered the art of cutting fruit garnishes quickly without slicing off a finger and how to amuse guests when the bar was slow. Both can be quite painful if handled wrong.
Most of all, I soaked up what the bartenders told me about making drinks. I learned when to shake drinks and when not. They not only taught me the difference between Scotch and bourbon, they let me know which brands to push and those to steer people clear of. To me, these guys knew it all, and what they didn’t know, I wouldn’t find out about for years.
For most types of beverage operations, a talented crew of bar backs is an invaluable asset. They allow management to never get shorthanded behind the bar.
Typically every bar has shifts that are too busy for one bartender yet not quite busy enough to warrant bringing in two. The solution is scheduling a bartender and bar back to work the shift. The bartender gets the other set of hands that he or she needs to handle the rush, while the bar back get experience behind the bar. Furthermore, when someone leaves the staff, you’ve got a well-trained bartender waiting in the wings.
Initiating a bar back program is sound management. Regardless of the size, type, concept or geographical location of your operation, hiring a bar back or two may provide the last piece to the puzzle.