I see the term “Elite Bartenders” loosely thrown around out there in bartender world. Not a fan of that description. Sounds “elitist” to me. No bartender is “elite,” but there certainly are good bartenders and not-so-good bartenders. And there are exceptional bartenders. Count on it.
But what, exactly, makes someone an exceptional bartender? You know, the guy or gal who can get a bartending job anywhere he or she chooses. The calm, cool, and collected guy behind the bar of an incredibly busy place.
Customers call him by name, the barback can barely keep up – and the cash register seemingly rings incessantly. He is in possession of the 7 Skills and Qualities Bar Managers are Looking For!
Let’s Define an Exceptional Bartender
He maintains a neat and clean bar. But that’s not exceptional – it’s his job.
He shows up for work, on time, for every shift. That makes him a punctual, reliable employee – but not exceptional.
He gets along well with customers, his boss, and fellow employees. That makes him gregarious – not exceptional.
He knows how to make drinks properly and pour a beer with a perfect head. Most all bartenders can do that – it’s certainly not exceptional.
He consistently rings up more in bar sales, per shift, than his fellow bartenders. But that’s not exceptional – every bar has someone who does that.
Maybe you won a bartender speed-pouring contest. Congratulations! I truly admire the skill you possess in being the speed-pouring champion of your State. That makes you an extremely fast bartender – but not an exceptional one.
Maybe you work in a “flair bartending” type of bar. That’s great, as I have always marveled at your skill and showmanship. It takes many months, even years, to achieve the level of skill you possess. You have earned the accolades. But flipping bottles and wowing the crowd does not make you an exceptional bartender. It makes you a flamboyant one.
You may have seen an “Elite Bartenders” list like mine somewhere. You know, “20 Traits Elite Bartenders Have!” “The 10 Must-Have Characteristics Every Top Bartender Possesses!” “15 Crucial Skills All Top Bartenders Must Have!” Yes, I’ve seen them also.
The issue I have is that these lists will cherry-pick one of the many traits or characteristics from my list of seven skills and qualities and simply go with that. In my opinion, each skill or quality is a combination of multiple skills. I’m going to attempt to explain that in a more understandable way throughout this article.
Exceptional bartenders are the complete package – they possess most, if not all, of the skills and qualities that Bar Managers are looking for.
For example, I see a lot of these lists point out that “teamwork” is one of the skills all top bartenders must have. Of course teamwork is important! It is a core skill – or common skill. Teamwork falls under #4 AND #6 on my list – Soft Skills and Trustworthiness. But it doesn’t make you an exceptional bartender.
You might ask, “Are nightclubs or other crazy-busy bars the only place to find exceptional bartenders?” Nope. On the contrary, you will find exceptional bartenders working anywhere and everywhere.
Many bartenders have one or two of the below skills and qualities. Some bartenders possess a few more. Unfortunately, some have none. But there is the rare few top-of-the-line bartenders that somehow acquire all of these skills and qualities – the exceptional bartenders. And they go home with the tip money to prove it.
So, what are the skills and qualities the exceptional bartender possesses? My opinion. My years working behind a bar. My experience working with some of the most phenomenal bartenders out there. Yes, it’s a very subjective list.
I’m not a psychologist, business analyst, or anthropologist. Just a guy who knows an exceptional bartender when he sees one – and has worked side-by-side with many of them.
So, here we go. My very subjective list of the 7 Skills and Qualities Bar Managers are Looking For. There is really no particular order here, and no one skill or quality is more important than the other; however, if you were to twist my arm, I would put “Soft Skills” and “Completely Understanding the Customer Experience” at the top of the list.
Let’s define a few terms here first:
Skill: The ability to do something well; expertise
Quality: The standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something.
Exceptional: Unusually good; outstanding
1. Bartender Experience
Definition of Experience: Direct observation of or participation in events as a basis of knowledge.
There’s no getting around this – experience counts. Knowledge comes from experience. There is a reason why some bar owners and managers will hire “experienced only” bartenders.
Filling out a drink order for a dozen people, rectifying a customer complaint, handling an unruly bar patron, or checking in the weekly liquor order – no inexperienced, brand-new bartender can walk into a bar for the first time and instinctively know what to do.
You might say, “Experience isn’t a skill or a quality – it’s, well, experience! Why is experience even listed in your 7 skills and qualities of exceptional bartenders?”
Fair enough, but through bartending experience you acquire and perfect your hard and soft skills. That, in turn, contributes to being an “exceptional” bartender. I’m not going to argue semantics here, but please understand that the first thing most bar manager’s will look for on your resume is bartending experience.
Bartending experience is what allows you to “fine tune” the additional six skills and qualities of exceptional bartenders that I have listed here.
It is not my intention here to discourage aspiring bartenders with no experience to apply for a bartending job. But it is what it is. Believe me, there’s plenty of bar managers and owners out there that will hire those with no experience. And, some Bar Managers will even hire inexperienced bartenders at nightclubs. But that’s a topic for another day.
Experience is accumulated over time. That’s why, in my opinion, there really is no “Advanced Bartending School.” I am, however, a big fan of bartending schools that teach the basics – and maybe some intermediate “stuff.” But teaching advanced bartending? Nope. Working behind a bar is your advanced training. It’s called “experience.” It’s where bartenders become exceptional.
Bartending experience is not what most people think it is. Sure, knowing how to properly make drinks or suggesting a good wine is part of it – but every bartender can do that after a short time on the job. It doesn’t make you an exceptional bartender.
So, what type of experience am I talking about here? Experience dealing with people. Exceeding a customer’s expectations. Great customer service, understanding bar profitability, and the responsibility that comes with serving alcohol.
Experience being efficient and fast. Hard and soft skills. Situations that every bartender runs across throughout their career. Experience acquired only through countless hours behind a bar. And, probably most importantly, completely understanding that providing a great customer experience trumps everything.
Every bar is different. Every bar owner and bar manager is different. Fellow bartenders are different. Customers are different. Situations in one bar are handled differently in another bar. The more experience you have behind the bar, and in different establishments – the better you’ll be. Make no mistake – bar managers are going to look at experience FIRST. Period.
2. Bartender Efficiency
Definition of Efficiency: The state or quality of being efficient, or able to accomplish something with the least waste of time and effort; competency in performance.
Please, don’t confuse efficiency with speed. They are two entirely different skills that just happen to play well with each other. Efficiency sets you up for speed, and exceptional bartenders use both to create a synergistic effect. In other words, 1 + 1 = 3.
So, how can a bartender become an efficiency machine? Practice and experience. Providing the bar manager with good, alternative ways of making the bar more efficient. Knowing his bar, working with what is on-hand, multi-tasking.
A word about multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is efficiency. I see many of those Top 10 lists I spoke about earlier include the skill of “Multi-tasking.” I agree. This skill is extremely important. It’s a core skill, but exceptional bartenders take multi-tasking to a whole new level.
Organization is everything. Are all supplies on hand and in their proper place? Backups close by? Previous bartender have everything set-up properly for your shift? Or, are you setting up everything properly for the bartender relieving you? All efficiency.
What about tools? An exceptional bartender keeps his tools within easy reach – and he knows how to use them.
Math skills? Gotta have them! Quoting the total cost of a round of drinks – while making the actual drinks. Efficiency.
A good Memory? Check. Remembering what drinks you’re currently making while taking an additional order is not easy – for average bartenders.
Waste, comps and spills are all accounted for. No exceptions. An exceptional bartender does this without even thinking.
Bottle/Wine opener in his pocket – in good working order.
Dirty glasses and plates are never left on the bar. Busy times are no exception, and an exceptional bartender plans ahead.
Taking multiple drink orders. Combining customers and servers drink orders. Pouring a drink for that regular customer you saw driving into the parking lot. Efficiency – not to mention great customer service.
Changing kegs, CO2, soda canisters, stocking beer coolers. No problem here – these tasks are accomplished quickly and efficiently.
He knows that regular customer is going to have five drinks – why is this customer waiting for his third drink?
He knows the POS System backwards and forwards. Fingers fly across the keys, and mistakes are rarely made. Proper key for every product! Understands the importance of categories and proper accounting.
Placing/returning bar tools to their proper place. Maintaining the correct position/order of all liquor bottles. Frequently used liquors are within arm’s length.
Combining the servers’ drink orders with those sitting at your bar. Taking an order while ringing up a sale. Cleaning as you go. Instructing the barback. All efficiency.
Glancing at, reading, acknowledging customers – all while performing other tasks. Efficiency.
Exceptional bartenders know their products! They know every beer, wine and alcohol brand in the house.
The bottom line is, the more efficient you are, the more money you make – and the bar owner is happy. Don’t think for a moment that the bar manager isn’t observing you. And your customers. Maintaining an efficient bar is one of the skills that all bar managers are looking for.
3. Bartender Speed
Definition of Speed: Rapidity in moving, going, traveling, proceeding, or performing; swiftness
All things being equal – speed wins. Every time. Exceptional bartenders are fast. Crazy fast. Scary fast. And the casual observer probably doesn’t even notice.
As I mentioned in the previous section, speed and efficiency are two entirely different things – but they go hand in hand.
The bottom line: The quicker you are – the more money you put in the cash register. I get it – some bars will never see a “three-deeper.” Many bars are casual, mellow, and everything seems to flow at a slower pace. Fantastic places to work, and the money is good; however, most every bar, at some point in the day, is probably going to have that period where things pick up. Exceptional bartenders are able to switch gears quickly and pick up the pace. Speed.
But what about those insanely busy bars that you really want to work at? You better be fast – or you’re out the door. And not just fast at making drinks. Fast means fast – performing all tasks. You gotta move fast, my friend!
First of all, let’s get this “speed” thing correct. Speed is so much more than serving two Vodka Martini’s, a single-malt neat, and a gin ‘n tonic in 13.2 seconds. No, speed in a bartender’s world is much more than that.
Speed loses its effect if a bartender cannot add up the price of drinks on the way to the cash register. Or gets lost on the way there. Yes, we’re talking about efficiency working with speed here, but speed comes into play in almost every component of a bartender’s shift. Move or you lose.
Pouring liquor, washing glasses, fingers flying over the cash register/POS system. Reading drink orders coming from the food and cocktail servers, adding up the cost for a round of drinks, listening/hearing drink orders and proceeding with only partial information, and on and on and on. This sounds a lot like efficiency, and it is, but you better be able to perform all of these duties at a fast pace. Speed.
Blending up some margarita’s and then washing out the blender while taking a customer’s drink order. Speed and efficiency. Quickly opening a small bottle of champagne while answering a question from a customer about the bar’s appetizer menus. Speed. Pouring two draft beers at the same time – with a perfect head. Speed.
Some people are blessed with natural athletic ability and great hand-eye coordination. Some of us aren’t – and really have to work on speed techniques. You don’t have to be the fastest bartender in the world – you just have to be fast. Exceptional bartenders don’t run. They move quickly and naturally – with a purpose.
Let’s not forget another important aspect of speed: Changing gears. There’s a time for speed – and a time to breathe a little easier. What do I mean by this? Exceptional bartenders know when to slow down. Buzzing around during slow periods doesn’t do anyone any good.
Bar managers are looking for bartenders that can move. Fast. Let me give you an example of a technique I used when conducting bartender interviews: Prior to sitting down with a job applicant, I would instruct them to “have a seat over at that table in the bar – I’ll be with you in a moment.” And then watch them navigate their way to the table. Slowpoke? Moves quickly and efficiently? You can learn a lot from this simple technique. A lot.
The very best bartenders understand the importance of moving quickly. They better, because bar managers certainly do. Speed.
4. Bartender Soft Skills
Definition of Soft Skills: Personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with others.
Briefly, soft skills are interpersonal skills, and coveted by every manager out there in every business and industry – the Food & Beverage Industry included.
Where “Hard Skills” have to do with knowledge and expertise in your particular field (like the ability to make drinks efficiently), soft skills are about who people are – and not what they know.
You can get better at hard skills over time, but soft skills are tough to change. You cannot change someone’s attitude. You can’t change their personality.
Many studies have been done concerning soft skills – far beyond the scope of this article. Based on my experience, and my opinion, I have listed below some of the most desired soft skills in the Food & Beverage Industry:
- Effective communication skills
- Ability to work as a team
- Problem solving skills
- Work ethic
- Critical thinking
- Conflict resolution
- Positive attitude
An exceptional bartender has many, if not all, of the coveted “Soft Skills.” Think about it. You can hire someone with a great personality – but they’re consistently late for work. Or, they can easily get customers laughing over almost anything – but won’t help the cocktail server garnish the drinks. I could go on and on.
What I find interesting with the above list is that many “Top 10 Bartender Skills” lists usually cite a couple of entries from this list. Personality is almost always one of the selections. That’s fine, and it’s certainly true, but cherry picking one or two qualities from the above list just doesn’t cut it.
Personality is not the king of the soft skills, and, through experience, I came to this conclusion many years ago. There are just way too many other soft skills that exceptional bartenders need besides a great personality.
A great personality alone is not going to get you the job. It doesn’t make you an exceptional bartender. It certainly helps, but these days bar managers are asking a lot more detailed questions – trying to dig a bit deeper into a person’s character and soft skill levels.
Soft Skills is a very deep subject. They differ among industries, and can seem a little confusing sometimes. There are many types of soft skills, as I noted above, but when it comes to working behind a bar, in my opinion, demeanor is the king. And that’s why I pulled it out of the above list and designated it as a “Top 7.”
5. Bartender Demeanor
Definition of Demeanor: Behavior towards others; outward manner.
Also: the way that someone behaves, looks, dresses, speaks, etc., that shows what their character is like. Demeanor is a combination of many soft skills.
I pulled “demeanor” out of the Soft Skills section. Do you remember where I mentioned above that many people who compile lists like this like to cite multiple soft skills in their lists? Well, that’s exactly what I’m doing here. Because it’s so important.
Take a good look at that bartender working behind the bar. How does he conduct himself? Is he polite? Attentive? Does he carry himself well? Does he go about his business in an efficient manner?
How about his personality? Yep – we finally get to the word “Personality.” Personality is listed on almost all “Top 10” lists of bartender skills and characteristics. I don’t have a problem with that, it’s just that “personality” is only one part of a human beings’ character. It’s one aspect of how a bartender conducts herself behind the bar. It’s part of his demeanor.
How about facial expressions? A person’s demeanor is expressed not just verbally, but in many non-verbal ways. How many times have you gone to a restaurant or bar and been served by an employee who has a sad face, a furrowed brow – or even a scowl on their face? That’s their demeanor, my friends, and there’s no place for it behind the bar.
Exceptional bartenders understand that it’s all about perception. Customers are smart – they can sense others’ emotions. So can Bar Managers.
A bartender with an exceptional demeanor has a winning attitude, engaging personality, and communication skills that will knock your socks off – all rolled into one. He’s flexible, adaptable, and great at conflict resolution and problem solving. His work ethic? Beyond reproach. The total package, loaded with “Soft Skills.”
Think the bar manager isn’t trying to detect some of the “Soft Skills” you might have during the interview? Think again. Besides experience, Soft Skills – demeanor in particular, are what’s going to get you through that interview with flying colors.
6. Trustworthiness/Working For the house
Definition of Trustworthy: Responsible, reliable, honest, and can be completely trusted. Being trustworthy is a moral value. Some consider it a virtue.
Yes, you could say that “Trustworthiness” and “Working For the House” are two different things. They are. And aren’t.
Working for the house means you are trustworthy. No free drinks allowed? You don’t give out free drinks. No drinks served after 1:45 am? No drinks are served.
Will the bar owner leave you in charge while he’s at the bank? Does the bar manager trust you to check in the liquor order? Trustworthiness.
Exceptional bartenders are trustworthy. Management knows it. Customers and fellow employees know that this bartenders’ character is beyond reproach.
Managers and bartenders alike understand that it takes a long time to build trust – and one incident to totally destroy it. It’s almost sacred.
I’m a big fan of Stephen Covey:
Trust goes both ways. Many bar owners have a hard time trusting their bartenders because they’ve been burned too many times in the past. Bartenders can mistrust their employers because of broken promises or mistreatment.
Exceptional bartenders don’t have these issues because management trusts them implicitly. Believe me, for top-of-the- bartenders – if management doesn’t trust them, they’ve probably moved on a long time ago. Trust is a two-way issue.
Many people compiling a list like this would say that working for the house is simply “Teamwork.” Yes, working for the house does involve teamwork, a coveted soft skill, but it’s so much more than that.
Let’s get teamwork out of the way. Working in tandem with others, willing to help out your fellow co-workers, following house policy – all of this is teamwork. The bar owner trusts that his bartenders will always be team players. No matter what.
Truly understanding the power of teamwork is a coveted soft skill and makes you a great team player – but not an exceptional bartender.
So, then, what exactly do I mean by “Trustworthiness?” Let’s start with loyalty.
Definition of Loyalty: A strong feeling of support or allegiance.
It’s quite simple, actually. An exceptional bartender understands exactly who is signing his paycheck. Following the bar’s house policies is never an issue for this guy. He’s the consummate team player. And believe me, the bar owner has a pretty good idea of who is a team player and who is not.
Is there a hiccup in the flow of work? Resolve it. Or, bring up the subject with your boss and find an acceptable alternative. You work for the benefit of the house. The bar owner trusts you to bring these things to his attention.
Go ahead – give him a pour test. Really? This guy doesn’t need a pour test!
The bar manager wants you to push those six cases of wine he bought at a discount? Sell it!
“That’s not my job!” Maybe not, but the exceptional bartender pitches in when he can – he knows that it benefits the house.
He never gives out free drinks without management approval and accountability.
The Bar Manager trusts that he’ll show up on time and ready to go. Proper uniform, physically fit, well-groomed.
“We pour a shot and a half for regular drinks, 2 ounces on the rocks, and 2 ½ ounces for martinis. I know what the liquor cost should be. If the cost starts getting out of hand, I’ll put you back on a jigger.” Words never spoken to an exceptional bartender.
An exceptional bartender always protects the house. A customer’s ID looks altered – but you could be wrong? Don’t serve them. Or get the manager.
Complaints from fellow employees? Find out what is at the heart of the matter and help solve the issue – or bring it up to the bar manager so he’s aware of it. He never joins the complainers! An exceptional bartender always suggests solutions to management instead of complaining.
“If you pour a little heavier – I’ll hook you up.” I’m very sorry, sir, but we poor a good shot here – and that’s what you have in your drink now. In most situations like this, the customer is basically asking you to rip off the bar owner. Exceptional, loyal bartenders know exactly how to handle situations like this.
They know how to sell. Suggestive selling, up-selling, selling themselves. Once you know how to do this smoothly, and without being pushy, you’re truly working for the house. And trustworthy.
Always display a positive attitude towards management. This includes when you are off the clock. If you’re bad-mouthing your boss while out drinking with your buddies – get a new job. Or, maybe you should look inward.
You get the picture. Exceptional bartenders work for the house and are loyal to the bar owner. There are no trust issues.
7. Completely Understands the Customer Experience
We’re not talking about “Customer Service” here. Customer service is completely different from the customer experience. Let me explain.
Bar owners work hand in hand with their employees to create a great customer experience. Without this teamwork, you’re left with inconsistency, unhappy customers, and poor profits – if any.
It’s the bar owner’s job to make people aware of the bar. To get them in the front door. To provide a safe, comfortable environment with great food and drink. In other words – to have a great experience.
The owner hires bartenders, and other employees, who understand his priorities – and do whatever it takes to help him achieve his goals. The most important of those goals is to ensure that all customers are having a great experience.
It’s the bartender’s job to provide a great customer experience so that customers will return time and again. That is the bartender’s job – to work hand-in-hand with the bar owner to provide a great customer experience. Period
Notice that I didn’t say “provide great customer service.” I want you to pay particular attention to this: Great customer service is a simply a tool to help provide an awesome customer experience. A tool that is just as important as the proper lighting, reasonably priced food and drink, and a winning attitude.
Everything depends upon the bar’s profitability. No profits – no business. And exceptional bartenders understand this completely. If the customers have a poor experience – ouch.
So, then, what is the bartender’s role in all of this? Of course there is a job description – many bars will have this spelled out, in writing, upon hiring you. However, it took me a few years to understand what I was really doing behind the bar during a shift. And it’s simple.
I was simply hanging out with people. Blending in. Having great conversations. Anticipating their needs, and providing suggestions and solutions to their requests. Being nice! I just happened to be making drinks and maybe serving some food while all of this was going on.
Music blaring so loud that customers have to yell to each other in order to be heard? Lower the volume!
Drunk regular customer knock over someone’s drink? Replace it with a smile!
Steak overcooked? Really? Fix it – now, and with a smile.
Acknowledge customers immediately. Actually, anyone who walks through that front door. Not after you’ve made those drinks. Not when you get done washing glasses. Immediately. Sometimes just a glance with a nod of the head works wonders.
Customers good-naturedly giving you a hard time? Give it back!
Always, always, always, invite your customers to come back and see you.
Too hot in the bar? Get the manager to turn down the heat.
Customers celebrating their 25th? You know what to do!
Fellow employee in the “weeds?” Help them out – graciously.
Customer doesn’t know what to order? Make the perfect suggestion.
All of the above, in some way, contribute to a great customer experience – and an exceptional bartender knows this. It’s not just about what’s going on at the bar. It’s the big picture.
The ultimate goal of an exceptional bartender is to have a brand-new, first-time customer return to your bar, and address you by your first name while calling out his drink order. And then continuing to come into the bar on a regular basis – and spend his hard-earned money. That’s it.
You’re doing exactly what you’re paid to do. Through your diligence, you have assisted the bar owner in creating a great customer experience
If you, as a bartender, can consistently help provide a great customer experience – you are exactly what a bar manager is looking for. You’re hired!
As I mentioned at the start of this article – this is my list of the seven most coveted skills and qualities that bar managers are looking for. My list, and mine only. It’s quite different from most lists you see out there on the coveted bartender skills.
My opinion, my experience, my idea of want truly represents exceptional bartenders. Yep – it’s very subjective, but aren’t all lists of this kind?
If you would like to learn how to be a bartender, check out How to Get Your First Bartending Job.