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What Skills Do Bartenders Need?

Portrait of bartender pouring a drink while standing near the bar counter in pub.

Service industry nightmares are a real phenomenon shared among every industry worker I know. Typically, the dream centers around an insane number of guests walking through the door which you must tend to all by yourself. Only you can’t.

Because you keep forgetting their drink orders, or you can’t hear what they’re saying to you, or you have to walk 5 miles to get to the kitchen, or any other number of disastrous and weird situations you can imagine. The dream gets progressively worse until you wake up.

The collective nightmares of industry workers emphasize just how deeply ingrained a specific set of skills used in the service industry becomes.

For bartending, the industry nightmares just reaffirm how necessary and vital certain skills are for the job. Additionally, they show how much bartenders rely on these skills and that they use them frequently enough every day to actually develop nightmares.

The following is a list of skills bartenders absolutely need almost immediately, upon hire. If you want to work as a bartender, these skills are vital, otherwise you may not last too long.

Sharp Memory

Body of bartender in black apron on background.

 

Sure you have notepads and pens. But when you’ve got people walking in the door faster than you can write, you’ll need to rely on keeping a lot of information in your head. Even if you’re not memorizing 7 drink orders and 3 entrees at once, you still need to remember who ordered what.

And trust me, after several hours into a busy dinner rush, faces begin to blend together. So your memory needs to be on point.

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Furthermore, after bartending for a while, you may pick up a few regular guests who come in every Monday and Wednesday. They order the same whiskey served neat and almost always sit in the same spot at the end of the bar. It’s better for you to remember their names and exactly how they want their drinks prepared, so you don’t need to ask them each time.

Your tip will hopefully see the difference.

Quick Thinking

When a large party walks in without reservations and they want to sit at the bar, as a bartender, you’ve got to make adjustments. You might have to move some seats around. Maybe you’ll have to get their drink orders while they’re standing up and mingling around the bar.

You must think fast on your feet in order to accommodate a sudden rush of guests and quick thinking means you’ll strategize the way you do it so it’s most efficient for your workflow, so you don’t put yourself behind too much in the process. Quick thinking is important for knowing what to do when a drunk guest is unwilling to cooperate and insists that they be allowed out the door.

Clear Communication

Restaurants and bars are often loud places. And it may seem much louder while you’re bartending during an especially busy shift. You often don’t have time to communicate with your coworkers with anything more than a look, a nod, or a hand signal.

But if you do need to relay something important about an order or a guest, you’ll probably need to do it fast. When it’s busy, bartenders need to know how to communicate with managers, servers, hosts, or other team members clearly the first time. Without clear communication, information gets lost or misunderstood, especially during a crazy busy shift.

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Attention to Detail

Close up of hands of male bartender pouring, mixing ingredients while making cocktails, alcoholic drinks at the bar counter in the night club.

Bartenders often have many details to keep track of. Drink tickets behind the bar and drink tickets for the main dining area, order modifications, money, and guests. One of the most important details you must stay on top of is the number of drinks a guest consumes.

Moreover, you need to pay attention to guests’ body language so you can spot any obvious signs of intoxication.

A bartender plays so many different roles–engaged listener, lead actor, and sometimes babysitter. I once heard a bartender friend say that her job feels like being on stage every night and I think that’s accurate. One thing is certain–breaking character during your shift is risky.

On crazy nights when the house is packed, staying in the moment is crucial to staying on top of everything without becoming overwhelmed and losing your cool. This is why performing under pressure (as someone who’s got it all together) is also a crucial skill needed to succeed as a bartender.

Thrive Under Pressure

The reason I chose to include thriving under pressure as a skill over simply staying calm under pressure is that when the pressure is on and you’re one ticket away from losing control, your workflow needs to kick it up a notch to stay afloat. In my experience, when the pressure is on, you become more focused than you were before the rush took over. If you thrive under pressure, your energy changes and you spring into action without missing a beat.

Staying calm under pressure can only last so long because, eventually, you’ll need to be one step ahead or else get swamped.

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The following group of skills can be learned, and usually are learned as a result of working in the industry for some time. After ten or more years, some skills become second nature. But if you’ve already got them fine-tuned from the start, then you’re better off.

Thick Skin

I have lost count of the number of encounters I’ve had with difficult guests. But you need thick skin to be able to appropriately deal with those who unquestionably cross the line. Whether it’s inappropriate touching, throwing items, or an unsolicited remark, you’re better off having thick skin. Not to brush it off, but to handle it without internalizing the disrespect.

Grace

Wasted woman sleeping on the bar counter.

Similarly, having grace in dealing with unruly guests or difficult situations is important. While I knew a fellow bartender who used her fist to deal with one particular patron, it’s usually not the best solution. Difficult guests are part of the job and the best skill you can use to defuse a situation is by being assertive, polite, and steering the conversation to something positive, especially when the guest is drunk.

A common assumption about what skills are necessary to work as a bartender seems to suggest that being highly energetic and bubbly and entertaining are important skills for bartenders to possess. However, my experience is that an outgoing, bubbly approach to engaging with bar guests isn’t always necessary and is sometimes not preferred. Nor do you need to be entertaining.

Organic conversation, a genuine interest in people, and a personable attitude go a long way and are much less superficial. Unless, of course, a bubbly and energetic personality is who you are naturally. Otherwise, there’s no need to force it. More importantly, it doesn’t hurt if you make the best martinis too.

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