Between the inevitable boredom brought on by lazy summer days and the desperate need to pay my bills through the next semester, I was forced to face the truth. I needed a job. After months of avoiding allergy-infested sites and desk jobs, I finally settled on an appealing enough occupation: bartending.
While I’m not one to be thrilled about serving lonely old men cheap beer, I don’t have my degree yet. And anyway, everyone should work in the service industry at some point.
The smells of greasy food, the sounds of sh—ty bands and the mediocre jokes of failed-or-failing comedians got old fast. Somehow, it’s still one of my favorite occupations I’ve held to date.
Here are the best (and worst) realities of my experience thus far:
The minimum wage for bartenders isn’t much, regardless of the state you live in. Chances are the majority of your income will come in the form of tips, for better or for worse.
If you’re working weekends downtown, at a popular music venue or anywhere that’s relatively well-attended, you can get paid hundreds in one night. But even if you’re not working somewhere that’s always packed, bartending still tends to pay better than most food service jobs, and for less work.
Whether it’s because drunk people tip more or because you’re able to serve more people at one time, as a poor college student, the money in bartending is a major plus.
On the flip-side, a tip-driven job equates to an unpredictable payout. Not every person tips adequately, or at all. As with any service industry job, there will be instances where you do more work than the money is worth. A $60 drink tab might leave a five-dollar tip.
Worse, if you’re working at a business that’s slow, your payout might make you wish you were working at the In-N-Out down the street — at least they guarantee $13 per hour.
Plus, even if you do make bank every shift, always carrying cash tips can get annoying in an increasingly digital world.
Many bartending gigs at restaurants or pubs start earlier in the day, but drinks are most often served later. At bars and music venues, doors don’t open until the evening, meaning there’s a good chance you’re going to be working nights.
Working nights is wonderful for students who are busy with classes or internships during the day. If you’re paying your own way through college and have to have a job, you’ll never have to worry about skipping classes, missing work or taking fewer hours to fit with your work schedule.
The best times to work at a bar are also the worst times to be working. You’ll likely have to give up at least a part of your social life for the job. Friday night plans will pretty much never be a thing again; either you’re already working, or you’ll probably get called in. The FOMO gets real.
On weekdays, working nights can also be a challenge if you’ve got morning classes the next day. Like any job, finding a solid work-school balance that suits you is the key to making a bartending gig pan out.
Bartending Is a Social Occupation
If someone wants to drink alone, they’ll stay home. Bars are seen as a social space, even when arrived at alone. Thus, as a bartender, you must also be social.
Being in a position which motivates connecting with new people and learning about their lives makes bartending all the more compelling. You’ll console the downhearted, hear outrageous stories and find yourself making memories and even friends.
Being in constant communication is part of the position and allows you to build better social skills. The networks you build in college can help you later in life and bartending is an easy way to increase your connections. You never know who you’ll meet.
Not every guy/gal that walks into a bar is your next best friend. Bartending is still a part of the service industry, which is notorious for being a space where workers are treated as less-than-human. Particularly when people drink, they can easily become hostile and violent. Being aware of what is going on around you at all times is an important part of staying safe.
On a less serious note, the social aspect of bartending can often lead to flirting. (Anything for extra tips?) Getting hit on or asked to share your personal information is not uncommon. You’re not inclined to extend your friendliness past the bar. And it’s never uncomfortable to say “no.” If you’re an introvert, drawing boundaries is especially important so that you don’t get socially exhausted.
You’re Always Around Alcohol
It’s your job. No explanation needed.
College years are stereotyped as the poorest and least sober years of adulthood. Fortunately, working as a bartender often is an opportunity to score free alcohol for yourself and possibly your friends. You become the expert of mixed drinks before retirement, scoring you extra points with dates and younger siblings.
The best part?
Distributing alcohol allows you to have a better understanding of what goes into a drink and the firsthand effects of consumption. You might still be in college, but the job forces you to become more conscious of what healthy and unhealthy drinking habits look like.
The all-too-easy access to liquor while bartending makes it a terrible job to those prone to alcohol abuse. If you have or have had a history of alcohol abuse, this is probably not the job for you.
As With All Jobs, It’s a Learning Experience
There’s a lot to learn with bartending. You have to learn state and federal laws, company policies and the ins-and-outs of various types of mixed drinks, shots and brands of liquor. It’s a job where you’re often not only the “chef” but also the server, busser and cashier. Bartending requires that you learn how to multitask and thrive despite its stressful nature. There’s so much to being good at the job that bartending is often a long-term career.
But as a college student, there are only a few years to attempt to learn everything before it’s over and you move on. Perhaps the most important things you learn are to hold your ground, keep everyone safe and have fun.