So you have your first official shift as a bartender coming up soon and you have a million questions running through your head. We get it–been there, done that! Your very first shift can be nerve-wracking, overwhelming, and you’ll probably walk out with sore feet.
Though we can’t be there to rub your footsies when you finally get home (take some aspirin, that’ll help!), we can give you some tips and tricks before you head in.
These are tricks I wish someone would have told me to have on my radar before I went in for my first shift.
But before we go any further, you might be wondering who the heck we are to be dishing out bartending advice. Well, I’m with Local Bartending School and between myself, the instructors, and a team of professional mixologists, we’ve used our years of experience behind the bar, in management, and university studies to collect the top 10 most essential things we think you need to know for your first day bartending.
So grab your notebook, something to write with, and allow us to tell you a few things that will help your first day behind the bar go as smooth as the Tennessee whiskey you’ll be pouring.
1. Do Your Own Research (Don't Skip Over Bar Lingo!)
On your first day, you’re going to learn a lot! And I mean a lot. Your bar manager and trainer are going to be throwing you tons of information your way. And yes, you’re expected to keep all of that locked in your head until the end of time.
Make it way easier on yourself by doing some independent learning and research on your own!
The best bartenders I’ve worked with usually collect and read all kinds of books on mixology, cocktail recipes, and even the history of popular drinks, like bloody marys!
But if you absolutely hate reading, you can listen to podcasts, do some research online (looks like you’re already doing this one, good job mate!), watch videos, or head out to the bar to observe and chat with other bartenders. Some of us like to call this, “industry research“!
You can also hire a professional to come to your home and show you the ropes!
If you’re working at a chain establishment and attended an orientation shift, you might have received a few training manuals or drink menus to look over in advance. If you didn’t, that’s okay too! Most food and drink menus for bars and restaurants are available online.
Study these menus over before your first day so you can be one step ahead of the game and not have to learn so many new things on the first day. Plus, you’ll more than likely interact with a guest or two, and being able to answer their random questions about a drink will not only feel totally satisfying but will be super impressive to your coworkers and bar manager.
Finally, get to know a few choice words that get tossed around behind the bar a lot. Here are a few to get you started so you won’t feel like a total outsider.
- If your bar is out of tequila, it’s ‘86’d. This can refer to food or drinks. Your bar manager will sometimes write what’s currently 86’d on a board somewhere or you’ll hear it yelled throughout the rush loudly for all to hear.
- On the fly
- When a cocktail or food dish is “on the fly“, you need to get it to the guest at lightning speed. So if your new coworker asks for a glass of red “flying” or “on the fly”, stop what you’re doing and grab that drink!
- To “refire” something is to remake it (in a fast manner), usually due to an error in production. For example, the margarita you rang in was supposed to have no salt rim on the cocktail glass. You’ll need to ask your coworker to “refire” the marg with no salt.
- In the weeds
- When you find yourself ‘in the weeds’, you’re so behind in all the things you have to do that you can’t possibly take any more work on. You are struggling! It feels what I would imagine drowning might feel like. If this is the case and you find yourself in the weeds, or weeded, tell your teammates that you could use some help or a few minutes to catch up.
2. Know What It Means to Be in the Hospitality Industry
Being a bartender in the industry and providing hospitality is more than just being nice and memorizing drink recipes. It’s about making other people feel good; including your coworkers, barbacks/porters, and of course bar guests.
It’s not only about you! Yes, being a great bartender is about you. But It’s about how you make other people feel.
On your first day, don’t worry about being the light of the party. In fact, you might make your new coworkers and veteran staff a little peeved at you for trying to steal the limelight on day one. Talk to guests, but keep the conversation short. You’ll mostly want to stay focused on learning the new technical parts of your job and establishing trust with your coworkers.
3. Introduce Yourself to Your Coworkers in the Back
During your tour (If you don’t get one, you can ask! Or learn the lay of the land by volunteering to take the trash out.), set aside some time to introduce yourself to the dish team and barbacks if they’re there!
Your barbacks, porters, and dish team should never be ignored, no matter what type of bar or restaurant you’re working in. They’re the crew who make sure you have plate ware, clean tools, highball glasses, etc. If you start off on the right foot with these folks, you’ll be in good standing and always have an extra hand when things get tough in the rush.
4. Develop Some Physical Stamina
Speaking of standing! You’re bound to be sore after your first day. Unless you’re already super fit and hit the gym already, then kudos to you! But for the rest of us, try to develop some strength and stamina.
You’ll be getting tons of steps in, bending down, squatting–you name it. So core-building and muscle-building exercises would be super beneficial. Try yoga, strength training, or even swimming!
For some extra added layers of protection, invest in good shoes and insoles! This is super clutch when you’re working those double shifts and will keep you more energized than you realize. You can also take a few ibuprofen or aspirin if you know you’re gonna be hurting.
5. Quickly Locate Your Products, Tools, and Equipment
Once you’re actually behind the bar for the first time, take everything in! Create a visual map in your head and locate all the products, tools, and equipment that you’re going to use day-to-day. Find the glassware, craft beer, garnishes, and vermouth!
Note where the dishwasher, bus bins, silverware, and napkins are. The sooner you master the locations of the items you’ll need, the quicker you’ll be able to move on to the fun stuff like actually making classic cocktails and mastering your free pour!
6. Learn How to Change the Keg
I’m ashamed to admit that I bartended for years without knowing how to change and keg. And it really came back to bite me in the butt… quite a few times.
You’ll want to avoid taking 20-minutes during the rush when your manager asks you to go change the keg (trust me, it’s not a good look), so you ask your trainer for a quick how-to on your first day. And if you feel like you’re learning rocket science, don’t worry! It does seem like an impossible feat at first, but you’ll master it in no time.
Here’s a quick intro video for you to get started!
7. Great Bartenders Taste Everything (Both Food and Craft Cocktails!)
If you’re offered a taste of a cocktail or menu item, try it! Even if you don’t like the ingredients, TRY IT! Part of your job is to explain what things taste like to your guests, that way you can be informative, and be better able to upsell (aka make more money).
Also, when you’re making drinks, don’t be afraid to taste the cocktail using taster straws. It’s not uncommon for chefs, cooks, and mixologists to ensure what they’re serving to guests is up to par and tasting delicious! Note, it’s probably best to ask what is acceptable for the establishment.
If your new job doesn’t provide you with training meals or let you taste cocktails, you can come in during your off days or order food after your shift, as long as it’s allowed! You might have to pay for it, but being able to talk to your guests about the drinks and food you’re serving is well worth the investment. You’ll probably make your money back in tips!
8. Bring These Things With You on Your First Day
After training several bartenders and seeing a lot of first shifts, I recommend that you take a few things with you during your first job at a cocktail bar or restaurant bar.
- A notebook. Bring a notebook or notepad for notes! Too many times I’ve seen bartenders writing things down on receipt paper. Just bring a notebook! You can jot down things to not forget, quick tips you pick up on and review all of it later for ultimate knowledge retention.
- A bar manual. While you won’t have any downtime for reading, you might want to bring a bar manual for moments of uncertainty, especially if you have a solo shift. The bar manual can get you out of a pickle when you’re lost on a recipe and you’re on shift all by your lonesome and can’t find help.
- A clean uniform/ensemble. If you’re not given a uniform, make sure you know what you need to wear! Taking things a step further, make sure those clothes are clean and free of major wrinkles. Remember, you’re making a first impression here!
9. Stay Out of the Way, But Stay Busy
Being the new person behind the bar feels like you’re clunky and always in the way. No one is exactly asking for your perfect manhattan or refreshing julep yet, so you might feel like you don’t know what to do.
Here’s a general rule of thumb, stay out of the way of the other bartenders–but always stay busy. There is constant work to do behind the bar! If you’re not sure what to do, ask. But there’s almost always glassware to clean and/or put away, surfaces to sanitize, or a fridge that could use some restocking.
10. Keep You and Your Workspace Clean
“Clean as you go!” That’s a common mantra repeated in kitchens of respected chefs and the same rule can and should be applied to bartending. Your workspace is totally visible to guests. So make sure your workspace stays clean and free of debris. Keep an eye on yourself, too! If you have a little fiasco and end up with tabasco all over your shirt, try to clean it up as best as possible for the rest of the shift. No one likes a dirty-looking bartender.
Notes for Your First Time Behind the Bar
We hope you took notes because you’ll want to refer to them later.
(Pro Tip: Don’t save them on your phone, you probably won’t be allowed to have it out much! Plus, it just looks bad and is unsanitary to use your phone behind the bar.)
But if those 10 tips and tricks just weren’t enough for you new bartenders, and you want to be extra prepared for your first day making cocktail recipes, we can help!
Our experienced instructors at Local Bartending School will make sure you know how to create delicious classic cocktails (like a salty margarita using FRESH lime juice), use bar tools like jiggers and shakers, and have you looking like an experienced bartender in no time!
Plus, our community of alumni is known to share the best-known expertise and insider tips, and even job placement! Trust me, you can only find that sort of connection and ongoing education at Local Bartending School!