Like many industries today, if you want to work in the hospitality industry, you need experience, and no job proves that more than the role of a bartender. Welcome to the role of a barback. Not many bars or restaurants want just anyone jumping behind a bar without any experience or training, formal or otherwise. If you're looking to fast-track your way behind the bar while learning invaluable information and skills or want to dip your toes into the cocktail world, working as a barback is a surefire way to get there. These tips and tricks can help guide you to excel and land a job behind the pine.
What Is a Barback?
Many consider a barback to be an extension of the bartender, their right-hand man, the key to a successfully and smoothly run bar. You can think of a barback as an apprentice to the bartender. Most busy bars, cocktails bars, and even dive bars will have a barback on most shifts.
A barback's primary duties include prepping the bar for service, maintaining stock and keeping up with demands during service, breaking down the bar, and cleaning at the end of the night. You can expect a bar to hire you with no prior restaurant experience; many bars are happy to take on those without a background as they are happy to train you to their specifications, routines, and protocols -- although experience won't keep you from getting a job.
The most essential skills a barback can have are the strength to lift heavy materials, such as kegs or cases of beers, willingness to learn, a good attitude, and an eye for detail. But the barback also needs to be a team player, as they will often help not only the bartenders but also assist servers and other front-of-house staff, including other support staff such as the food runner or the busser.
What Does a Barback Do?
Working in a restaurant means no two days will be the same. Sure, you may serve or interact with similar guests, but each day will hold a different surprise, challenge, or task. One day, you may need to change a keg while the bar is slow; other days will have five or six guests waiting on that keg to be changed.
Most days will have a similar structure, although not every task will need completion each day, especially if part of your job includes making syrups, infusing spirits, or cutting up fruit for garnishes. Some tasks may take place over the week, such as taking stock or juicing fruits if the bar program calls for in-house juiced fruits.
Organizing, Organizing, Organizing
You'll most likely be scheduled for your shift about an hour to two before the bar is due to open for service, giving you and the bartender(s) enough time to prep and set up. The barback is often responsible for putting away any orders that arrive during the day. This may include putting kegs in the cooler, rotating kegs, putting away any liquor orders, and making sure that the walk-in cooler or any storage areas relevant to the bar remain organized, neat, and labeled. Even bars are subject to health inspections.
Take care when organizing and stacking any bottles and kegs that nothing is precarious or could easily fall. It falls on the barback to clean up and mop any messes that could happen at a bar.
A barback is often the one to set up the bar, especially for dinner service or before the bar opens if it's a club. Opening a bar means ensuring a proper supply of clean glassware or even silverware; this includes polishing any necessary drinkware and stocking any cleaning rags in addition to napkins for service. Some establishments will even require small bread and butter plates to be stocked behind the bar. Stocking ice is a daily and vital task, as it's hard to stir up an ice-cold martini without ice!
Suppose the bar requires special syrups, cordials, or house-made infusions. In that case, it's often the work of the barback to stay on top of that stock and make more when it's running low or communicate to the bartender or bar manager when these supplies are running low so they can handle the shift appropriately. Communication is an important skill in a barback. You'll also make sure there are plenty of cocktail ingredients stocked, especially those on a house cocktail menu, in addition to any liquor bottles, wine, and beer -- both kegs and beer bottles.
Garnishes are a critical part of any bar program. A barback often carries out the task of cutting up any necessary fruit, such as citrus fruit, or dicing up any fruits that a restaurant's specific cocktail menu requires. If the bar program calls for dehydrated citrus or other fruits, you may be required to take care of making more of those before running out, which is why it's important to know when stock is running low, whether by dehydrating them on the premises or alerting the bar manager that more will need ordering. Do your best to ensure that garnishes and other stock never run out entirely.
Barback Duties During Service
During service, whether it's slow with just a guest or two or a busy night with a couple of hundred covers, a barback's duties remain the same: stock, clean, and assist. Keep an eye on anything you stocked or restocked at the start of the shift to ensure nothing is running too low. Be sure to restock or refill ice wells, liquor, and wine or change any kegs that kick or run out during the shift. If a garnish is running low, replenish with fruit you pre-cut at the start. This is why it's helpful to stock enough for the entire shift at the beginning, not just for a few drinks. No one wants to handle a knife rapidly while people jostle around in small spaces.
Continue to stock any glassware, polishing as you go, and finding a steady rhythm of loading the dishwasher and emptying to make sure no one is hunting down a martini glass during the rush.
It's important to immediately and safely clean any services that become dirty during service, including wiping the bar counter where guests are served, mopping up any spills, and emptying any garbage that gets full. This will keep things running smoothly and prevent any extra spillage or bottles from breaking if they roll out of the garbage bin.
You may be tasked with burning (destroying) any ice that has anything spilled or glasses that have broken in or near it for safety reasons. If this happens and you aren't right there, or you need to step away to get a bucket or hot water to burn the ice, a bartender, or you can spray a red 'x' or another design into the ice with grenadine to prevent anyone from using that ice.
A Barback's Role in Breaking Down the Bar
After the rush of the end of a service, take a deep breath and prepare to shut down the bar. If you've been able to keep up with stocking supplies and cleaning, there hopefully won't be much work left to do.
You'll first clean the bar, wipe down the counter, put bar chairs back in their place, or put them up so the restaurant can sweep and mop the floors. You may be able to preserve the ice by covering the ice wells tightly with garbage bags, although some bars will burn a single ice well each night to cycle through a cleaning routine by wiping down and deep cleaning the well.
Empty any garbage that is getting too full before continuing; no one wants to clean up spilled garbage. Otherwise, one of the last things you'll do before leaving is take the trash out with you.
Clear out and empty any bar sinks; these will collect straws and garnishes through service as glassware is dumped into the sinks rather than the garbage. If there are any bar mats on the bar or the floor, the barback may be responsible for running the small ones through the bar dishwasher and handing over any of the larger ones to the dishwasher. After you've taken care of the last bar mat, you'll want to ensure that the dishwasher's filter is clear of any debris, if necessary.
Some bars may do a quick stock of inventory at the end of the night, but as with any barback duties, these will vary from bar to bar or even bartender to bartender. A barback will often be responsible for sweeping behind the bar and the areas around and in front of the bar. If you aren't there until closing time or when the bartender leaves, always check in to see if there's anything else they may need or want help with before you head out.
How Much Does a Barback Make?
How much you make as a barback will vary from state to state. Depending on the state, barbacks will earn an hourly wage in addition to tips. Usually, bartenders will tip out approximately 5% of their sales to the barback. Other bars may base tip out on the bartender's tips. Meaning that the busier the bar is that night, the more money the barback makes. If you leave before the bartender settles up tips and tip-out, there's a chance you may not get paid until your next shift. Some restaurants will pay tips in a paycheck.
A perk to working at a restaurant can include a family or staff meal, a simple meal prepared by the kitchen before the shift, or a chance to enjoy food at a discount. Either way, you're sure to become a pro about the menu, meaning you can help to bring in additional tips for the bar and yourself by having a better knowledge of the food.
The bartender will handle most of the guest interactions, but a good barback should still have a good idea about both the bar's food and drink menu. Guests don't often distinguish between who is working behind the bar, so a barback needs to have a strong knowledge of the dishes, including what to recommend, knowing which beers are on top, and able to recommend an appropriate beer, as well as wine, cocktails, and available spirits. You don't need to know every single whiskey, vodka, or gin on hand, but knowing the five or six most popular is a great place to start. But after working closely with the stock, knowing which bar products are on hand will become second nature.
A baby barback can expect to succeed if they bring good energy, organizational skills, an eye for detail, and a bit of strength to the table. Arrive for shifts on time and remain open-minded and curious about all the new things you come across. Don't be afraid to be a team player; you may find yourself helping out the other service staff, and they'll often tip you out appropriately as well.
Moving From Barback to Bartender
There's no set timeline for moving from barback to bartender. Some restaurants may have a large pool of bartenders and won't need to replace anyone immediately, but as a barback, you can pick up all the knowledge of a bartender. What does this mean for moving up the ranks? You can easily present your case as to why you're worth promoting. There's no small job in a restaurant, and the barback is one of the most crucial roles at a busy bar.
Working as a Barback
There are no two same barback positions anywhere, and each role depends on the restaurant's needs, business, cocktail menu, and location. But working as a barback is one of the best ways to pick up knowledge at a bar as well as practical life skills that can translate to many positions. The next time you sit down at a bar, take a look and see if you can find the star behind the scenes: the barback.