What It's Like To Be ... A Bartender

The modern bartender as a "cultural priest"

Mariya Pylayev/AOLJeff Bell at Please Don't Tell



Every workplace has a star. And according to Jeff Bell, the head bartender at Please Don't Tell, a speakeasy located in Manhattan's East Village, the worker who shines the brightest in any drinking or eating establishment is the man, or woman, behind the bar. Indeed, it was the position's star power that initially drew the 28-year old Bell to bartending back when he was starting his career in the Seattle area a decade ago, he recently told AOL Jobs during an interview at PDT.

Apprenticing on the way up: Bell entered the restaurant industry at age 18 because, he said, "what else are you qualified to do" at that age? And upon working in the field he said that he realized that "being behind the bar is what I want do." He broke in the way most people do. "You get a job at a restaurant and then you work your way up from within. You figure out where the hole is from vacancies, and you prove yourself," he said.

For Bell, the entry-level position was as an 18-year-old busboy, and working early bar positions at establishments including McCormick's Fish House in the state of Washington. (The minimum age for being a bartender varies between 18 and 21, depending on the state, according to bartending.org.)

In his seven years of working as a bartender, Bell said that he has completed bartending classes, but formal training is not a requirement to land a position. "It's a trade first and you put in your time to grow from within a restaurant," he said. It's much more common to land the entry-level "gateway job" at the ground floor of a restaurant, and work your way up, as he did.

Has he ever. After moving to New York four years ago -- where there was "more to see" -- he wound up at PDT, a forerunner in the roughly decade-old movement to restore craft to bartending in a way that hasn't been seen perhaps since the Prohibition era.

And for today's craft bartenders, the denim-clad, Sam Malone "neighbor" approach is out, while bowties and a studied expertise in cocktail-making is in. (Bell was interviewed wearing a t-shirt.) In such an environment, drinking is treated as performance art; PDT patrons enter the bar through a telephone booth. This style of bartending -- also seen at New York watering holes such as Milk & Honey and the Flatiron Lounge, among other venues throughout the country -- was celebrated in June with the release of the documentary, "Hey Bartender."

Why has bartending seen a cultural transformation in the past decade? "A lot of people today are not fulfilled in their work; they spend their lives at a computer and can never actually touch their work. Here you have a finished a product -- [the cocktail]," Bell said. "People today are fascinated by hands-on work, so I think it's a reaction to our economy today."

Courtesy of PDTThe cocktail known as Cereal Milk Punch.
Bell conceded that his is no normal bartending gig. He said that when he's not working he's "constantly thinking about drinks and the bar." Countless other bartenders, however, still seek out the job as a means to get by while pursuing other endeavors. But when he's not working the 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. shifts, Bell spends his free-time inventing cocktails. He said that he's particularly proud of the Cereal Milk Punch, which New York magazine described as a "childhood-invoking brunch treat that's definitely adults-only." The drink is made of a combination of a corn and wheat whiskey, in addition to a honey liqueur and cereal milk.

Unlike most neighborhood bartenders who do not, Bell works full-time with full benefits. He makes upwards of $50,000 a year, he said. The median pay for the country's 503,200 bartenders, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is $18,680. But perhaps more so than other fields, income can fluctuate according to the worker's attendance record, i.e., how many shifts the worker takes on. Either way, Bell said, roughly 80 percent of any bartender's income derives from tips.

As AOL Jobs has reported, America's tipping custom is currently under fire, with critics pointing out that restaurant workers often lose out as a result of their customers' racial or other prejudices. As an alternative, these critics suggest, base prices should be raised to ensure these workers are getting their due. Indeed, voices like that of the chief restaurant critic of The New York Times often advocate the tipping of bartenders on every round of drinks. Bell, for his part, defends tipping, arguing that "everyone is motivated by money. The United States has the best hospitality in the world and I think there's a correlation with the chance to work for good tips."

The new standing given to bartending does have a downside, Bell added. The work is now "attracting gloryhounds" who are entering the field for all the wrong reasons. "The most important part is being engaging with customers. You have to be a people-person," he said. And everyday he has conversations on a range of topics with his customers, including his favorite, philosophy, which was his major at the University of Washington.

Being a "cultural priest," as he put it, also means being forced to listen to customers' worst confessions. It is also the bartender's job to track who's had too much to drink, or who shouldn't even be allowed to enter at all. "The most memorable thing is being spit on," he said. "But you try to keep your cool. When something like that happens, you just have to step back."

What's the best part of the job? "You get to see every side of humanity."

What's the worst part of the job? "It's a very physically demanding job," he said, saying that he's developed knee problems.

How much can you expect to be making during the first year on the job? "A neighborhood bartender can expect to make $300 to $500 a night, with tips, from Day One."

Five years in? "If you are a bartender at any bar you should be able to raise a family with a second income."

Please Don't Tell, or PDT, is located at 113 St. Marks Place, New York, N.Y.

Jeff Bell of PDT, NYC from Shannon Sturgis on Vimeo.

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photoartbyfred

Our church rents out the social hall for weddings and quncineras (sp). I am the bartender for these events. We have about eight or ten per year. The celebrants bring their own liquor, mostly beer in tubs of ice. I get paid per night and tips. Usually 5:00 until midnight. The bands are usually loud. I try to tease the people, making little jokes, nmakes the tips better. I card the ladies, better tips. Its hard work because the drinks are free so no break between orders. Yet fun, somewhat,

November 03 2013 at 3:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
nckik

I bartended my way through college, and it was probably the best decision I ever made. I had minimal school loans, which were paid off my first 2 years after college. The hours were flexible, so I could work between 28 and 32 hours a week and make more than I would at a job that paid hourly. Luckily, I had health benefits through school, so I didn't have to worry about that. Sure, it was demanding at times, and sure, there were the occasional drunks, but I would guess that it was an enjoyable job about 85% of the time. Although I'm glad to be out of the business now, I do still miss it at times....especially the quick cash!

November 03 2013 at 3:26 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Tammy is so hot

i have been a bartender in las vegas for several years now. it is a very over rated job. unless you enjoy the company of drunks, enjoy being a very under paid shrink, like to clean up after others & serving them, and like being on your feet without a break for shifts ranging from 6 to 10 hours with no real break, then yeah it is a great job....

November 03 2013 at 10:59 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
am0714

I was a bartender for many years, and owned two successful bars. I loved bartending, it's what kept me in the business, but as I got older, it did too. I was lucky enough to put enough aside to retire. It's not the best job if you have kids and you have to pick and choose your jobs carefully, alcohol makes people do crazy things. There is a pretty big flaw in the math in your article. Even at $300/night, 5 nights, it comes out at $78,000, not $50,000........The money is good, but keeping a good steady job is not that easy.

November 03 2013 at 10:34 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
ANTON

I have been a bartender in a few places, private country clubs, private VFWs, even an all black night club as the only white employee serving an all black crowd, the owner told me he needed a "token" employee but was having a hard time finding a white person to work there. I had no problem, as a bartender the only color you should worry about is green, same with the VFW, I would book a private party from the local black college and a few members would complain about it, that is until they seen the money brought in from the room rental and bar sales. Many time people don't tip or under tip but you make it up on that one guy who tips 50%, most bartenders and wait staffers are the best tippers because they know what it's like. Heck I tip everywhere, I tip when I go in to buy the domino's hot and ready $5 pizza, I tip the person who makes my subway sub, I tip when I go in to pick up my Chinese take out and especially when I get food delivered or go in and sit down. As a bar manager now I always tell my bartenders to leave your problems at the door, you are here to listen to their problems they do not come in to listen to your problems. Once you clock in, cell phones off and a smile on your face, since then they have seen their tips get much better than before I got there. So many tell me they never realized it was that easy, let them talk and you listen and act concerned. Why pay a shrink $90 an hour to listen when you local neighborhood bartender can do it for tips plus you can get drunk doing it, and those are the ones that really tip, the ones with the problems who want to talk about it, don't serve them and walk away, listen to them and they will tip well. For all you non tippers out there remember..Tips stand for To Insure Prompt Service, if you don't tip you won't get good service or you will get extra service. I don't condone that at all, make it up on the next guy, never put anything in anyones drink.Here is a good tip for everyone.. if you order a pizza delivery and don't tip I would never order from them again, don't trust people who have your food alone in a car with them when you did not tip them last time....beware..

November 03 2013 at 9:04 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ANTON's comment
oxytocin92115

if I get good service, then I will tip accordingly. I wont tip well and hope for the best. most wait staff are dull, unmotivated, and entitled. I don't cotton to 25% gratuity to get attitude

November 03 2013 at 3:24 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
fernbergbear1953

I own a bar. It`s called "Bears Den". I do it all behind the bar and behind the scene before and after closing. Want a fancy "umbrella" drink? Go away.... Want the fancy "kiddy drinks" all colored and with nutso mixes? Go someplace else.... I serve COLD beer, and many brands of it, including micro-brews. I serve 15 different types of whiskey for the shots, and 3 nice vodkas for the bloody mary or a screw driver and THAT`S IT. I serve fresh and BIG burgers with fries, pizza, and brats...and there is always a big pot of chili going. I`m no behind the bar "fix your problems here" guy. If you wanna cry in your soup...head to town and get out of my place fast, because I have no time for that stuff. Wanna drink beer and eat cheap yet good...stop by.

November 03 2013 at 8:49 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to fernbergbear1953's comment
oxytocin92115

aren't bears a nickname for something ??

November 03 2013 at 3:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dr.Juice

I've been in the Restaurant business for over 40 years. And to this day the best place to be is behind the bar. You are a big brother, Priest, problem solver, advisor and most of all your are an actor. When you walk behind my bar you are on stage. You have good actors and bad ones. The bad ones don't last. Customers tip on a great performance.

November 02 2013 at 10:41 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Dr.Juice's comment
Tammy is so hot

you enjoy being a problem solver for people you don't know, serving people you don't know and cleaning up after people you don't know? i have bartended in all kinds of bars, private clubs, fine dining, casinos, & trust me it is a glorified serving// maid job no matter what the venue!

November 03 2013 at 11:04 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
meacobb41

Everything he quotes is so true, Bartending was the best job i ever had. and now my daughter is following in it too. some places are hit and miss, but generally it pays off VERY WELL.. respect for your customers, honesty, and the ability to always be on top of the job with a smile , to me are good qualities to always have.

November 02 2013 at 10:05 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
brennemanbelkin

Bartending is a tough job, and it gets tougher as the night wears on.
After two years I was a bust-out drunk.
I decided to find another line of work.

October 31 2013 at 12:39 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to brennemanbelkin's comment
cookiecardin

It is a tough job. As the owner of a bar, I never allow the employees to drink on the job. Most of them seldom drink anyway, so it's not a huge sacrifice. They would much rather receive a cash tip equal to the cost of the shot or drink a customer may want to buy for them. They always have after hours and their days off to go out and party....but just not on my time.

November 03 2013 at 9:51 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to cookiecardin's comment
Tammy is so hot

i don't understant what this persons comment has to do with your business? just felt like jumping on the soap box and telling us what a tight ship you run? lol funny!

November 03 2013 at 11:07 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down

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