A recent podcast by T. Cole Newton and Steve Yamada broached the subject of how doing what you love sometimes does not pay the bills. In one instance, they interviewed Nick Jarrett who I have grown to know through his recipes due to his amazing palate. He lamented the fact that craft cocktail bartending makes it a challenge to earn a living, so he currently splits his time between The Cure, the preeminent cocktail destination in New Orleans, and a pair of dive bars there where he makes most of his money to live.
This was a topic that was rather poignant for me for I had just left a craft cocktail program for a more volume establishment. The bottom line became apparent: that making fancy drinks with perfect technique and garniture was not especially scalable, and in fact, it made it impossible to pay my bills, for this and other reasons more specific to the establishment, its design, and its location. I traded my Instagram-able drinks with fancy imported glassware for less splendor, but an hourly take-home that was literally double what I had been making doing things that I was proud of.
This is not an uncommon story of people opening or joining a high concept bar program, only to leave a few months later due to not being able to pay the rent or enjoy luxuries in life like eating a meal out at a restaurant themselves. I remember years ago being surprised when I heard a friend discussing why he left a famous cocktail lounge here in Boston. He described how the $50-70 in tips each night minus the cost of dry cleaning his outfits would not allow him to live in the city. This was in the opening few months of this multi-award winning establishment’s life, but it does frame the cost of being involved in these top-notch programs. There are definitely models that have succeeded with the right location and price points to allow the bartenders to make money by bringing in the clientele looking for that experience. Sometimes this is hit upon right off the bat, or more likely, adapted over time to fix the issues. Some mix their craft drink-making with volume moments by being located next to sporting venues or business districts, or they are better-known for their high-end food that allows some leeway on having a high quality but low volume cocktail program.
There are definitely some bartenders who stick it out for the training and the hope of where the experience could lead them -- all with the diminished wages being the cost of education and accreditation. Others stick it out with an optimism that things will get better. Either way, savings are often burned or credit card debts rack up.
An issue that lead to this poor profitability can be the amount of time necessary to set up the bar for service. One place in town doing more tropical drinks had the whole bar team show up 3 hours before open to start with their juicing and syrup making program that ranged from preparing standard citrus to more complex fruits like pineapple. Other challenges there included that the drinks were so involved that the bartenders had less time to deal with their guests (and sometimes needing an extra bartender in the tip pool just to handle the labor), and the ones making most of the sales and hence the money were the servers who could move the drinks and the food faster to a greater number of seats. Pricing the time, effort, and expense of these drinks can also out-price them for the market. Guests may show up for a single round before continuing their night at a lower key and less expensive venue. Moreover, if there is a kitchen, they may skip the pricy food or only order an appetizer instead of a full meal. Even with a solid beer and wine program, a place known for its cocktails will have a harder time to get guests to order these easy to prepare options.
Are there ways of getting the best of both worlds? In terms of the dynamics, there are many ways of batching drinks and utilizing draft systems or bottled cocktails to speed up the delivery during service with more of the work being done on the backend before guests arrive. Properly set up stations with bottles, tools, refrigerators, and sinks in close proximity can also make or break the equation. Many of the other options, such as less-complex garniture and the like come at a cost of the finished product, but it may mean the difference of moving more drinks and having staff that will not be perusing the job boards on the regular. Financially, pooled house situations or higher server tip-outs can help, but often there are some servers who will coldly protest this maneuver. And I have met servers who used to be bartenders, but they saw serving as more money in fewer hours and less work. Campaigning for a better bartender hourly or a prep staff so bartenders spend less time doing things other than facing guests and making drinks are options; however, management often enjoys the thrills of cheap labor and actively resists that. Some of my bartender friends are lucky enough to have wages and sometimes benefits that show that the owners care for their situation, but this is more of a rarity from what I gather.
It can all boil down to whether the management can be reactive enough to look out for their staff instead of solely keeping an eye on the sales and other numbers that look more at how the house itself is doing. Does the management look into whether their bar staff can earn a competitive wage given the program? Does the bar manager ask too much of the team in order to make their own name at the others’ financial expense? Uncompromising vision can lead to high turn-over if the numbers do not work out for the staff despite the local media, Yelp, and perhaps international bar associations singing praise and gifting awards all along the way. It can seem like a trade off at times of being proud of your program versus getting paid for your labor.
Many seek out middle of the road quality vs. volume establishments, or mix the highs with the lows (in both volume and quality) akin to Nick Jarrett’s decision to work a craft cocktail and a popular dive bar that I mentioned above. Cross-training like this can provide valuable lessons in bartending. Working in a lesser quality bar program will teach both humility and how to get people to like you for you and less so about the fancy drinks or arcane beer knowledge you possess. I have also witnessed some comrades stick it out while trying to work 6 or 7 days a week to make what their peers can do in 3 or 4. Others have done the high quality-low pay route for a time to make a name for themselves before bailing on the profession for more lucrative jobs like sales reps and brand ambassadors.
I am still trying to figure things out as I strive to pay my way in a city that seems to get more expensive to live in by the year. And it seems that I have more observations than answers here, so please feel free to join in conversation in the comment section below with your thoughts and advice.