Today we return to our “So You Want My Job ” series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable man jobs and ask them about the reality of their work. So belly up to the bar and let bartender Mike Hagan pour you a drink as he offers some advice on being an administer of spirits. Thanks for your participation, Mike; we raise our glasses to you. Cheers!
1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? Where did you go to school? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it).
My name is Mike Hagan. I’m from a small town in central Illinois. I went to school at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale (go Salukis!). I’ve been a bartender for about 6 years at a few different types of bars: city bars, small town bars, restaurant bars…my favorite by far has been the restaurant bar. The people are way more relaxed and less likely to get out of hand, which makes my job easier.
2. Why did you want to become a bartender? When did you know that it was what you wanted to do?
I don’t know when I decided that bartending would be my life’s profession. I still don’t know if it will. I studied film production and film history in college. I went out to Los Angeles after school and worked for one of the big studios out there. I found it to be soulless and uninspiring. Being another cog in the works is not my cup of tea. If I’m going to continue in this profession, I’ll probably do like most old bartenders do and eventually buy my own place.
After LA, I moved to Chicago and worked at a record store after finding the film business there to be hard to break in fresh. I had a co-worker who worked at the store as his “fun job.” The job that paid his rent was being a bartender. He only worked at the bar one night a week and made enough money in 2 weeks to pay his rent and bills. He always spoke of $500 tip nights like it was no big deal. I’m sure he was padding it up a bit, but I was floored that he could make that much money in a night. It always stuck in the back of my mind to learn how to tend bar.
3. If man wants to become a bartender, how should he best prepare? What’s the best route into the job?
It’s funny that you say “man” because it is definitely different for men than women to get a bartending job. In my experience, men need to be more prepared than women in this business. A bar manager is more likely to hire a beautiful woman than a man if they are equally qualified. I know I’ve been passed over. But it’s the nature of the business. There are a lot of bars that won’t even hire a guy in a bartending role. I’ve also known bars that, with all things being equal, the man would have to bar-back for a certain period of time before being allowed to bartend, but the woman can just step into being a bartender. It’s a reverse discrimination business. That being said, some of the best bartenders I’ve worked with are women.
The best route to getting into the job is knowledge. Know your drinks, know your beers. If you don’t know the difference between lager and ale or that a Martini is a drink, not a style of glass, then bartending is not currently for you. But the good thing is, there are multiple sources out there to get the information you need. One of my favorite sites on the web is Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s.  He writes about classic cocktails, new variations, and the life of the bartender. He also has tons of recipes listed. Also, the food section of your local bookstore probably has multiple books on the subject. Get as many as you can (even if the recipes repeat) and find some drinks you think you might like and make them. If you like it at home, go to your favorite bar and test your bartender.
There are also schools that teach bartending, but I’ve never been to one. I’m self-taught. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a bartender that went to school for it. Most of those places are just looking for a buck. And I’ve never seen a bartender wanted ad that required a degree from a school like that. Experience yes, a six-week class certificate, no. That being said, if you want to do the school route, make sure they have a job placement program. I think some of the better ones in some major cities do.
4. How competitive is it to get a job as a bartender?
Getting a bartending job in a major city is very competitive, especially at the nicer places, because the money can be so good. It’s not as bad in a smaller area. More than likely, if you have experience and they are looking to hire, you’ll at least get an interview. You should treat it like any job interview. If you come in looking like a schlub, they’re going to think you are one. There’s a quote I like, and I can’t remember who said it or exactly how it goes, but it’s something like “You can’t tell if a man is rich or poor from far away if he’s wearing a suit.” I’m not saying you have to wear a suit, but you should look like you own one, at least. Also, don’t pick up an application or drop off your resume looking like a schlub, either. They will remember and may not even call you for an interview.
Once you get the job, it remains competitive. People in the restaurant and bar business don’t like change and they don’t like the new guy. They will try to break you in and try to get you to hate your job and quit. You’ll be treated as stupid and the rookie until you’ve earned their respect. Remember, the income these people make is based on the amount of shifts they work a week…they are making their money from tips, and the new guy is there to take away their shifts and, therefore, their money. My advice is to take it in stride. I had a job where I had been there a month or so, and everyone pretty much liked me but one guy. We got scheduled together on an extremely busy night, and he tore into me the whole time. At the end of the night, with everyone gone, I was finishing up some cleaning and he was counting the tips. We had made a lot of money that night, which made him happy, of course. He apologized to me for lashing out. I told him I understood and that the whole night was crazy and stressful and it was no big deal. I didn’t hold it against him because, in the heat of battle tempers flare. He’s been a great co-worker ever since, and we now have a mutual respect for each other.
5. What sets a candidate apart from others when he’s applying?
I used to manage a bar, and with that, I was in charge of hiring. I always called references. A lot of places don’t, but I think it’s a fool’s game if you don’t. When I call, I always ask about why they left. I’m not sure, but legally, I don’t think the references can say that the person is bad and not worth hiring, but they can state facts, and those facts can be quite interesting. Sadly, I’ve had to pass on some highly qualified candidates because they had sticky fingers. One thing about this job is, although the money is good, it always has it’s down time. People get desperate. If you are an honest man, and you have an honest record along with experience, that can set you apart.
6. What is the best part of the job?
The money can be very good. And it’s cash every night. You see it. Your paycheck is an afterthought. You have a bill due tomorrow, but your check is a week away. You work that night and more than likely you can pay it on time. I actually live off my tips and stick my checks in my savings account. The camaraderie is nice. Some of my favorite nights are when it’s slightly busy with all my favorite customers. Good customers are worth their weight in gold. I have some customers that will stay all night and when it’s time to leave, after tipping me a healthy sum, will actually help me put up the chairs. That speaks volumes to me. I’ve never been a morning person, so working nights at the bar are nice. And I spend less money when I work, because I’d probably be at the bar anyway, but this way I get to be there and hang out and make money. Granted, I have to work and I can’t just leave when I want, but I still get to be there.
7. What is the worst part of the job?
The worst part of the job can also be customers. Some patrons just don’t understand that we are there to serve you drinks, not to be your slave. I’ve found that the most needy customers are the worst tippers. People have to understand that we are aware that you are there, but others got there before you, so you have to wait your turn. Patience is a virtue, and bartenders can be spiteful if you’re impatient. If you’re rude and impatient, you’ll probably wait that long for the next drink, too. Don’t scream your order at me when I’m not even looking at you and making a drink for another customer. Give me the whole order at once. Don’t send me to make 3 drinks and when I get back with them send me for 2 more. Don’t finally get me over there then have no idea what you want. Don’t pound the bar, snap your fingers, or whistle. Don’t ever call me “Chief” or “Boss.” Use my name if you know it, and if you don’t, you’ll hear it a thousand times if the bar is busy. If I’m extremely busy, for God’s sake don’t order a Mojito. Or a blender drink. It won’t be made to perfection. If it’s cold, don’t order a frozen drink. A bartender’s four favorite words are “The Blender Is Broken.”
The other thing I don’t like about the job is the Martini situation. A Martini is a drink, not a glass type. A Martini is 3 parts Gin, 1 part dry vermouth. A Dry Martini is 5 parts Gin, 1 part dry vermouth. Twist or olive. With onion it’s a Gibson. If you like vodka, it’s a Vodkatini, or Vodka Martini, if you like. Don’t ask for the “Martini List” but for the Cocktail list. A stemmed glass is called a cocktail glass, not a martini glass. Some people have no respect for the history of cocktails. When someone asks me what kind of Martinis we have, I always say “the kind with Gin and Vermouth in them. But we have an extensive cocktail menu.”
I think a true man knows his poison. I saw an article somewhere about having calling cards  printed up with your contact information on front and your drink recipe printed on back. I think that’s overdoing it, but it’s on the right track. A man knows what he wants and how he wants it. He should be able to tell the bartender in exact terms what drink he wants and how he wants it, whether it’s the classic Martini or a Jack and Coke. Order your drink specifically enough times and even the worst bartender will remember how to make it.
8. What is the biggest misconception people have about the job?
That anyone can do it. That all it is is hanging out and making drinks. That it’s not a “real job.” Just because I don’t work banker hours doesn’t mean I don’t have a real job. I have a 401(k) at my current bartending gig. And it is work. I work long hours. I sometimes have two shifts a day. I had one job where it was always a 10 hour shift, but sometimes longer. People also think that bar/restaurant people are all poor. I know people who work in larger cities than me that pull in over $100,000 a year. There is a trade off, though: you never get holidays off, you always work weekends, and you always work when all your friends are partying. It’s a solitary lifestyle sometimes; you sleep when others are awake, you work when others are relaxing, you relax when others are sleeping.
The other thing is that there are a lot of people with “chemical dependencies” that work in the business. I’ve been fortunate not to work with too many of those people, but I think the reason everyone thinks we’re all a bunch of lowlifes is because there are those people in the business, and a few bad apples spoil the whole bunch. I’ve never worked for a bar where the owner was dealing drugs out of the back, but I’ve heard horror stories. I like to think that if I ever did, my ethics and morals would cause me to seek other employment.
9. What is the work/family balance like?
I can definitely say that bartending can put a strain on relationships. I tend to miss things like weddings and birthday parties a lot because I have to work. Luckily, I’ve never worked in a bar that is open on Christmas. I don’t think I could miss that. But I haven’t been to a New Year’s Eve party in a long time. There’s a saying that there are three days a bartender will never have off: March 17, October 31, and December 31.
Women always think that it is gonna be a blast dating a bartender, but they usually find that they don’t have the stomach for it. Flirting with female clientele is part of the job. Anything for tips, right? Having a jealous girlfriend is not a good idea for a bartender. In the past, I’ve had to have girlfriends and boyfriends of my bartenders banned from the bar because they were just causing problems.
I think a lot of planets have to align just right for a bartender to find the perfect relationship. I’ve been fortunate. My girlfriend works at a local hospital where she works 2nd shift, which is essentially the same shift I work. We are both night owls. Sometimes I beat her home from work, but most times she beats me. She has weekends off, and I’ve pretty much got every Sunday off, so that’s “our day.” She likes our schedule, but wishes I could get more Saturdays off. Because she works at the hospital, she understands about not getting holidays off…she has to work every other holiday. My birthday was Thanksgiving this year and she missed it, but we’ll be together on Christmas. Just like everything in life, you make sacrifices to make the things that are important to you work out. I just hope our wedding isn’t on a Saturday!
10. Can you make a lifelong career out of being a bartender, or do most guys do it for a time, and then move on to something else?
You can, and I know a few old “stickmen,” but most guys like to get out of it. A lot of bartenders who aren’t just using it to pay through school end up being in the business, but not always as bartenders. I’ve been a bar manager. Some guys save up and open their own place, or buy the place they work at from their boss when he retires. Some move on to sales and work for the beer/wine/liquor distributors. I would like to own my own place one day; I think every bartender who loves his job dreams of it, being able to run things his own way. Depending on the type of bar you work at, you could get offered jobs. I’ve been offered many jobs, some in completely different fields, but I haven’t taken anyone up on it…yet!
11. How true is the popular cliché of the bartender dispensing a lot of wisdom and advice along with drinks? How do you handle this part of the job?
The old cliche of the broken man, crying in his beer at the end of the bar is true, but people deal with their problems in different ways. Most men don’t want to talk about it. Some guys will ask your opinion on things, but usually they’re just looking for someone to listen to them. I listen and ask the right questions at the right time, and usually they will come up with the solution themselves. I’m still young (28), never married with no kids. I’m not about to try to advise someone who has just gotten divorced after 20 years of marriage. Most people know in their heart how they feel about something like that; it’s just that they’re looking for approval that they’re right about those feelings.
I’m usually just an answer man. People are often trying to think of the name of a movie or song, and working in the business I did before being a bartender, I usually have the answer.
12. Any other advice, tips, or anecdotes you’d like to share?
If you’re at a bar, act like an adult. If you act like a teenager, we’ll throw you out like one. If you are at a restaurant bar and you’re having drinks at the bar before dinner, make sure to pay for your drinks before you leave the bar, or at least tip the bartender before having your drinks transferred to your table. What happens is that you think the bartender is getting part of your tip from the bill when it’s transferred to your waiter. He’s not. That shady waiter is going to pocket all the money and give the bartender only the required percentage from management, which is not what he would have gotten if you paid him at the bar. My best customers always pay before they go to the table.
Remember, the bartender is human. He will make mistakes. He has a boss, and he can’t just give you stuff for free. If your first drink wasn’t strong enough, pay for a double next time, because odds are he’s only allowed to give you what he gave you without you paying for more. Oddly enough, though, if you’re a good tipper, your drinks are probably a little stiffer than the next guy’s.
For those watching their caloric intake, Vodka and Club Soda with a lemon is probably your best bet. It’s stiff, tastes good, and cheap (depending on the vodka you use). And it will get you buzzed faster than those watered down low-calorie beers without bloating you.
The best hangover cure is not drinking a Bloody Mary in the morning. If you’re able, drink a glass of orange juice after your last drink; vitamin C helps metabolize alcohol up to 25% faster. Then drink 2 big glasses of water right before bed. Sleep on your left side as it creates an angle where the contents of your stomach won’t be able to rise up and give you heartburn. Wake up and exercise, sweating for at least 20 minutes, then drink more water. You’ll be fine.
And guys, lay off the Jagermeister. It’s not cool and makes you act like a frat boy.