Thursday 14 June 2012

Diary of a Barback

I find I'm having a lot of trouble writing posts and articles these days and just as much trouble promoting them. While I don't think about drinking less, between two fairly new jobs I just can't find the time to focus on it. However, working as a barback, or bar support at a reputable (not coincidentally one of my favourites) bar in Vancouver has allowed me to get a behind-the-scenes view of how a bar works and of the process of serving drinks (as I'm sure most of you know - there's a lot more than mixing and placing it in front of you). I've learned a lot about service, the craft, spirits, wine, beer, the system of running a bar, and I've gained a huge new respect for people in the industry - and this includes hosts/hostesses, servers, managers, owners, and everyone involved.

I feel a good way to keep myself writing is to do little entries on things I've seen or learned after a shift behind the bar or things that have occurred to me days later. I hope that this can be a bit of a resource for anyone barbacking right now or anyone trying to get into it, but I'm also hoping to involve bartenders and other people in the industry and encourage comments, emails, and tweets to create discussion and further insight.

I will start with something small, but in concept something huge. A bar on a busy night is a system. If it's a good bar with good bartenders, it's a finely tuned system. The job of the barback is to really learn how to fit into this system and contribute to its efficiency. Every bartender works differently - speed, style, layout, when he/she grabs the glass/tin, what he/she double-strains, how the citrus oils are zested, and so on and so forth into further minute detail. Learning how your bartenders work is one of the first keys.

Learning how to contribute to the bartenders and their systems and styles without getting in the way is ultimately your job, and after you've learned how they work you need to slowly learn how to anticipate when you're needed. For example, if chits (drink orders) aren't printing out like mad for a small period of time, you can really look at polishing glassware, bussing dishes, emptying bottle bins, or even checking for any booze that needs restocking. These are all things that might cause problems if it gets really busy, so do them when you have the time.

When the chits really start coming, pay attention to them. The bartender (if there are two) making drinks for the restaurant (the other bartender will usually take care of the bar itself) has a ton of orders, look at them and see what you can do yourself. In fact, do this all the time. Any beer, wine, spirit, or non-alcoholic drink order can be taken care of without bothering the bartender. If it's crazy busy, it has to be taken care of without bothering the bartender.

The next step is knowing what the bartender will need for the drinks, whether it's busy or not. If a Mojito or Old Cuban order comes up, make sure he has the mint handy. If a Dark And Stormy comes up, make sure he has both ginger beer and Gosling's rum right next to him. If an order comes specifying a whiskey or gin from the backbar and not the well, grab it right away and place it next to him or on the bar in front of him (or her, please excuse my choice of pronoun for ease of typing). This is where drink knowledge really comes into play as well; if you know what a Dark And Stormy is, you know that it requires Gosling's, lime, and ginger beer. A Last Word requires Green Chartreuse, which the bartender might not have in his well, and so forth. Keep an eye on the chits, keep an ear on the orders coming from the bar, and anticipate what the bartender will need.

On this same note, pay attention to his well. If he's low on a certain spirit, place a new bottle where there's space next to him and mention that you grabbed it already - and remove the cork/cap! Also, keep an eye all the time as they're pouring drinks, if you want to be perfect, they should run out of Tanqueray gin right as you're handing them a new bottle with the cap removed. When it's really busy this won't be possible, so again, keep an eye and make sure you restock where necessary when it's slow.

Lastly, stay out of the way.
Nothing seems to annoy a bartender more than having a barback in the way when he has ten drink orders up and he's hunting for a spirit and he's out of lemon juice and you're standing right in front of the fridge chatting with a customer. Be very aware of your surroundings, stand as close or as far to/from the bar as possible to leave space (I work at a very narrow bar), and never stand in front of commonly used areas like the pass. This is another case where catching up during downtime pays off - if the bartender already has a new bottle of lime juice and some mint in his well when he gets to the Mojito orders, he won't have to get annoyed trying to reach past you.

That's it for now. I hope to impart more knowledge and get more discussions going soon.

Again, please comment, email, and tweet at me with questions, responses, or arguments.

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