From Behind the Bar: On Barbacks

From Behind the Bar

Tales from our resident bartender.

About the Author: You may have seen Michael Neff behind the bar at New York's Ward III and The Rum House. He stops by on Wednesdays to share insights on cocktails and the life of a barman.


[Photograph: Jessica Leibowitz]

What I'm Drinking: 50/50 Maker's 46/Averna (one cube) Sixpoint Brownstone Ale (half-pint)

People often ask me how I got started in the bar business, and the short answer is: "I lied." Back in the 90s, you could get away with that kind of thing; if you could make a cosmopolitan, a sidecar, and a decent margarita, you were most of the way home.

My way was risky; even then, the odds of finding a place that you could successfully bamboozle were pretty slim. I was lucky to find a joint that just really needed someone and decided to give me a shot. Years later, as someone who hires bartenders, I am rarely in a position to give someone the same chance.

Once I got started, I took to the job naturally; being behind the bar fit my temperament and personality. Talking to people just the right amount. Figuring out when they wanted to be left alone. Anticipating people's needs, and fulfilling them before they expressed them. These instincts are essential to craft of the bartender, and they are almost impossible to teach.

While I have found it true that you make your own luck in life, I am constantly grateful for the confluence of circumstances that led me to a career in bartending that is seventeen years long and counting. Good people and a natural ability on my part allowed me to do what I do today, but there are much smarter and more traditional ways to work your way into the bar business, the foremost of which is getting a job as a barback.

I have rarely encountered a job that requires the mental and physical dexterity of a barback. On paper, it looks incredibly simple; a barback washes glassware, stocks bar supplies, cleans everything, and ensures that the bartender has what he needs to go about the business of making the bar (and the staff) as much money as possible. That description does very little to describe the specifics of what a barback is expected to do. What a barback actually does can be summed up in one word: everything.

We're out of mint, and someone needs to go to the store. A food order has been sitting in the window for five minutes and is getting cold. A drunken man dropped a pint of beer on the floor, and there's glass everywhere. The phone is ringing. I'm out of limes. Twists need to be cut. And I just blew a keg that needs to be changed. All of this is happening at the same time, and whose job is it do deal with it all? The barback.

The barback typically arrives before the bartender, and stays until after he is done. He has to manage the expectations of every person with whom he works, so if one bartender likes things one way, and another likes things another way, he has to figure out how to make everyone happy. It's a grueling, exhausting job that encapsulates everything that is not sexy about working behind a bar. That, more than anything else, is why I think it is most valuable.

The fastest way to become a good bartender is to be a great barback. Learning to make two bartenders happy is the first step towards learning to make one hundred customers happy. Doing all of the grunt work in a bar is preparation for doing the same work while making cocktails—I've worked many a bar where I did not have the luxury of a barback, and had to do it all myself. Most importantly, a barback is exposed to the culture of what it is to be behind the bar, and can absorb the craft while learning the essential functions that make a bar operate.

More than anything else, working as a barback dispels the illusion that working in a bar is sexy or cool. Life in a bar has its perks, but we endure a wide and varied number of stresses to ensure that our guests have a good time. The barback often bears the brunt of this. So when you're sitting at a bar, spare a smile for the guy cutting fruit, stocking glasses, and practicing his pour. He's a bartender in training, and will be the person who will work (and own) bars that you will want to frequent in the future.