An in-depth interview that may help you decide whether you'd like to become a bartender.
Curious to discover what it’s really like to work a beer tap, we met with local bartender Annie Ng to talk brews, bussing, and professional boundary-setting. Over a sunny afternoon coffee, she told Sokanu why she loves what she does, where she got started, and what it takes to make it in the fast-paced and extremely social service industry.
"My coworkers are like my family. Working side-by-side in what we call 'the trenches' — there’s a lot of camaraderie if you have a good team of people."
How long have you been working as a bartender?
I’ve been working as a bartender for two years.
And how did you get to where you are now?
I started working in restaurants starting in university after my first year. I started in fine dining as a hostess and gradually worked my way up over the years.
So you weren’t initially intending to become a bartender?
Not necessarily. It was great to be able to get the promotion. I think that’s everybody’s goal — to move up.
Would you say that the career path that brought you to where you are is pretty typical in the service industry?
Yeah, I would say so. I think a lot of people start out doing restaurant work thinking, “Hey, it’s a summer job,” or “It’s just some cash, part-time, while I’m going to school,” or “I don’t know what I’m doing with my life, so I’m going to make some quick cash.” But if you’re a hard worker, then it’s really easy to move ahead, to get better opportunities and different positions in different restaurants or different areas of the field.
Is it pretty common to move around from place to place? Or do people tend to stay with one restaurant or bar forever?
For me, personally, I find myself liking to move around every once in awhile. I like to be able to commit for a good amount of time — a year or two years — to a place. Then when I feel that that’s as far as I can get, or that I’ve outgrown it, I usually know it’s right to move on. I think that applies to a lot of people in the industry. Sometimes you don’t find the right fit right away; there are so many different kinds of atmospheres, different kinds of restaurants, different kinds of standards. There’s always something for everybody, in that sense.
So what is it about this job or industry that makes it a good fit for you?
I think the whole social aspect. I really like to develop these relationships with people. Especially the kind of place I am at now, a neighbourhood bar, really allows you to do that. Truly, you see these people who come ... every other day or even every day of your life. Their lives become important to you. The fact that you can have an impact, or just be there and listen. Just to have that kind of rapport, where you can go, “Hey, how’s it going?” and have them ask you about your life. It’s a good feeling, like having friends, in that way — making friends at work and having friends at work.
And that’s just the customers. What are your relationships with your coworkers like?
Oh my god, yeah! Some of my coworkers become my best friends. Sometimes, you’re just fighting a battle; it’s a Saturday night, and you’re just trying to get through it. Everybody’s stressed out and ... snapping at each other. But at the end of the night, you’re all like, “We did it!” It’s so nice. Working side-by-side in what we call “the trenches” — there’s a lot of camaraderie if you have a good team of people.
Does that sort of high stress situation happen often?
There are all these times that are really busy, and you’re just trying to make it through your night without screwing up too much. But I would say that restaurant work is always stressful because of these expectations that people have of you when they walk into a place. There’s always that stress of, “Oh, something could go wrong at any minute,” or “You could forget something.” Something unexpected might happen, or the customer didn’t expect it that way. You don’t ever want to have somebody leave and have a bad experience. So I think there’s always that backdrop, that nagging feeling in the back of your head that something could be wrong and be upsetting to somebody.
And so how do you deal with it, when things get stressful?
I think everybody deals with it differently at a restaurant. For me, I just take a deep breath and take it one thing at a time, try to stay on top of my game. Staying calm for me is my way to deal with it, but some people will just not know what to do and run around, just yelling at everybody. That’s their way of dealing with stress. I like to fix it, to ask, “What do I need to get done right now?” and then tackle it, one thing at a time. It’s the little steps, the little things that we always have to do. Try to multitask as much as possible.
Do those people—the ones who don’t stay cool under pressure—ultimately end up leaving the industry?
I find, yes. Working in a restaurant can be very emotionally draining. You’re dealing with a lot of people’s wants and needs and demands and everybody’s moods when they come in… Just the whole stress of being somewhere that’s busy, and always having to be “on.” If you don’t deal well with that kind of stuff, it’s pretty detrimental to your self-care and health — emotionally as well as physically. I see people who don’t handle that stress well leaving sooner than those who manage it.
Who ends up doing well in your career?
I would say people who keep their cool, are personable, and who can follow through with the things that they say they are going to do.
What kind of training or education does bartending require?
Specifically for the job that I do — because I work in the craft beer industry — they require anybody who serves alcohol in the restaurant to get their Cicerone certification, just the first level, which gives you certified beer server status. It encompasses knowing about different styles of beer, how beer is made, how to pair it with food — all encompassing how to serve beer and how to make sure that people are coming to your restaurant and getting the best experience. Other places will ask for things like your WSET, which is for wine knowledge (sommeliers are supposed to have at least their WSET 2, preferably more). There are different industry certifications as well: whiskey certifications, something for tequila… As far as bartending goes, they like you to have either on-hand experience working behind a bar or some sort of knowledge of the beverages that you’re serving.
Is there any other kind of training required?
Training in the sense that I’ve worked in all the other positions in the restaurant before — I’ve bussed, I’ve hosted, I’ve also managed. All of that plays a role into teaching you to be better at your job. Being playable, knowing how to clear your own bar efficiently. That is just as important as being able to make a cocktail for somebody. They all play an aspect in service.
What are your coworkers like?
They’re all so different. But I would say that my coworkers are like my family. We’re all very close. Like in each family, there are always different personalities at play. There’s people who are super bubbly, super extroverted. There are those who are more calm, collected… Others who you maybe don’t like so much, some people who you really like a lot. For the most part, they’re all good with people — all good at talking to and communicating with people.
My coworkers are like my family. Like in each family, there are always different personalities at play.
What makes this kind of work a good fit for you?
I like the hours. I’m not an early morning person, so the late nights are really great for me. And I like the social aspect. When I go to work … I get to see all my friends, all the people that I know.
I’m also interested in food and beverage; I enjoy good food, I enjoy a good beverage — whether that’s a cocktail or a wine or a beer or whiskey. I enjoy being able to have access to that and learning more about that too. Certain restaurants are really great about giving you an education about this kind of stuff. We do beer seminars about once a month at least. We always have people come in who are interested in what we do and we get to talk to them about that. So being able to make connections across the industry, it being a social job, the late night thing — it all works in my favour.
So how late night are we talking? What kind of hours do you work?
I’m pretty lucky as far as the bar industry goes. Because we have a restaurant license, we are usually closed by 2 am. So that’s usually the latest I’ll be at work. The earliest that I’ll ever start is 9 am, which is a possibility if you’re working day shifts. But normally I’m starting at 4 or 5 pm, working till anywhere between 12 and 2.
That’s a long shift.
Sometimes you’re on your feet for ten hours, which gets pretty tiring sometimes. But if you’re constantly doing things, I find it doesn’t really bother you as much. It’s when you finally sit down … that’s when it really hits you.
So the work is pretty physically demanding?
Yeah, for sure. It’s a lot more physically demanding than I thought the job would be.
What would you say is the most challenging thing about bartending?
I think being able to set boundaries is a really hard thing for people. Like I was saying before, all your friends are coming in and they want you to drink with them, they want to buy you shots. For me, it would be crossing a professional boundary to be taking a shot with people. It’s technically against restaurant policy, for the most part, but at the same time, these are your friends. You want to be able to drink with them. You see a lot of bartenders do that. But you can also see how that’s detrimental to their health. When your friends are always coming to hang out and they always want you to drink, then all of a sudden before you know it you’re leaving your job, you’re getting tipsy, and then you just keep going. I think that’s the hardest thing, to establish boundaries, especially with your regulars, as to what kind of relationship it is: a professional one, where you’re like, “Hey, I’m your bartender,” or one where you’re like, “Hey, I’m your friend who happens also to be your bartender.”
Another hard aspect of being a bartender is, because I’m a girl, a lot of sexism. Women in the industry are always targets of the male gaze. Whether it be in an innocent and benign way, or in a more leery or creepy way, you’re always being looked at, your looks are always being commented on. So that’s something you have to learn to manage, to handle with people who come in. But for the most part, it’s pretty good. You have the support of your restaurant. Your family’s always there to have your back.
A Day (or Night) in the Life of a Bartender
Arrive at work anywhere from half an hour to fifteen minutes early. Get changed, get upstairs, do a pre-shift meeting with your manager to talk about anything that’s new that’s happening in the restaurant — any features or specials that we’re doing that day.
Shift starts. Do a shift change with the previous bartender, communicate about what happened during the day, look at the stock, make sure you have all the liquor, all the beer, all the ice, all the glasses that you’re going to need for the night. Clean up, get ready for that.
When it’s busy, it’s just go-go-go for the rest of the night. You’re serving people, you’re making drinks, you’re pouring beers.
Start shutting down, which involves doing a restock. For us, because we’re a beer-centred bar, it also involves doing the keg room, which is the most physically demanding part of my job — having to move kegs of beer around, double stacking them. Cash out at the end of the night
After work, I usually go for a drink with my coworkers, then head home.
What kind of person would you recommend your career to?
I think somebody who definitely wants to be near people. If you don’t like people, I don’t think you should do this job. But also, people who have a sense of urgency. The people who succeed in this industry are the people who know how to hustle, the people who can work fast and work well and stay calm.
The people who succeed in this industry are the people who know how to hustle, the people who can work fast and work well and stay calm.
What kind of work-life balance do you have as a bartender?
Sometimes, not at all. You’ll be up late from working late, and you’ll sleep in until just a few hours before your next shift and have to work again. That can be hard sometimes. I work another job, so I have that going for me — a change of speed.
What kind of advice would you give to someone who was considering entering your career?
If you want to bartend at a high level, I wouldn’t go to a bartending school. All of those schools that offer you a Groupon deal, they’ll teach you a hundred drinks, then send you on your way. And you’ll think that you’re okay to bartend, but that’s not true. I think the best way to do that is to … find a bar that you want to work at and ask them for work. Tell them, “Hey, I really want to learn, I’m really going to work hard. I’ll be your barback, I’ll be your busser, just as long as I can be here and gain knowledge.” I think that’s the best way to go about it.
If you want to bartend at a high level, I wouldn’t go to a bartending school. All of those schools that offer you a Groupon deal, they’ll teach you a hundred drinks, then send you on your way.
And are bars pretty receptive to that kind of thing?
I would say that it would really depend on the person; I think you really have to want it. But I would say, yes. People are always looking for barbacks and bussers, because those people tend to rotate through restaurants quite quickly, and oftentimes people do it for seasonal work or during school. I started bussing at my job and now I’m bartending because I said, “Hey, I want to learn this.” I always offered to help the bartenders do their job, and they were very open to teaching me about their job. When I put in my dues, they thought, “You get this promotion because you work hard and you care and you’ve shown that you have an interest in doing this.”
So really, that experience on bar goes above any kind of formal training?
Totally. Nobody’s going to hire someone who doesn’t have any restaurant experience. You need to know how a restaurant works, the flow, in order to get into the industry. And the best way to do that is from the bottom up.
You need to know how a restaurant works, the flow, in order to get into the industry. And the best way to do that is from the bottom up.
And once you’re bartending, is there anywhere to move upwards from there?
Totally. I started managing a year after bartending and taking more responsibilities at work, including inventory and things like that. I recently got offered the AGM (Assistant General Manager) position at my restaurant — that’s amazing experience that’s applicable to all restaurants. From there, you can move up to become a General Manager, maybe open up your own restaurant with the experience you have… Oftentimes people like me have been recruited for sales positions at different beverage companies, different food companies, because we’re knowledgeable. Within the food and beverage industry, you can really move in a lot of directions.
Do people tend to stay in this industry for a long time? Or do most end up leaving?
I see both. I would say it’s about half and half. Some people do this for a very long time. I’ve known servers who have done this for ten years and support their families like that. Especially in fine dining, where I started doing my work, I had a lot of thirty- and forty-year-old co-workers with kids, houses ... So it’s definitely feasible. But I also know a lot of people who are just transitioning into different work or are soul searching and go into restaurant work because it’s accessible and there’s a lot of opportunities… They just do it for a little while and then move onto something else.
Why do people leave the industry?
They would leave jobs because of managers, or management in general. But to leave the industry, it’s either because something better has come along, or because you just don’t want to do it anymore. You don’t want to go to a restaurant and have to put yourself out there. When it becomes a chore, rather than enjoyable, that’s when a lot of people leave.
What do you wish that you knew before you went into bartending?
I wish that I knew to look into doing industry-certified courses right away. I think it’s really helpful, even if you’re not working in a restaurant where you need to know a lot about, for example, wine. I think it would be cool to look into doing that kind of formation.
The other thing that I wish I knew would be that it’s really hard to leave once you get the “golden handcuffs” on.
The golden handcuffs?
Cash. Cash every night. It’s hard to leave, but it’s not so bad. They’re golden for a reason.