This is one of the questions I get asked the most from people looking to break into the bar business. A lot of people still think, if they want to become a bartender they have to first become a barback so they can “learn” the job. This is one of the biggest mistakes I see people make when trying to get that first bartending job. I highly advise that you don’t take a barback job if you really want to become a bartender.
Whenever I tell people this they always seem a little shocked that this is my advice. As a barback you really learn very little about how to be a great bartender. The barbacks job is a tough one. It often requires heavy lifting and physically demanding work. Depending on the bar you work at, you will be restocking coolers, changing kegs, clearing/washing glassware and helping the bartender out any way you can. The problem with all that is your never really learning how to be a great bartender. Your not learning how to make drinks, how to work the register, and how to effectively interact with your customers. The only way your going to learn how to bartend is to get behind the bar as a bartender! You are not going to learn how to be a bartender by stocking the bud light cooler 5 times a night.
Another problem I often encounter is that I have seen barbacks wait years before being promoted to bartender. Some actually wait years and never get promoted at all. Management jobs in the bar industry have a very high turnover. The promise you got as a barback from the manager is gone once he quits or gets fired. Then you’re starting from scratch with the new guy who doesn’t know you from a hole in the wall. Some managers have told me they don’t like to promote barbacks because it’s much harder to find a good barback than it is to find a good bartender. Don’t get sucked into the trap.
The only time I would recommend you take a job as a barback is if you have a strong desire (I mean really strong) to work as a bartender in a busy nightclub. If your willing to work for years as a barback and roll the dice this may be the route for you. I have seen some barbacks get promoted to bartender in the nightclub setting but I don’t recommend you take this route. I have also seen a lot of barbacks NEVER get promoted and get screwed over big time by managers/owners.
It will always be a lot easier to get a barback job instead of a bartending job. When you go and apply to jobs, managers will say they don’t have any bartending jobs open but they have a barback position. That’s just a roundabout way of saying they don’t want to hire you as a bartender. Don’t get sucked into that trap. With a little hard work and perseverance you will get a bartending job (not to mention you’ll make a lot more money). I have worked in almost every different setting in the bar industry and I never worked as a barback. I have nothing against guys who have gone that route but I think it’s a waste of your valuable time. If your goal is to be a bartender then don’t settle. The only job you should take is that of a bartender.