Ask ten different people in the hospitality industry what they think about bartender school, and you'll probably get ten different answers. It's no wonder there are so many opinions, given the variety in quality of instructors, content covered by the course, and placement assistance offered by schools. There are also differences in pricing (around fifty bucks online to five-hundred for a top shelf class) that means you may be looking at a pretty serious time and financial investment.
The problem is further complicated when you consider that being a bartender requires a very unique, specialized personality that can't easily be taught. Besides great people skills, you need the right attitude. You shouldn't approach bartending as a temporary gig or a nightly party. Attending bartender school may help set you apart as being serious about the profession, giving you an advantage and demonstrating that you’re willing to go the extra mile.
So is bartender school really worth it? Truth is, it depends.
So once you understand the challenges, have a look at your options. Each one comes with its own pros and cons, so consider carefully and maybe do some leg work first.
- The first option is to attend a bartender school. Yes, you may be putting a little money and time in up front but you’re giving yourself the biggest possible advantage by coming in with some experience. Bartender school is a little less about what you’ve learned and a little more about having a few basic skills and a certificate that says you have them. Most learning is going to be on the job which brings us to the next option.
- Work your way up. You may not be starting off with the ideal position that you want with this approach, especially in terms of pay and tips. But, many times, you have to pay your dues to move your way up the ladder. There are many more bar back, server, and door person positions than bartender positions. Just make sure, before you accept a job as a bar back, that your employer is open to advancement (some aren’t). This might mean pouring drinks when it gets crowded or standing behind the bar when your bartender is taking inventory (or having a smoke). If you think you may need a little help don’t worry, there are a ton of resources: The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique by Jeffrey Morgenthaler, The Craft of the Cocktail by Dale DeGroff, and Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails by David Kaplan and Nick Fauchald are good places to start.
- The halfway option. If you’ve already got a job at a good bar and don’t want to take all that time off and pay for bartender school, try looking for businesses that specialize in seminars. Again, you’ll want to run this past your manager before you go investing in something that may never pan out. The Bar Institute is a good example of one of these. You learn a few of the necessary skills and maybe a more experienced employee acts as your training wheels for a few shifts.
Ultimately, whether you decide on bartender school, working your way up to the position - or something in between - is a matter of your own personal preference. There is no shortage of experienced bartenders willing to weigh in on the topic, but going out and seeing what local bars require will put you ahead. Plus, be clear with your employer on your goals for the position. An open line of communication may be more valuable than any class.