Tips for Job Hunting: Stories from a Few Dozen Bartender Interviews

by | Aug 19, 2019 | The Bar Career | 0 comments

“Do you still work at the Malibu Pork Hotel?” I was asked at the start of a job interview. (There is no Malibu Pork Hotel. Names have been changed to protect the incompetent.)

“No,” I replied. “Not for a couple of years.” My resume stated the same.

“I’m confused. I called them today and they said yes, you still work there and they love you.”

This sort of thing happened a lot at the Malibu Pork Hotel. Do you get why I don’t work there anymore?

After 20+ years and forgot-how-many jobs, I’ve been on a lot of job interviews. Some have been doozies. I was once yelled at in an interview. (Didn’t get that job.)

I’ve learned a few things along the way and hopefully some of my offbeat stories can help offer some “lessons learned” for other bartenders looking to interview for a new job.

Lesson #1: Interview Your Interviewer

Whether you need a better job or just any job, interviewing well is an important skill. You need to be prepared and know what you want to learn about your potential employer.

After all, they’re not just interviewing you. You should be interviewing them, too. (That’s how I got yelled at.)

I was in a big waterfront restaurant for the first time. I had tried to arrange for an early afternoon appointment early in the week. Somehow they scheduled me for 4pm on Saturday.

I knew this was a bad idea.

My interviewer began listing various sections of the restaurant, stating: “You’ll start out working (here) and maybe (there) but you won’t get to work (there) until you’ve been here a few years.”

We were taking up a four-top in the middle of the dining room. As four o’clock spread to five, the place was getting busier. My interviewer was looking around with increasing agitation, knowing she should be with her current employees instead of me.

“Do you have any further questions?” She asked.

“You mentioned the various sections where I might and might not be working. Can you show them to me?”

She snapped. “You’ve not hired! I’m not giving you a tour! You can come back on your own time if you want to look around.”

What to learn about this? Trust your first impressions. I was never offered the job, but I’d never expect that manager to change her stripes, and frankly I wasn’t interested if my interview was an indication of how the place was run.

I once worked for a manager who gave me the initial impression of just being burned out and tired. With a lobby full of applicants, she said to the host: “Tell them no more interviews today.” She never looked at us. I later learned that’s exactly how she operated. She’d rather comp a whole table that actually talk to them. If I’d trusted my first impressions I wouldn’t have wasted my time.

Lesson #2: Make a Pre-Interview Visit

Scout the place before the interview. I dropped in at a bar once for a couple beers the night before an interview. Nobody knew me and I was able to get a feel for the joint before interviewing.

You’ll get a feel for if the staff is happy, if they get along and how the management operates. And do this on an ordinary weekday night. Anyone can be busy on Friday or Valentine’s Day. See how the joint runs on an average day.

Lesson #3: Think hard about how bad you really need It

Are you working (or eating) right now? Is your current job pretty good, but could be better? Are you interviewing someplace so good you just want your toe in the door?

You need to identify this. I’ve always believed that I could take two lousy lunch shifts, pick up some more and eventually be a valued full-timer. Just put me in, coach.

If you’re looking for a better job, how do you know if the tips are greener on the other side? That’s a tough question I’ve already written about. You’re in a strong position.

If you really need a job now, you’re in a tough spot. You don’t want to take a job you’ll regret later, and you don’t want to pass on a job that won’t be available later. But you gotta eat.

I once interviewed (down the road from the yell-at-me place) with a bar manager on a Wednesday. The fellow said he liked me and I should talk to the dining room manager tomorrow.

I did. I said I’d talked with the bar manager yesterday. “Oh, he doesn’t work here anymore.”

Yet she offered me a job. I said I had a few interviews this week (including the place that yelled at me) and I would talk to her about the job on Monday.

I called for her on Monday. “Oh, she doesn’t work here anymore. Would you like to come in for an interview?”

The same thing happened to me next door the next week. That street is haunted.

Yet in hindsight, maybe I should have taken that job after the second interview. It was a great location with a popular name. If it was going through managerial turmoil, I could be one of its solid new pieces. Even if later that week I found a better job, I could have dis-accepted it.

Run through all possible scenarios in your head. What if the place seems unstable? What if they offer you a job on the spot?

Lesson #4: What to do with an offer on the first date?

I expect the hiring process to include at least two interviews. What do you do if you’re offered a job after the first one?

This has happened to me a few times with various results:

  • I was spreading resumes all around. I got an interview on the spot and was instantly hired. The next day I was called for an interview by the place next door. I told him I already had a job. It turns out, the first place was heavily seasonal, hired every spring and laid off every fall. It was a bunch of losers and rookies (and me). I left after six weeks, got a job next door and was told he knew I’d be back fast.
  • After a failed attempt to be a full-time freelance writer, I really needed a job. I was offered a job five minutes after walking into a dive in a bad part of town. She didn’t believe I’d want to work there, based on the nice places on my resume. I assured her I was truly into it, despite my heart being scared. I gave the job back after a week and was gone in two. (Oddly, half a year later, I actually found a great dive bar job.)
  • Around the same time I interviewed at a new bar. One of the owners already knew me. He was friends with a former bar manager and had seen me at my best. The job was mine instantly, but the place was weeks from being finished. No way could I accept the job now. No way could I estimate how much business I could do there. It didn’t even have furniture yet.

It’s so tough gauging the value of a minimum wage plus tips restaurant job. Use your instincts, read the vibe of the staff and guests and check some online reviews. In the end, you just might have to dive in and test the water. You can always quit.

Lesson #5: Always Be Hunting

Even if you love your job, always be looking for another one. Make it a habit to glance at the digital want ads. At the very least, it keeps you in touch with area news. Did your neighbor just fire their manager?

Things change fast. If management or ownership suddenly pivots in a direction you don’t like, you’ll be more prepared. You’ll know who’s hiring. Better yet, you’ll know who’s always hiring. A local bar posts something like this every month or so:

IMMEDIATELY HIRING BARTENDAR PLEASE APPLY IN PERSON 666 BARHELL ROAD

So how often does a bartender chuck their apron, take a slug off a whisky bottle and storm out the door with the tip jar under their arm? Let’s not work there.

Maybe your dream job will open up for a brief window of time. Always have your finger on the pulse of business in your area. This business is highly unstable. Your next gig will be so much easier to find.

Lessons Learned

This business, whether working or looking for work, is never short on characters. Whether you’re looking for your first or fifteenth job, remember that interviews are a two way street. Do your research, prepare yourself, and put your best foot forward. But be ready to walk if it’s not the best fit.

Unless you need to make rent. In which case, do what you gotta do!

What’s your craziest job-hunting story?