Guest Shifts: Apprenticeship for Fun, Profit, and More
An important distinction between a stage and a guest shift tending bar is that stages are mostly paid for in experience while guest shifts are generally more lucrative and a little less formal.
Special events can require an extra set of hands, and it’s often friends and colleagues of short-handed Bar Managers who respond when the Bat-Signal goes up. Sometimes an invitation to visit a friend in a different city can turn into a surprise shift behind a strange bar.
Guest shifts can also be a huge learning experience, especially if the bar is a little out of the ordinary. Coup is a bar in Manhattan’s East Village that pays it forward, pushing profits directly into charity. Timothy Garso, Beverage Director of the Galley Group (Pittsburgh, PA), is one of the many guest bartenders to work a shift at the socially conscious watering hole.
Garso enjoyed the chance to chat with Amor y Amargo’s Sother Teague, who’s part of the spearhead behind Coup. But, Garso adds, “it was also great to see how deep a charitable aspect can go in a traditionally for-profit business model. Since my shift at Coup, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to increase the impact of our charitable giving. When our company expands to Cleveland later this year, we’ll do so with a new take on our charitable program, one that we can implement and scale up with each successive market.”
While usually more informal than a stage, treating the experience of a guest shift with the same reverence is a free deposit on your future. Asking around town if someone needs a free set of hands is not only a great way to make some quick beer money, but it helps build your reputation as a utility person, a jack (or jill) of all bars. Being willing to take on duties such as barback shifts also shows humility and helps keep bartenders grounded.
Some bartenders will deliberately take time off between steady jobs to work a series of guest shifts. It gives them an opportunity to keep their skills sharp while learning new techniques. When it comes time to pick a new bar to call home, not only do they have a much better idea of their strengths and weaknesses, but more importantly, they have a strong idea of the style of service and bar they most enjoy. As a bonus, they also have a much larger network to leverage in their job search.
Starting the Search for a Guest Shift
As with anything in the bar industry, your search should start with your network. Leveraging your existing relationships is a great way to get your feelers out to see who may be interested in having you – or who just needs a spare set of hands.
Leveraging Social Media
A simple post on social media can go a long way. If, for example, your bar is closed for renovations for the week, posting something like this on Facebook may help:
“Hey (City) Barhive- as you may have heard, (Your Bar) is closed for the week, and my cat is already sick of me. If anyone needs shifts covered, I have two free hands!
As a guest bartender, the real currency you earn is the experience, much like a stage. The money is just icing on the cake. Being able to work a variety of levels of service or handle different styles of bartending keeps your options wide open. When bar managers are having trouble covering shifts, it’s the proven guest bartender that’s on the top of the call list.
Have Cocktail Shaker, Will Travel
Being known as a utility bartender can help when it comes to travel as well. A few well-placed emails or calls and you can set up a few guest shifts to help defray the cost of travel. Not only is this a great way to make connections in new markets, but it also exposes you to new backbar strategies, drink styles and products. Being familiar with liquor reps, laws and bartenders in other parts of the country can be an enlightening experience, and one that helps keep your future career options open.
A quick email to a friend (even better if they’re a Beverage Director or a local USBG officer) in a different market might go something like this:
I was planning on visiting your fair city for a week or two. Do you need any help at your bar or know anyone who does? I have to pay for the drinks I owe you somehow. Looking forward to seeing you!
Even if you don’t have any connections in a market you want to visit, there’s no reason you can’t make new ones. An email or phone call with a quick introduction and timetable will help get the ball rolling, whether you’re looking for a more formal stage or just a night behind a new bar. Start a list of USBG officers and Lead Bartenders you’d want to work with and send a few letters of introduction. When approaching these new situations, intimidation can be a big factor.
“Anytime I read about a guest bartender, it’s typically someone I know of and respect,” says Garso. However, he adds, “don’t be intimidated or let a lack of experience hold you back.”
As you grow your professional network, these conversations can become easier and less formal, and a guest shift or two can eventually be set up with a simple text. As informal as these agreements and conversations may get, never take these relationships for granted, and always make good on your promises.
Remember that as you’re representing yourself, you’re also representing your home market. If you’re not a good guest, you’re making yourself and your market look bad, and it’s unlikely you’ll be invited for a return engagement. At the end of the day, bars are a business, and while these experiences can be enjoyable, remember to enjoy yourself in a professional fashion.
Keep the Cycle Going
While not as formal as a stage, guest shifts are in their own way part of the same ecosystem of knowledge exchange and mentorship that nourishes the entire bar community. It may be as informal as helping a friend out, or it may be a bit more involved and professional, but the result is the same.
The bartenders that are part of this ecosystem are eager participants. “Eventually, when you’re at a similar point in your career, be the one who’s there with open doors for the eager to learn,” says Garso. Approach the bar with an open mind and there’s no telling what you’ll take away from the experience. Open your doors to a guest bartender, and there’s no telling how much it will help grow the bar community.
In the final part of this series, we’ll explore the front lines of the major cocktail events. Official apprenticeships at these world-class conferences are a cocktail bootcamp not for the faint of heart, and we’ll discuss how to make your application shine.