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Bartending for boomers: Prepping for your new career

Can you ever be too old to professionally bartend? In part one of this series on boomers who bartend, tips for the dreamers.

You’re retiring soon. No more “have to’s,” just “want to’s” from here on out. And you’ve always wanted to be a bartender.

Bartending can be fun, but it’s also hard work. You’ll be on your feet for long hours, won’t get paid much (In Atlanta, $4 an hour is considered a high-end base salary for beginners), and you'll probably start out working a slow shift. On the good side, as customers learn to trust and enjoy your libational handiwork, tips will flow and your skills will soon be in demand.

To help you make a better informed decision for yourself, here's some advice from a boomer who decided late in life to give bartending a shot.

Learn how to bartend before you call yourself a bartender. It’s a profession, not a hobby. You’ll be called upon to do far more than just shake and pour. Your reputation as a whiz at whipping up frozen margueritas at your home parties will certainly help, but it can’t hurt to invest in a good bartending course to round out your basic experience. Many bartenders will tell you to skip school and plan to learn on the job. That may work for younger people, but for us older folks (with whom young bar managers will have little patience or tolerance for mistakes, trust me), I highly recommend bartending school. You’ll get hands-on training behind a simulated bar and your instructor will drill you on accuracy, speed and memory. You're taught simple mixology tricks, the basic groups of drinks and how to make them, what you need to know about liquor, liqueurs and mixers, and how to set up, organize and manage your bar.

Most courses also cover your legal responsibilities of serving alcohol, including how to recognize various stages of inebriation and when and how to cut a customer off–important knowledge for any bartender to have.

Courses range from online training at your own pace to two to six-week classroom sessions behind a simulated bar where you work with dyed waters in real bottles to simulate liquors and mixers. It’s a bit intimidating at first, but trainers are patient and you’re given adequate time to practice your skills. Just don’t break any glasses– there’s usually a small fee for each one you drop.

Prepare to do business. Bar owners and managers can be verrry focused on the profitability of the bar. Each venue runs its bar operations differently, from how to work the cash drawer and run tabs to how to measure and count pours. You may be expected to always up-sell your customers to more expensive brands (something you may or may not like doing), share your tips with the servers (who almost never share their tips with you) or pay for a broken glass or bottle, drinks dissatisfied customers send back, or overpours (yeah, so many pours to a bottle, so each bottle has a value, which should be reflected in your cash drawer at the end of your shift. That’s how precise it can get.). Your best bet is to brush up on your selling skills, learn to count fast and accurately, and manage your tip jar.

Get in good physical shape. While many bars have barbacks (indispensable members of any good bar team) to keep your bar stocked, you’ll sometimes have to do your own running, fetching, lifting, climbing and stooping. I once tended bar for a catering company where I found myself rolling heavy food dollies, lifting boxes of liquor and racks of glasses, and hefting huge bags of ice. This didn’t sit well with my lower back. At another job, the lift door on the bar was covered with glasses. The only way to get behind the bar was to crawl under it. This didn’t sit well with my arthritic knees. You’ll also need to be able to stand on your feet for hours at a time. And if you’re operating the bar alone, you may not get all the potty breaks you would like. Prepare yourself appropriately. Some places ask you to walk trays of drinks to tables. You’ll need to be well balanced, graceful, and light on your feet. Also learn to be comfortable working in close or crowded spaces–you know, just in case you don't get the mahogany flagship you've always imagined yourself commanding alone.

Maintain good vision and hearing. Make sure you can see at all ranges and can work well in darkened areas. If you have trouble seeing in dim lighting, plan to only work day shifts or at well-lit venues. You’ll also need sharp hearing so that you can pick up a customer’s order easily over loud music, room chatter and other ambient noise. Keep your hearing aid precision tuned and, if possible, capable of filtering out background noises.

Watch the brain farts. Senior moments can hit at any time, when you suddenly won't remember what goes into a rum and coke. Just keep smiling until your synapses function again. Minimize these moments by building your memory skills. If you can memorize up to 50 drink recipes, brands, wines, beers or interesting facts about alcohol, you’re in good shape. A good (clean) joke repertoire also comes in handy. The more stuff you can memorize, the faster you’ll be able to prepare and serve, and the quicker your customers will fall in love with you. Of course, no bartender keeps every possible drink or fact in his or her head. Many rely on flip cards, electronic note pads and other devices to quickly look up recipes or info they don’t know or remember. If your memory is just so-so, focus on memorizing one category of drinks, and keep notes handy on the rest. Truth is, most of what you will serve will be beer, straight pours, simple highballs, and wine, in that order. If you work where designer martinis and specialty cocktails are the draw, you’ll learn to prepare those in less than a day or two. Prepackaged mixers and flavored straights make it a lot easier these days.

Stay cute. Face it, we live in a youth-oriented society. Try to look at least 10 years younger. Lose some weight, if necessary. Unless your gray is spectacular, consider coloring your hair to minimize it. Substitute weighted contact lenses for the trifocals and avoid garish makeup, badly fitting false teeth, old-lady wigs, comb-overs and unsightly nose and ear hairs. Make sure your smile is bright. If you’re missing teeth, smiling with your mouth closed can be sexy, if you do it right. The Mona Lisa attests to that.

Build a flattering wardrobe. Many establishments have a uniform, which makes it easy for you. If you can wear what you want, keep it simple and flattering. Just go easy on exposing cleavage, unless you're built like Pam Grier or Raquel Welch, or chest hair, no matter who you look like. The atmosphere of your venue will help you find a look. If the place is sedate or sophisticated, dress accordingly – a safe bet is a white tuxedo shirt and dark pants or skirt. Unbutton the collar to look sexy-casual. If the atmosphere is fun and colorful, indulge in outfits the customers will enjoy seeing you in – Hawaiian shirts, short-sleeved dashikis, jumpsuits, western gear, whatever you consider your personal style to be. Leave the bangles, long, heavy necklaces, oversized dangly earrings, and clunky cufflinks at home.

Tie your hair back or wear it short and wear sleek serving gloves if you have very mottled hands. Invest in a couple pairs of good walking shoes. If your boss expects you to wear heels or stiff dress shoes behind the bar, you’re working in the wrong place. And please leave your old business attire in the closet or sell it to a consignment store. You’re retired, remember?

Coming next: Landing Your First Job.

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