We want YOU!

by Lindsay Nader

It's been a great year for well-made drinks.

As 2011 is coming to a close, 2012 is starting to take shape, and it’s looking good. So many new programs have been popping up all over the country, to name a few: Bar Congress in Austin, Green Russell in Denver, Maison Premiere in Brooklyn, Mother's Ruin in Manhattan, Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. in Philadelphia, Kask in Portland, Bathtub Gin & Co. in Seattle...the list goes on.

Drinkers in need deserve good drinks indeed, and with all the love being spread around the U.S., it got me thinking...who is going to work at all these places?

In Los Angeles, we are currently experiencing a bartender shortage. The rate of new businesses opening with a full craft bar program attached outnumbers the ratio of qualified cocktail bartenders. This phenomenon has led to poaching, which is the hunting and taking of bartenders who belong to a neighboring establishment.

No Yoda wants to see their Padawan, who they have given all their Jedi secrets to, prematurely snatched up by another teacher or lured away by a carrot on a string with promises of money and fame.

Poaching is just one byproduct of the bartender shortage. In L.A. we are also seeing novice hires, (who have less than a year’s training under their belt, yet want the lifestyle and laureates of their mentors), tank programs on account of bad hiring, or proprietors being forced to hire from a pool not large enough to begin with. We also have some Sneaky Pete’s, who take advantage of the shortage and the recession by offering their services as consultant and/or operator for next to nothing. By learning how much their competition charges, they undercut the consultants who are actually qualified and fool the business into hiring them instead with promises of a kick ass program, when they themselves are grossly under qualified.

I set out to find which cities, besides Los Angeles, are experiencing a shortage, why good bartenders are so hard to come by and whether this is a national or international problem.

With bartending schools seeing a rebirth through programs like the Pernod Ricard USA sponsored BarSmarts, (an affordable training and certification program where you can learn at a reasonable pace and take quizzes online), some of the demand for cocktail bartenders is being met. However, programs like BarSmarts make for a good foundation, but they won't offer you any hands-on experience in the field.

My buddy Sean Hoard of Teardrop Lounge in Portland, Oregon gave me some insight into the current bar climate in PDX. He explained to me that his city is experiencing a similar drought, where every gainfully employed and qualified cocktail bartender is constantly poached or approached to head a program, manage or bartend.

Sean also pointed out the "chicken or the egg" conundrum. "More established cities like New York have so many good cocktail bartenders because the city has so many good bartenders period," he says. A well-made point; teaching a good bartender to make specific drinks a specific way is often favored over starting from scratch. Many argue that getting their hands on someone without any experience at all is the way to go (as they are more impressionable and walk through the door totally open without cynicism or bad habits).

Sean informed me that the owner of Teardrop Lounge, Daniel Shoemaker, has established an apprentice program for those who wish to learn to cocktail bartend. On Monday nights, newbies train in theory, hospitality, execution of classics and drink development behind Teardrop's bar.

The downside to these much needed types of programs are that people leave the apprenticeships thinking they are ready to take on managerial jobs, when in reality, they have only laid the first few foundational bricks. This is a popular trend these days, which I've touched on in a previous article titled The Benjamin Button Bartender, where getting from point A to Z is prioritized over point A to B.

Sean and I started out together in New York working our way up from barbacking and hostessing. We were required to commit at least one year to our bar and spent months training with many different teachers before being given a shift. Over the phone we had a good laugh at how petrified we were when the greats like David Wondrich or Wiley Dufresne walked in the door. Our grooming matched with our admiration created humility and a desire for perfection.

Sean adds "Portland doesn't have the culture of reverence for its predecessors, like say, New York does...sh!t, I still get nervous making a Daiquiri for one of my favorite chefs when they sit down at my bar."

Willy Shine of Contemporary Cocktails based out of NYC speaks to the same note, that even though New York is full of bartenders looking for work, "it's hard to find experienced bartenders that are truly in it because they love it. Most [bartenders] these days are demanding recognition before they deserve it. Consultants that don't deserve the title and 'star-tenders' that just want their picture taken is the biggest problem with trying to find good bartenders today."

Joaquin Simo of Death & Co. in NYC and Alchemy Consulting has more to add on the subject. "Most bartenders with a decade’s experience can be set in their ways...cocktail geeks who can recite pages of David Embury have no idea how to deal with the barrage of tickets from the service printer. What you end up with is something in the middle," he says. And the ongoing trend rising out of this "middle" is a group of bartenders too big for their britches that spin any information that they are able to soak up, any hand shake or name they can muster, into a recognition-based career. 

Joaquin adds, "Suddenly the kid who barely passed Cocktails 201 is trying to create an entire beverage program from scratch...these programs start with a big press push but never live up to the hype and are usually overhauled with someone else at the helm within 4-6 months."

Oh the humanity. Look at the monsters we are creating. Is this not ultimately a disservice to our communities? Are we not forcing these businesses to flush money down the drain because we send in the under qualified to muck it up, then the qualified to clean up their mess? Goes to show, you can't believe the hype, that just because eater.com makes a mention and the press is all over something like flies on sh!t, doesn't guarantee the integrity or success of any establishment.

Joaquin drops one more knowledge bomb on the subject, "Few bartenders have the patience to really apprentice long enough to pick up the nuance of the craft. The only virtue seen less than patience is humility, as even the most experienced bartender should acknowledge they can always continue to learn."

Mark Ward, creative director at Yakusan, Sydney, Australia wrote to me, saying "Sydney has the same issues on many levels, on premise as well as off premise with bar teams for events. All the decent venues grapple to keep their teams in place and we see a turnover of staff working across numerous venues within a 12 month period."

Mark laments that as a result of this stretching of talent across multiple venues, there is no real formal identity in Australia.

I find this to be a huge concern, as a program's identity is realized through not only the quality of the product being served, but the staff coming together as a community and performing each night like a well-oiled machine. If this process is constantly interrupted, the machine can't function and the community identity is never defined. And I'm not just coming to you from a philosophical tip. This coalescence is essential for ensuring repeat customers, brand depletion and cash money for the house and staff.

Mark finds the IBA (International Bartenders Association, offering training in Europe, the Far East and North and South America) to be dated and ineffective, so two years ago he helped to create The Craft as an "alternative training platform to educate more bartenders with more senior staff." The Craft Programme is inspired by local and international growth and is a response to the need for bartender training through community and mentorship, not books and YouTube videos.

It’s interesting to get a peek into what's going on internationally, at least in Sydney. I reached out to Berlin, Barcelona, Paris and London as well, but never received a response.

Back in Los Angeles, partners Pablo Moix and Steve Livigni of La Descarga, Harvard & Stone and Black Market, are stumped for staffing the four new venues they are forecast to open in the next six months.

Their plan of attack for sourcing bartenders will be to resort to Craigslist ads, since local veins like The Sporting Life have been exhausted. Hiring credentials for their high-volume-meets-craft-cocktail bars have morphed over the years. What’s needed more than ever is a hybrid bartender with a skill set of nightclub speed and speakeasy knowledge. Pablo believes a beer-and-shot bar teaches the basics, and is a better beginning point for his and Steve's concepts. Pablo explains, "It's crash course training at this point, there is no time for the growth that Steve or I experienced when we were learning. Our guys have days to get down what we learned in years. You either get it or you don't."

Much like Mark Ward, Pablo is frustrated with current establishments, or lack thereof, that are supposed to provide community relations and training. He says, “The USBG was a great idea to begin with, but as a union it serves no purpose. It provides health insurance, but more than half of the members can’t receive it. Its training program is brand-driven and serves the agenda of Beam Global. It’s operated by Southern Wine & Spirits, which as a distributor has its own agenda as well.”

USBG offers a Master Accreditation Program which is an online training platform offering three tiers of MA testing: Spirits Professional, Advanced Bartender and Master Mixologist. The idea was to move away from accreditation as an ambiguity, and to set a new standard for beverage professionals. Great idea, however you can’t navigate the site without facing a barrage of pop up ads for Beam Global products. It’s a pitfall we see repeated over and over again when funding is dependent on brand sponsorship. If Bacardi, Pernod Ricard or Remy Cointreau were footing the bill, it would be the same story.

I don't wish readers to finish this article feeling distraught. Quite the opposite. It's a great time to be a bartender, the era of bartenders even. The profession has been re-elevated to a noble trade, gone are the days of "Oh, you bartend. What else do you do?" Let's keep it that way and not let egoism cloud the most important aspects of our profession, which is the service of making a living by making people happy.

That being said, we want YOU! And we need you, bad. Enlist your talent by heading to your nearest recruitment station (this conveniently is the bar of your choice). Join a workforce of dedicated men and woman, and help us maintain what we have worked so hard for, and remember:

When there's a wedding, people drink.

When there's a funeral, people drink.

When the stock market crashes,

When a house burns down in ashes,

With bar exam passes

And house warming bashes,

People drink.

Cheers.

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