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To The Graduating Class of 2010

A little while back I got an email from a reader named Dustianna. She had worked her way through college as a server and a bartender only to realize that she enjoyed those jobs more than the one she would likely find with her degree. She was curious if I had any advice for someone in her shoes. And, since I just witnessed a few of my friends graduate a couple weeks ago and find themselves in a similar situation, I wanted to share my advice to her and to anyone else in her shoes. I know I'm a far cry from Uta Hagen, the prestigious speaker we had at my commencement from the UW-Madison whose three minute speech basically amounted to "Life's a bitch, get a helmet." But I raise my glass to Dusty and I share my advice to her in the hopes that it may be helpful to any other like-minded folk who recently graduated. 
Your situation reminds me a lot of my own history. I graduated in 2000 with my English degree and realized that I enjoyed my time behind the bar more than anything else that I had done or studied. So, having been in your shoes 10 years ago, do I have any advice for you now? Sure. I hope this doesn't sound like an insincere Hallmark card, but: follow your heart and work hard at what you enjoy. Listen kindly to your friends and family when they tell you what you should be doing with your life and your degree - as they undoubtedly will - but don't take it too seriously. I graduated college 10 years ago and my mom just recently stopped telling me I should move back home and take business classes at the U. Her heart was in the right place, but there was nothing I would've rather been doing than dominating a busy bar and entertaining customers. I have 3 older brothers: one with a PhD, one with a Master's, all of them with very professional jobs. But one of them calls me every week to live vicariously through me (humans weren't meant to be in cubicles all day.)


If you really enjoy the job of bartending and the life of a bartender, then do it and do it well. Spend the same kind of time and effort you did on your degree learning everything you can about the service industry, bartending, mixology, etc. Try new cocktails and give rockstar service. Network with other bar staff in your town so you can be fluid in where you work. As you get older, you'll want to work in different kinds of bars (college bars are less appealing at 25, nightclubs less appealing at 40); if you have a good network of friends in the industry and you've developed your skills, you should be able to easily move into the best job you want.  And take advantage of the fact that you're a woman. I've worked for a number of bosses (and been denied jobs from just as many) who were always looking to hire cute girls behind the bar. Make the most of that. But god help you if you rest on just that, cuz I will come to your bar, order mojitos one at a time, and stiff you. Attractive bartenders work in every bar in my town, but I can tell you the three of them that can run circles around me behind the bar, make a better Sidecar, and still have time to tell a dirty joke. And those girls rock. And 5 years from now, they'll still be making twice as much as the cute bartender down the block, who's been replaced by someone younger and cuter.

If you've never lived anywhere other than where you grew up or went to school, now's the best chance you'll have. And you have experience in the most versatile job - you can do it anywhere. My dream was to move to Las Vegas, which I finally did at 26. Turns out Vegas wasn't my kind of town after all, but I wouldn't trade that experience for anything in a heartbeat. Even if I did just finally finish paying it off. If you dig the city you live in, cool. If you're curious about other cities, there is no time like the present. Go for it.

All that being said, I will caution you of a few things. First off, don't get caught up in the party. A lot of people in our shoes didn't use their degrees because they were afraid to grow up and bartending was an easy escape that didn't challenge them. Don't be that girl. Don't get caught up in partying it up 5 nights a week because you work in a bar and can sleep past noon. It's easy to do, and I'm sure tons of fun, but you'll be worse for the wear down the road. You know how we make fun of the 40 year-old guy with the ponytail hitting on 22 year-old girls in the college bar? He didn't set out to be that guy; it crept up on him. Don't be that guy. Be deliberate with your life. 

Another thing to be aware of: friends and relationships. Your friends that got 9 to 5 day jobs out of college, you'll see less of them than you'd like. They'll come into your bar on Friday nights, but you don't really get to hang out with them, and when you're looking to have fun on a Tuesday night, they've got work in the morning. Most of my college friends are married by now and half of them have kids. Most of my bartender friends are single or bounce from relationship to relationship. Depending on your hours, it can be really tricky to maintain your friendships, let alone build a relationship with someone who doesn't share a similar schedule. I have at least one girl a week leave me her number at my bar (used to be more, I must be losing it), but when I ask them out for a Monday night, they don't get it. The weekend is my work week, my money shifts. If you can create a schedule that allows you flexibility, you'll be much happier down the road.

And a final word of warning: don't let yourself get burnt out. The weight of stressful nights where you're 6 deep for 4 hours, people barking at you, rude customers, inept coworkers, drunk assholes, fights, etc., combined with a late night schedule that doesn't leave time for your day job friends... that eventually starts to wear on you. I still enjoy what I do and I can't imagine what else I would be doing, but after 13 years behind the wood, I'd be lying if I said I still show up to work with the same spark of excitement that I did when I was 22. Truth is, that's why I started teaching. It's rekindled my excitement and it's more rewarding than anything else I do. Find your outlet, whatever it is, so that you don't take the stress home with you.

It's great that you want to move into management around 30. That's pretty common and pretty smart. Be cautious about setting hard timelines - your priorities may change and you'll only be disappointed if you didn't hit your timeline. But keep active and open in your search for new opportunities that may come your way. If you really want to get into bar/restaurant management, start now by asking your boss if you can help out with extra tasks. Learn to write the schedule. Ask how the liquor order works. Suggest ideas for the menu. Make friends with your distributors. Let your boss know. A good manager knows that you can teach just about everything we do to just about anybody, but somebody with passion who really cares about what they do is invaluable.

Bartending is an exciting career, unlike anything else, one that many, many people make a good living at. And whether you're bartending or in management, the hospitality industry is anything but boring. Ooh, and it keeps you young like nobody's business. One of the hippest people I admire most is a 52 year-old Director of Operations for a local restaurant chain, and she doesn't look (or act) a day over 30. I once asked her how she managed to be that way and she told me that having a bunch of twenty-somethings as her peer group, day in and day out, never let her grow up too much or grow old too fast.


My Best Wishes to the Graduating Class of 2010. Follow your passions and work hard at them. And if Uta Hagen, or anyone else, ever tells you that "life's a bitch, get a helmet", rest assured it can be. But a perfect martini is so much more useful than a helmet.

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References (2)

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    Response: Avelina Dearman
    Flair Bartending, Bar Products, Bartending, Mixology
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    Response: Gilberto Varin
    Flair Bartending, Bar Products, Bartending, Mixology

Reader Comments (5)

thanks for the advice chris :D

more updates please hehe

June 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJed

great words of advice chris!
sure it will help alot of people, including me! thank you

June 9, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermatt

this article really gave me a lot to think about, and your closing statement really made me smile! cheers chris.

June 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPete


June 13, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermait

I was an English major as well, but a dropout, who, at age 23, decided to learn how to bartend, the better facilitate my writing schedule. Some fifteen years later, to my surprise, I'm still slinging the sauce, still writing, my second book just published, and I think the advice that Chris the bartender gives to Dustianna is about as good as it gets.

July 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRay

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