Ask the Bartender: How Much Do You Make?

It's that time of week when we answer the questions you're too drunk or shy to ask...This one comes from Stephanie:

How much do bartenders make? With cocktails and wine getting as expensive as they are, it seems like it would be lucrative.

You'd be surprised, Stephanie. The price of the drinks a bartender slings is hardly the main determinant of how much money he takes home. The bartenders making the most money are not the ones getting the most press or dealing with the most expensive or coolest drink menus.

Fancy, five-step, light-shit-on-fire cocktails are all fine and well, but fancy takes forever, and people sit forever while they drink the fancy. There's only so much money you can get out of someone from one drink. In the same time frame, I can pop open a round of beers, pour a couple glasses of wine and stir up a few martinis, making three rounds and therefore three sets of tips, instead of one drink. It's simple economics: The number one requirement for raking it in while bartending is volume.

People need to rotate through the bar for a bartender to amass the cash. One drink per seat per hour (without food) nets no more than two dollars, on average. That's not a great night if a bar only has eight or ten stools. Some, but not all, bartenders make a significant amount from really taking care of those hanging at the bar. However, there's never any guarantee that someone will compensate you appropriately for listening about their boss, sick mother or divorce.

The majority of bartenders in town, I'd venture to guess, don't walk with much more than $200-$250 per shift at the high end in a bar like Brasa with a good amount of tables; that number will be less during the week, especially in a restaurant-bar. Bartenders and those that work in clubs or large bars that don't emphasize food like The Showbox make more than restaurant bartenders, but not as much as you might think, as they require more support staff to sling the drinks.

Now, if a bartender mans a bar by his lonesome in a restaurant, that means he works from opening straight through until close, meaning a wage that can be less than $20 per hour. Add in the wear and tear on your body, a vampire-like sleep schedule, and the fact that you probably have to pay your own health care, and bartending doesn't sound that glamorous anymore, does it?

However, when most line cooks don't make much over $12 per hour and carry a student loan from culinary school, it's not a bad wage. The bartenders making the most money are the ones working fast and furiously pushing drinks out to cocktail waitresses and handling a bar that has just as many people angling for a spot to order as it does sitting on a bar stool. I may have almost lost my mind every Friday night when I worked at the W Hotel, but it was worth it. These are the bartenders that balance volume with service, cultivating a clientele of big tippers and industry folk, and offering a further service, such as therapist, concierge or just pure conversational charm to those sitting at the bar.

The great perk of being a bartender is the same perk as the rest of this business: the freedom of being disposable. You're not tied to two weeks vacation per year or a Monday through Friday schedule. If you can afford it and you can cover your shifts, you can take off for wherever, whenever--whether it's four-day weekends during ski season, rock climbing, or even lingering afternoons in cafes. In other words, the kind of things most people only have time to do on vacation. That's the real benefit you can't quantify in the hourly wage, if that bartender can recover from the night before and get out of bed early enough.

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