One of the most common questions I get from folks in the hospitality industry is, I want to be a bartender should I go to school for it? This is a tough question for me to answer, I am going to break down my thoughts on it and let you make your own decision. I went to bartending school when I started (in fact I went to 3 different ones), only because I didn’t know any better. They were very reputable schools and they did a fantastic job at giving me the tools, the knowledge and the confidence it takes to become a bartender. Unfortunately, there are more schools that are less reputable than there are ones that are. These schools, for lack of better terms “feed” off people who are desperate to get behind the bar. These schools force you to believe that you need them to get behind the bar, or for job placement. In reality, it’s quite the opposite. So, to answer the most common question – No, you do not need bartending school to become a bartender. So, before you come out of pocket with upwards of $500 please read on.
It is not required in any state to go to bartending school to be a bartender, there isn’t any special type of licensing that you need to pour drinks. All you really need is common sense, and an understanding of the local liquor laws. Some establishments require some sort of serving certificate such as TIPS – but that isn’t any type of license it’s just a certification that says you sat through a class and understand the responsibilities of serving alcohol. Another interesting tidbit you should know is this, 80% of bartenders in the industry have never been to bartending school.
Most commonly people get into bartending because: they think they are going to become rich overnight by way of an overflowing tip jar. They need a part time job to get through college, they need extra money for debt, or they just want a job to break the monotony of everyday life. Thus, the vicious cycle of deciding which school to go to begins.
Your school search will begin with a call to some random schools you found online, or from a deal of the day website. They are going to try and dazzle you with delight, a little smoke, and a few mirrors. They will tell you that you are going to be making $200-$300 a night, that you are going to learn to flip bottles like Tom Cruise. You may even learn from that first call that bartending is impossible and it will be a complicated climb behind the bar unless you learn from them. Their school will put you in the top 90% of people being hired in the industry, in a matter of two weeks when you graduate. What they don’t tell you is that you will be the 1 sucker that is born every minute if you sign up with them.
Every school has the same layout, the same curriculum, the same sales pitch and the only difference is the teacher. What you don’t know, is that most of the curriculums haven’t changed since Hee-Haw stopped being a live broadcast. You will be overloaded with information in a short period of time. You will also learn to pour colored water, into mixing glasses and garnishing your “cocktails” with sponges cut like lemons and limes. If you want to go just to lean to make cocktails, I will provide you this information. There’s an age old saying that goes like this “there’s an app for that.” You don’t need to pay them to teach you to mix your favorite libation.
Most schools say they will place you in a job after you complete their course. Those same schools, only provide you with phone numbers to call. It’s really up to you to get the job, just like in real life. Generally speaking, establishments do not hire straight out of bartending school, or even people from bartending school for that matter. Reason being, they want someone who is trained their way and not jaded by free pouring or getting everything from a gun. They want to teach their ways and their rules.
One last thing you need to know about bartending schools. Most of these schools are owned and operated by people who have never been behind a bar a day in their life. They are simply following a curriculum. Think about this way, you have a history teacher substitute teaching for a math teacher. They are all sales people, that needed a job when they found this one.
All this being said, I feel that there is a place for bartending schools – I don’t believe that you should depend on or spend money on a school if you are looking for a job as a bartender. If you really want to learn the trade, find someone that cares about the industry, let them take you under their wing. There is way too many less than mediocre bartenders out there that went to school, there is no need for you to become one of them. Master the art, study the history, ask the questions, work your ass off, this is how you become a great bartender. This is how you make $200-$300 per shift. I always say, you can teach someone how to pour drinks, but you can’t teach them to have personality. You will need both in order to succeed as a bartender, especially now days when bartenders are a dime a dozen and often times disposable.