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It's only 2 p.m. at the official bar of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic and drinks already flow freely. The event, situated in the Astor Lounge above Astor Wines and Spirits on the corner of Lafayette and 4th Street, celebrates cocktail culture and is in full swing as devotees sample the list of numerous specially-crafted drinks. Most contain at least four ingredients, but even the simpler recipes offer intriguing combinations. The final cocktail on the list, the New York Med, mixesa new pine-flavored Greek spirit called Skinos, lemon, muddled basil and Perrier. To cleanse their palates between drinks, guests quickly consume morsels ofbread, olive oil and crumbled cheese from minimalist, white platters.
Bartenders mix at two separate bars. Every half hour or so, four or five bartenders line up at the bar on the right to make a signature drink from the list. When guests hear the collective rattle of mixologists shaking ice-filled martini shakers over their heads, they know another free drink is on its way. However, most of the action happens at thebar on the left, where cocktail enthusiasts usethe drink tickets that were included in the entrance fee to sample the signature drinks. The main bar's volunteers are members of LUPEC, or Ladies United for the Protection of Endangered Cocktails. Member Lynnette Marrero, a cocktail consultant who helps new bars cultivate signature cocktails and atmosphere, skillfully makes drinks for the growing crowd. As she mixes, she chats with another member, Misty Kalkofen. Marrero came to the cocktail industry as a waitress and decided to move up because "you have to know all the cocktails anyway, so you realize you should be behind the bar." The ladies of LUPEC and many of the other volunteer bartenders are a part of New York's growing cocktail culture. "Restaurants are realizing they need really quality cocktail programs," Marrero explains. For Marrero, creating quality cocktails is becoming increasingly important for New York restaurants. "I think people, especially in New York, know what they're drinking." The Classic's volunteer bartenders are more than qualified to mix the well-crafted drinks of which Marrero speaks.Each member enteredthe cocktail industry by different routes, but none of them learned their chosen profession in bartending schools.
The atmosphere in the second-floor office of the New York Bartending School located on 39th Street below Bryant Park, stands in contrast to the Manhattan Cocktail Classic's. An ever-rotating light ball illuminates the waiting room's crimson walls, while a TV continuously plays the school's promotional DVD of student testimonials. A half-wall separates the waiting room from the better-lit and less colorful offices. In the back left corner, Allen, a dark-haired man and one of the instructors, lounges in a chair with his feet upon a desk. In a singsong voice he says loud enough for everyone to hear, "I like to put the penis in the vagina." After singing a few more sexually themed phrases and saying a few joking words to the female recruiting agent/secretary, he strides out of the room on his way to the fifth floor to teach his next class.
The atmosphere doesn't get any classier in the training bars. As the students prepare for their final test the next day, an instructor, not the man who expounded his fondness for females, says his students will celebrate their graduation at a male strip club. The three male students fight the decision, but the instructor and the three female students outvote them. Bartending schools claims graduates can work in any type of bar. "Our local and national job placement program helps you find the job you want to launch your new career," reads New York Bartending School's website,but it seems doubtful these student, let alone the instructors, would fit into a situation like the Manhattan Cocktail Classic. Yet many students are drawn in by that belief.
Bartending Offers Hope in Tough Times
Since the economic downturn began, many New-York-area bartending schools have seen "enrollment shoot up 20% to 25% as New Yorkers take on second jobs - or search for a new career if they've been laid off," according to a Daily News article entitled "When All Else Fails, There's Bartending" from November 18, 2008. Joe Bruno, Director of the Manhattan branch of American Bartenders School, agrees. "Generally, when the economy is bad, we do very, very well," he said. Before the downturn, enrollment consisted mostly of university students looking for an easy way to make a quick buck.
Now bartending is typically seen as a job with high earning potential. The website for American Bartenders School, which also has branches in New Jersey, Chicago and Palm Spring, California, claims successful graduates can earn from $150-$300 per day. Since the economy took a turn for the worse, the moneyand fun associated with bartending have started attracting a more diverse clientele. "A few years ago, it was mostly university students," Bruno explains, "but it's everyone now."
Besides the money, many students believe the schools are the only way to get into the business. "I was under the impression at the time that you need to attend one of these schools to be a bartender," explains Drew Jacob a New York University student who attended A New Jersey branch of Authentic Bartending School in 2007. Though some people believe they have to get a "bartending license," there is actually no such document. In fact, in many states, the only requirement has to do with age. In New York, bartenders must be at least 18-years-old. Most bartending school websites state this on the "FAQ's" pages of their websites and explain that the piece of paper students receive after the course shows they are "certified" through the school. For example, New York Bartending School's certificate states the graduate is a "QualifiedBartender/Mixologist."
Though a bartending license is not required, schools tell prospective students the training gives them an advantage. New York Bartending School's website claims that even if someone meets the age requirement and is certified as a bartender, if they are not trained finding a job will not be easy. "Certification without the necessary training is like rowing a boat without a paddle," the site says, "It's the training that gives you the ability to do the job, not the certificate." Coupled with job placement, the school's training convinces students investing in bartending school is the surest way to get a job, but schools don't always live up to their promises
Training to be Under-qualified
Typical courses consist of forty hours of training and attempts to cover all aspects of bartending. Prices range from school to school (see sidebar) but at schools that include job placement-which is according to American Bartenders School's director Joe Bruno the most costly aspect of the business-it can range from $595 at Authentic Bartending School to $895 at Bruno's establishment.However, getting the schools' prices is not always easy. Most of the more reputable, read expensive, schools do not list the price online and require prospective students inquire by phone.From there, the sales pitch starts and usually includes a basic outline of the curriculum and an emphasis on job placement. Calling American Bartenders School's 800 number leads to an upbeat sales person who is sure to get your name before starting in on the pitch so that it seems personally tailored to you. There's even the ever-convincing rhetorical questions: "bartenders can make up to $100 to $300 a day, how does that sound, (insert your name here)?" However, as soon as you ask American's prices, the sales person regretfully explains they do not give prices over the phone and encourages you to go to the office to meet someone. In fact, American does not allow their price to be printed in the media fearing it will scare off potential students. When asked about prices, Bruno quickly says, "off the record, it's $895."
Authentic Bartending School's operators also ask the caller's name, but sometimes add another element. When the phones are busy, they ask for a callback number, not only making it seem like the call is very important, but also ensuring they can periodically call and encourage people to sign up now before classes fill up. Unlike American, Authentic freely shares its prices over the phone. Though prices vary from state to state because of different licensing fees for the Board of Education, Manhattan students pay $595.
The core of the curriculum is based mainly on learning the recipes to anywhere from 100 to 200 popular beverages like Cosmopolitans and Irish Car Bombs, but also includes lectures on wine and beer knowledge.Though the bulk of training focuses on makingdrinks,that does not mean theywill taste good. None of the schools use real alcohol, since it would be too costly, but use water colored to resemble the various spirits. Students know how much "alcohol" to use through acounting method which involves pouring each ingredient for a specific number of seconds. The method, commonly used in professional bars, should still yield a good drink.
However, cocktail consultant Lynnette Marrero is unconvinced the techniques taught in the schools would be useful. "I think it's a bit antiquated," she says "it's stuff that you learn in dive bars." Marrero does not think graduates of bartending schools would be qualified to work in more modern and sophisticated settings. "I don't think there's any reason that they shouldn't use techniques that are more elevated," she says.For Marrero, the recipes andtechniques bartending schools teach do not adequately prepare students. "I think it just came out in the 80's and 90's," she says.However, Joe Bruno of American Bartenders School maintains that taste and drink quality are not the point."Learning the drinks is ultimately not going to be what gets you the job," Bruno explains, "the concern is more their ability to perform by generating revenue by being able to create the drinks." Rather than quality drinks, students learnto make speedy drinks.
Speed is often a focus in bartending school curriculums. The final test at New York Bartending School includes a mixing section that includes making twenty drinks in six minutes.Shevy Katan, a former bartender and aspiring actress who now works as a hostess at the upscale cocktail lounge The Campbell Apartment in Grand Central Station, definitely found speed important when she bartended. "At the end of the day, you need to make drinks quickly," she says. However, for Katan, who did not attend bartending school, the schools do not adequately teach students about the fast pace necessary to move product as quickly as possible and maximize profit.
Other elements of the curriculum include bar set-up,alcohol awareness-or when it's time to cut off those wild girls dancing on top of the bar-and preparing garnishes.However, job placement,which typically includes lectures on interviewing and job-hunting skills, résumé counseling and most importantly, exclusive access to the school's job listing website, isgiven the most emphasis in advertising materials. Job listings on the site are compiled from either calls from bars looking to hire a school's graduates or opportunities employees find. American Bartenders School even has a staff of eight women that is not only devoted solely to compiling job listings, but will even set up interviews.
In many cases, the job placement promises convince prospective students bartending schools are worth the cost. Though some students simply want to supplement their income, just as many look to bartending schools as their one chance to make money in a tough market. Drew Jacob, who attended Authentic Bartending School, said many of his classmates thought bartending school was their only hope. "Usually something hadn't worked out for them," he recalls."That's the thing that made me angry," he says, "if you've been out of college for awhile, you don't really have the money to spend on it."
Though bartending schools often advertise jobs will be easy to find post-graduation,interviews with former students show the job huntoften leads to disappointment. Geoff Corner, a former student of New York Bartending School, did not find the job market as hospitable as promised. In January 2008, hepaid $695, though tuition since rose to $795, hoping to find a high paying job for the summer while he stayed in New York City. But after applying to about forty or fifty postings, mostlyfound through his school's website, and nearly twenty positions through walk-ins, hewas never hired as a bartender. In the few interviews he had, Corner was surprised to learn why he was not hired. "It all basically came down to experience," he explains. And despite having a certificate that said he was a "Qualified Bartender/Mixologist, he had none.
Corner was surprised he didn't find a jobbecause his school's website and advertising materials so strongly emphasize their job placement's success. "They make it sound like you're going to have your pick of what kind of bar you want to work in," Corner says, "but that's not the case at all." According to New York Bartending School's website, they will give you all the right tools to land the job including, "job leads, interviewing skills, résumé assistance, and one-on-one assistance." There is one small caveat: "But it is up to YOU to ultimately land that job," the site reads. "Your training and the confidence that comes from that training, along with your personality and persistence is what will get you working." In other words, getting a bartending job is not so much about drinks as it is the person hawking those drinks. As former bartender Shevy Katan puts it: "If you're a sourpuss behind the bar nobody's going to want to talk to you and spend any money."
Joe Bruno of American Bartenders School thinks bar owners often look for personality over skill. According to him, someone with a good personality who is likely to sell product can be hired anywhere. "If you know how the business works and know the recipes and you have a great personality, you can get it," he explains. Personality is such an important factor that any prospective student at American Bartenders School is screened prior to admission for what Bruno calls their "customer service ability." "If someone comes in here and it doesn't make sense for them to do it, I'll tell them not to pursue it," Bruno says. Despite his warnings, some people take the classes anyway. In those cases, and sometimes even with students who initially showed "customer service ability," job placement proves difficult. However,Bruno does not blame the school's training. "If they've gone on 50-60 interviews in a month and everyone has said no, then they're doing something wrong in the interview," Bruno says.
However, Geoff Corner, who went to New York Bartending School, only received a few interview requests despite his numerous written applications. After his first interview at the pizza restaurant chain Uno's, Corner was offered a job not as a bartender, but as a waiter. Unfortunately, the restaurant required bartenders have experience. Corner considered accepting the job, but decided keep looking for a bartending job. As Corner had more interviews, he discoveredmost bar owners found bartending school irrelevant. "Nobody really cared about the bartending school," he explains.
Former Authentic Bartending School student, Drew Jacob, grew disillusioned in the last weeks of classes whenhe found an online discussion thread with opinions from people in the business. He remembered one post saying, "If they see bartending school on your résumé, it's going to the bottom of the pile." Hebecame even more suspiciousafter discovering none of Authentic's teachers, all of whom worked in bars, had attended one themselves. By the time Jacob gave up job searching,his opinion on bartending schools had changed completely. "It's not the fact that I was scammed," he explains, "it's the fact that I let myself be scammed."
For Jacob and Corner, the problem was not their personalities or their training, but their lack of experience. When first applying for jobs, Corner discoveredmany listings required previous bartending work. "On Craigslist, 90% of them will say something like two to three years of experience," he says. Some listings even required applicants had specifically worked in New York bars.Corner thought New York Bartending School's job placement website would offer more promising leads, but was disappointed to discover that "the classifieds were 90% from Craigslist."Drew Jacob, who attended Authentic Bartending School, was also disappointed by his school's job placement website. "The rate at which they posted was extremely slow," he explains. Upon recently visiting the site, the first ad required at least one year of New York bartending experience. Another just a few postings down, had an open call for "TODAY, WEDNESDAY," unfortunately "Today" was Sunday.
After initially refusing a waiter joband being continually rejected for bartending positions, Geoff Corner sought help from his school's job placement counselor. Though the school claimsthat they have a full-time job placement coordinator, the appointment was difficult to schedule. The advisor was surprised he had a résumé since students typically did not know how to make them and her only suggestion was that he emphasize the guest bartending. Guest bartending involves training in an actual bar for a few hours making drinks for free. However, not every school practices the technique. Joe Bruno, director of the New York branch of American Bartenders School, thinks it does not help students learn. "We look for jobs," he says, "guest bartending is for free." For Bruno, it "is a way for schools to pad hours onto their résumés." And that's exactly what Corner's advisor told him to do. Though he had only guest bartended for two and a half hours at the Bourbon Street Bar, the advisor told him, "to list the guest bartending as starting the month I did it and continuing to the 'present.'" Corner worried potential employers would discover the lie, but the advisor explained that nobody kept track of when or even who guest bartends. Besides the exaggeration, the most helpful recommendation the advisor gave was, "you just have to keep pushing."So after 40 hours of training, paying $695 and months of fruitless job searching, Cornertook a low-paying waiter position at a mid-priced diner on 113th Street and Broadway called Deluxe.
Taking a Different Route
A few weeks after Corner started at Deluxe, an attractive young woman who had no experience and had not gone to bartending school was hired for the bartending position he had originally wanted.Corner was not entirely surprised. During the application process, gender was often an important point. "I would say like 30-40% of ads ask just for women," Corner says.Drew Jacob, former Authentic Bartending School student, experienced bartending's gender bias in his class when his teacher explained, "Really one of the best aspects for getting a bartending job is to be a blonde with big tits." In many bars, women are seen as more likely to generate profit. Shevy Katan, former bartender and current hostess at the upscale cocktail lounge The Campbell Apartment, definitely felt her gender was part of what made her job so lucrative. "You have to go in there dressed as sexy as you dare," she says, "you're really selling sex." Lynnette Marrero, who runs her own cocktail catering and consulting company Drinks at 6, agrees women often have an advantage."They don't need to be better at the job," she says. However, this privileged treatment can do disservice to the drinks' quality. "It's hard to find really good female bartenders because they can make a lot of money in dive bars," Marrero explains.
Like many students, money first drew Shevy Katan to bartending, and shewas not disappointed. "I was making a lot of money in two or three shifts," she explains. Since Katan had never bartended, she was a little creative with her résumé and claimed she had previous experience and put friends as references. Though Katan "didn't know how to make drinks at all," she did not find the job too difficult and faked everything else and relied on her personality for the rest. "You can bullshit your way," she explains, "if the customers really like you, it doesn't really matter how good your drinks are."
While Katan's method was a little unorthodox, the more common route to bartending is working in the bar in some other capacity first.Bartending schools often encourage students to look for barbackpositions, basically bartender's assistants, and eventually move up to bartending positions. Drew Jacob, who attended Authentic Bartending School, received such encouragement, but did not see it as a viable optionbecausetheir wages are comparable to waiters and he would not be able to work his way up since he was returning to NYU after the summer. "They tend to promote internally," Jacob explains.Cocktail consultant Lynnette Marrero explained internal promotion is often the best way to become a bartender. "The best people I know kind of just moved up through the system," she says. "If you get a job as a waiter, you say, 'give me an opportunity" she explains. Marrero did just that after starting in the business in 2004 as a cocktail waitress. Since she had to know the drink recipes anyway, she decided to start making them.
Now, as Marrero always handles the hiring process for her clients, she often looks for people who follow a similar track. "I see a lot of people who have bartending school on their resumes and I would rather see someone who worked as a barback," she explains. Theresa Conway, who manages the bar and restaurant the Pig 'n' Whistle on 3rd is also skeptical of bartending schools. "It wouldn't make me hire someone, in fact it might make me not," she says. Conway explained her concern saying, "they learn to mix a drink, but they don't know how to talk to customers."
A Cool Party Trick
Despite problems with job placement and the basic curriculum, not everyone is dissatisfied with bartending school. In 2007, former Authentic Bartending School student and current NYU student Shan Li decided to take the class because she "just thought it would be fun." Li never intended to find a bartending job and she says her father, who paid for the classes, "wasn't looking at it for me to find a job." The classes were simply a way to learn a new skill. However, Li was the only member of her class nothopingfor a future in bartending. "Everyone expected that it would turn into wage earning or something they could fallback onto," she explains. One fellow student even quit his job as a computer tech to become a bartender."You need to be in a certain place in your life if you're 35-40 and you want to be a bartender," Li says.
Though Li never intended to find a job, she only gave the job placement website a passing glance, of the three students out of 15 that passed the written test, she was the only one who passed the practical mixing part of the final exam. Though Li never plans to look for a bartending job even after college, and doesn't think she could even get one, she does use the knowledge she learned in the classes. "Friends will ask 'what's in this drink,' and I'll tell them," she explains. Former New York Bartending School student Geoff Corner has the same opportunity to impress their friends, but as Corner noted, "I could have bought a book for that."
School Prices Sidebar
Bartending school prices widely vary. This price list includes only schools offering job placement, usually the most expensive part of the business.
ABC Bartending: Locations: New York, California and Florida and more. Job placement: Interview and résumé tips, nationwide job placement assistance. Price: $395.
Authentic Bartending School: Locations: Manhattan, Philadelphia, New Jersey. Job placement: nationwide job placement. Price: $595.
New York Bartending School: Locations: Manhattan. Job placement: Interview and résumé tips, nationwide job placement assistance. Price: $795.
American Bartenders School: Locations: New York, New Jersey, Palm Springs and Chicago. Job placement: Interview and résumé tips, nationwide job placement assistance. Price: $895.