Well, I had to work an extra day this week.  One of the bartenders asked me to work for him Thursday because his mother and younger sister had flown in from Venezuela.  He hadn’t seen this little sister in over five years.  (Yeah, so?  What about my day off?)

OK, I guess he deserved a night with his family. . . I’m just bitching because we’re still trying to put the bar staff back together.  And as we train new people I find myself (as I’m sure the other bartenders do, too) saying the same things over and over again to these new guys.  The same things we’ve said a hundred times before.

The basic stuff.  The essentials of the game . . . what they really need to know.

How to use both hands when making drinks.  The best way to handle multiple orders.  Tell-tale signs that someone’s had too much to drink.

And one of the most important rules . . . simply KEEP MOVING!

An old-time barman from Albany, NY (The Lark Tavern) may have said it best . . . Johnny La La.  His line belongs in some Bartender’s Hall of Fame.

“A bartender is like a shark,” Johnny would say, “If you stop moving . . . you die.”

(Apparently it’s the movement of a shark that forces oxygen-filled water over its gills which act as lungs.  If a shark stops moving it will stop “breathing”. . . sink to the bottom and die.)

It’s a simple concept — keep moving.  But damn if it doesn’t take forever for new bartenders to understand it.

I remember this one bartender I worked with years ago (I won’t name the place); he had a habit of leaning against the back bar with his arms folded across his chest.  It wasn’t that he was lazy, really, . . . he just wouldn’t do anything until he absolutely had to do it.

“Hey, why don’t you empty the dishwasher?” I’d say, “How about stacking some pints.  Check your fruit tray.”

I’d say this while I was taking care of the wait staff and serving customers in my section.  But since he really had nothing going on in his section, he saw no harm in taking it easy.  And he’d look at me as though I’d lost my mind.

“I’ll get to it in a minute,” he’d answer, “What’s the big deal?”

Experienced bartenders know what happened next.

The customers he should have checked on when their drinks were low, . . . the trio of waitresses who all rushed up together with their new orders . . . the racks of dirty glasses coming in from the floor . . .  the gang of customers who’d just walked in and now crowded the bar waiting for drinks . . . all of these things hit at the same time.

Now we had fifteen new customers placing their orders, three waitresses shouting for drinks . . . and instead of being able to help me out, he’s down there refreshing the drinks of people that he should have taken care of five minutes ago.

Now the racks of dirty glasses (that could have gone into an empty dishwasher if he’d cleared it earlier) are sitting on top of his beer cooler.  Every time he wants to open the coolers to grab a bottle of beer, he has to move the racks of glasses back and forth.  Back and forth.  Back and forth.

In a busy place it’s a cardinal rule — a completely unforgiving rule — that you have to get out of the way now whatever you can, in any spare moment.

If you don’t it will come back to bite you.

Continuous motion . . .

The idea that you must keep moving — be like a shark — also means keep moving once you get started.

Being a fast bartender isn’t so much about raw speed as simply shaving a few seconds off everything you do — being ruthlessly efficient.  If you’re making 1000 drinks a night and you waste as little two seconds on each round . . .  or between rounds . . . you’ll be fifteen minutes behind pretty quickly.

I remember another bartender who was just starting out.  He was pretty good, but he had this habit of stopping for a second or two after each round he made, . . . sort of standing there like he was congratulating himself for successfully putting that round together.

He’d stand there patting his chest with the palms of his hands, as if saying, “My, what a good little bartender I am!”

“KEEP MOVING!” I’d yell to him from my section, “KEEP MOVING!”

Wasting those precious seconds can be fatal in a busy bar.

Imagine pouring a draft beer — which takes roughly five seconds — and you have to draw three Clown Shoes Eagle Claw Fists.  You’re going to be standing there for fifteen seconds.

You can’t afford to be doing that only.

So you ask the next people standing at the bar what they’d like.  They talk it over with their friends and place their order while you’re drawing those draft beers — not after you’re done.

If you’re efficient — if you have economy of motion and know what the next steps are — you can immediately go from one round to the next with no break in between.

That’s why one bartender “rock and rolls” like a non-stop express train, . . . while another bartender is a like milk train, pausing at each small town on its route.

Start … stop.   Start . . . stop.

In a busy place, no bartender can afford to do that.  You’ve got to keep moving.

A bartender is like a shark . . . if you stop moving, you die.

Damn, I wish I’d said that.

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  1. I’m exhausted just from reading this.

  2. Llylak says:

    Your post takes me back to my college waitress days and it’s frantic, controlled madness on a nightly basis.

  3. Susan P says:

    An informative post, thanks! I always wondered how bartenders keep up, its fascinating watching them work.

  4. Mandy says:

    I think pure paranoia keeps my feet moving- The gnawing fear that I could get my ass handed to me if I am not prepared and vigilant. Newbies have to go through the meat grinder a few times to make this realization, but this is painful to wait around for.

  5. wiggitywack says:

    Heyoo mike…

    This is advice a remember everyday…especially last night the busiest night I’ve ever been behind the bar. Glasses breaking in the ice, constantly running out of fresh lemon and lime…at one point i was using the wrong glasses for certain drinks, barbacks couldn’t move fast enough . I literally had to look at people and tell them to be patient because my ass was getting so handed to me. But the one thing i never did was stop moving…took me awhile to get use to it and its harder then it looks but its the best advice I’ve ever got behind the bar. Miss working with you mike, ill be back soon randomly to bug you one night. I’m always checking your blog weekly and will continue to do so. Talk to you soon

  6. Jake says:

    100% right, knowing the next steps is the key to a fast bartender. Enjoyed your description.

  7. Starbucks8294 says:

    A line the construction biz “I wanna see nothing but asses and elbows” the idea when you see guys working bent over all you see is butts and elbows. You’d be a good foreman.

  8. MikeQ says:

    McAwesome: It’s a good kind of tired at the end of the night, McAwesome, when you’re counting tips and having a brew. It’s like playing in the big game … you feel good when you kick ass. (Speaking of brews … I have to find that Oatis Oatmeal Stout you recommened in a recent post.)

    Llylak: Come on, Lly, admit it … you miss the chaos. 🙂

    Susan: And I’m sure they’re watching you, Susan. 🙂

    Mandy: I think some people are more — what is it? … more competitive, they like to “win” … they have more pride? — but once you get your ass handed to you on a busy night, some people refuse to let it happen again. Others just don’t feel that drive to stay on top. It’s a great feeling when you get hit with the rush, and you just sail through it like a champ. (I loved the line in your recent post “Makes me picture a figurine of a passed-out vagrant in a snow globe” … but my favorite is still your description of trying to be so enthusiastic waiting on customers that you were practically humping the corners of the tables. Brilliant, too funny.

    Wiggitywack: Jeremy, come back!!!! Damn we miss you … not just because you’re a good guy, but we miss you on the team. It was like losing an all-star. (Jeremy was a kick-ass bartender at Johnny D’s, until he left to become a hot-shit New York City barman. See an older post — https://lifeonacocktailnapkin.com/when-good-people-leave/ )

    Jake: You got that right, Jake. Sometimes bartenders have three and four “next steps” lined up in a mental queue … that’s what enables them to keep running at full speed with no breaks.

    Starbucks: My friend, we should have worked together back when you were behind the taps. We would have had a blast … those are the best bartenders to pair with … the ones who aren’t afraid to work hard.

  9. I’m not sure if you can find that Ninkasi Oatis in New England… my brother brought it from Oregon, but best of luck tracking it down. It was mighty tasty.

    • MikeQ says:

      McAwesome: I’ve seen a couple of oatmeal stouts around here, but that was before I read your post … so I didn’t pick up any. Now I’m intrigued. You run a dangerous blog … your “Rule #37 — Try one new drink each week” is a classic.

  10. Colleen says:

    I have seen you work and you are a shark!

  11. MikeQ says:

    Colleen: Remember when you were at the club watching the Red Sox win their first World Series in 86 years? The roar from our crowd was so loud it hurt. I standing behind the bar with my hands over my ears … thought my eardrums were going to pop.

  12. Caveman says:

    I agree with you 100 percent and I laughed my fucking ass off at your train analogy. You are killing it Mike.

  13. MikeQ says:

    Caveman: I knew you’d appreciate this one, Caveman … some of the tales you tell on your blog are clearly from a cranking, kick-ass kind of bartender. The train analogy is something I heard when I first started in this business … I think it might have been from Johnny La La, but I don’t remember it as clearly as his “shark” analogy. He was a classic … he was quick when he had to be, but if he wasn’t in the mood to serve you, he’d just put his foot up on the bar rail and keep talking to the other customers. Definitely old school.

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