"So, What's Your Real Job?"
Written by Heather Stewart
I’ve been a bartender for more than 10 years. I’m used to the surprised looks I get when I tell people that. I get it. The service industry is seen as a stepping stone; a first job that pays for car insurance or college classes. It’s not supposed to be a decade-long career. If you told me at 18 I would still be serving 15 years later, I would have been horrified.
Yet, here I am.
Like many teenagers, I began waiting tables while going to school. But I never had a clear idea of what I wanted to do. I liked the restaurant, though. The money was good, my coworkers were like a second family, and, while changing majors several times, I started bartending. Working the bar was challenging, but fun. I loved the fast pace and high energy—plus, I was good at it. Before I knew it, my temporary job turned into my career.
When I had kids, my priorities changed, along with my reasons for staying at the restaurant. As many moms can testify, the cost of childcare is ridiculous. Bartending at night meant my boyfriend could work during the day and one of us would always be home. I was able to pay the bills and still be there with my kids. Balancing a job, a full class load, internships and two kids is pure chaos. Being able to work more when money is tight—or trade a shift if my child is sick or a sitter cancels—is a lifesaver. The flexibility of bartending has saved me many times.
Whenever a new customer waltzes into the bar and we start chatting, inevitably they ask, “So, what’s your real job?” I sigh, and launch into the spiel about how I just graduated and am in the process of job hunting. It’s completely true, but it leaves me wondering: Why do I feel like I owe an explanation to a complete stranger? Interacting with people and listening to their stories is one of the most interesting parts of my job. But defending my line of work gets old, fast. As if I get paid in monopoly money, or that it’s a less valid choice simply because I pour whiskey instead of write memos.
I recently graduated and, as I started the interview process, it became apparent just how much the service industry prepared me for a “real” job. Bartenders know that making drinks is only a small part of our job. Anyone can make a drink. Great bartenders connect with people and build relationships. Regular patrons return for the experience, not just because I make an awesome mojito. To be successful as a bartender, you have to sell yourself - and you have to hustle.
The following qualities are ones I've picked up behind the bar, but can translate into any career, across the board, in any field.
1. How to listen
While working in a bar, you meet all types of people. I’ve learned to have a conversation with anyone, about almost anything. We hear it all. You want to vent about your boss? I’ll listen. Did your football team just get robbed of a championship? I feel your pain. Are you new to the area and need to know what goes on around town? I’m here for you. Most communication breaks down because we don’t listen to what someone is saying. Bartending has made me more intuitive and a much better listener—skills that benefit me in all areas of life, both personal and professional.
2. How to hold myself responsible
On a busy night, I’m making drinks, taking orders, cashing out customers, and trying to entertain a lively crowd. It requires multitasking, problem-solving, and keeping a cool head. I love the intensity and high pressure of a restaurant. I can think on my feet, but I’ve become more careful and mindful of what I do. There’s nothing worse than trying to win back a guest once you’ve screwed up, but I own my mistakes. Accountability is a big part of my success.
3. The importance of professionalism
Bartending means you leave your personal issues at the door. You have to be “on” all the time. You can’t have a bad day—or, at least, you can’t let it show. Learning how to slap a smile on my face and greet people as if we’re best friends, helps tremendously, especially in interviews. Eye contact and a genuine smile will get you farther in life than you can believe. Being in the spotlight has also helped me feel more comfortable talking in front of a crowd. I’m naturally a shy person, but I’ve learned the “fake it ‘til you make it” mentality. I may be nervous and shaking, but you’ll never know it.
4. When—and how—to say “stop”
The service industry is notorious for crass humor; it comes with the territory. Behind the bar, you deal with it even more—especially as a woman. I don’t mind a good joke, witty banter, or harmless flirting, but I can shut it down when it gets inappropriate or uncomfortable. I’m more assertive and confident - not just at work, but in my everyday life. I demand respect and I don’t apologize for it.
5. How to learn from my mistakes—and then move on
Bartenders have thick skin. Developing that skin has served me well. Customers complain, yell and criticize. It’s tough to hear. But, I’ve learned to filter out the valuable comments and brush off the rest. As women, we put pressure on ourselves to do everything and do it perfectly. Bartending taught me that it’s not possible. You have to figure out the most important task and go from there. You won’t always make everyone happy, and that’s okay. To be good at this job, you have to let the negativity roll off your back.
I never thought I’d still be slinging drinks at this point in my life, but I’ve learned some valuable lessons because of it. Bartending has given me confidence and tenacity, and I’ve learned to be comfortable in my own skin. But, mostly, it’s taught me to work hard and to hustle for everything I want. So, no, this isn’t my dream job. Yes, I’m ready for a new career.
But, in the meantime, my real job is bartending—and I’m damn proud of that.
Heather lives in Jacksonville, Florida, where she graduated with a degree in Converged Communication. She currently bartends to pay the bills, while looking for a new career in public relations. An avid sports fan, makeup hoarder, and mom of two, she survives on strong coffee and inappropriate humor. On days off, you can find her dragging her kids on an adventure around town, checking out a new bar with friends, or simply wandering the aisles of Target.