Bryan Schneider, corporate beverage director for Quality Branded Restaurants, was waiting in line at Chipotle Mexican Grill one day this winter when he couldn’t help but notice the skill of one particular employee behind the counter making everyone’s barbacoa burritos and Sofritas bowls.
“[He was] multitasking multiple orders while simultaneously engaging with guests and organizing mise en place,” says Schneider, using the French term for how professional kitchens and bars prepare and arrange their ingredients. “It reminded me of how a very fast cocktail bartender handles a stressful workflow, but is still able to keep their cool enough to welcome and engage with guests.”
Schneider’s observation was astute. In fact, in this era in which fast-food employees continue to fight for unionization and increases in their often meager wages while the bar and restaurant industry struggles to find able staff, many former burger flippers, sandwich artists, and burrito rollers have gladly jumped from the daytime rush to nighttime mixology.
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“It’s a buyers market for workers, why wouldn’t they want to move?” says Liz Pearce, bar manager at Aba in Chicago (and a former McDonald’s employee).
In fact, as best as I can tell, currently on LinkedIn there are around 800 working bartenders who also list Chipotle as a previous job on their resumes. You’ll find similar numbers if you search the other major chains. OK, that isn’t so strange; if you enter a career in the food service, it’s only natural you might rise in the ranks from fast casual to family restaurant to sports bar to high-end mixology.
But, reaching the bar can also be the culmination of putting together all the skills, knowledge, and temperament one might have garnered from years working in fast food, fast casual, and chain restaurants.
The Need for Speed
“Chipotle does have an insane mise en place because they are built for efficiency,” says Jesse Ross, a bartender at Turf Supper Club in San Diego. “Ever since I started working in bars I’ve mentioned how good fast-food workers could be at bartending — it translates very well.”
Ross began his career at a Jamba Juice in his hometown of San Diego when he was just 15 years old. He would work at three different Jamba Juices in three different cities over the next four years. Like Chipotle, the smoothie chain is also well-known for its mise en place and incredible speed in pumping out orders.
“Where you go to scoop and pour the juices, it’s so streamlined, because they’ve had some corporate person who designed it as efficiently as possible,” he explains. Even today, when Ross is consulting in helping set up a new cocktail bar, he recalls the lessons he learned from Jamba Juice, including breaking down pour costs to each ingredient in order to save pennies here and there. “I also color code everything and have recipe cards mounted where guests can’t see them.”
A step up from fast food and fast casual are the family “chains” that have also played a critical role as a training ground for today’s top mixology stars, and where speed likewise is of the essence.
Erin Hayes, a former bartender for Lost Lake who is now a bar and beverage consultant, began her hospitality career working at TGI Fridays in her hometown of Chicago when she was only 19. She recalls the rigorous training, claiming it’s more intense than any upscale cocktail bar would ever make its new hires undergo these days. Before getting behind a Fridays’ stick, Hayes had to memorize 100 different recipes and become an expert at free-pouring drinks.
“I don’t think I ever saw a jigger in the building,” she says. “You had to do a pour test before every shift and you quickly learned how to be extremely accurate.”
That speed — saving a second here and there — is a necessity when bartending at a bar that has a massive restaurant attached, and whose most popular drinks — like the Long Island Iced Tea — might have a four-bottle pickup. Even today, though she mostly jiggers, Hayes claims she still has the muscle memory to free-pour when service is truly slammed at places like her Halloween pop-up Black Lagoon.
“You can teach anyone how to pour a drink properly,” she says. “And that’s why I have encouraged bars to recruit from service jobs, chains, fast food, baristas, cashiers — people that engage face-to-face on a daily basis with customers and can still keep a healthy attitude.”
Empathy and Work Ethics
“To quote ‘Cocktail,’ ‘A bartender is the aristocrat of the working class,’” says Andrew White, a longtime bartender in Brooklyn. “And I think it’s true. A bartender has to weave between working- class guys coming in for a beer and a shot, to the finance guys slamming vodka sodas five hours later when the market closes.”
This breadth of daily guests is also why Hayes thinks so many former fast-food employees are fit for a life behind the stick.
“The clientele of both [fast food] and bars is so widely diverse and varied, you encounter and engage with all walks of life, from all over the world,” she says. “You really learn to be empathetic outside of your own purview.”
Empathy is something many of today’s bartenders mentioned learning while in the fast-food game. This is especially true in the age of entitlement, when so many customers believe they are always right and if you don’t agree, they want to speak to your manager.
“Chain restaurant folks, they learn hospitality,” says Hayes. “These restaurants still exist for a reason. A lot of that is because of how they make people feel when they come into the room. It’s not the highest-quality food, but the hospitality is always there.”
And their employees develop stellar work ethics, too. Pearce began her service career at a McDonald’s in her home town of Fargo, N.D., where she spent three years behind the register and running the drive-thru. She attributes the fast-food industry with helping her develop great daily habits that always serve the business.
At her McDonald’s franchise, every 20 minutes a timer would go off and all the employees would have to wash their hands; every 30 minutes another timer would go off and everyone would have to do their job logs.
“It was like the military,” she recalls. “We were always scrubbing walls, the inside of the sink, things I’ve never seen done at any other restaurants. I just learned how to be a clean freak, super organized, always multitasking. If you had any down time you’d go sweep the lobby, go bag the garbage. You just can’t teach that.”
But what you mainly can’t teach is how to deal with a continual onslaught of customers who want their burgers and fries as quickly as humanly possible and want any excuse to get angry at some 19-year-old who forgot to hold the mayo.
“You’re definitely dealing with some weird people, but you just gotta make them happy long enough so that they will go away,” jokes Ross before realizing that’s one way fast food is different from the cocktail scenes.
“Of course, it’s different in bars,” he adds, “where once you finally make them a drink, they’ll just sit in front of you and keep drinking it until they order the next one.”
But What About the Drinks?
“When it comes down to it, making a Big Mac is really not that different from making a cocktail,” says Pearce, though she admits the general customer doesn’t know as much about obscure liqueurs as they surely know about hamburger ingredients. “People know about pickles and cheese and lettuce, but with cocktails it’s more of a learning curve.”
Ross feels similarly. He recalls having a general manager back when he worked at Noble Experiment, a swanky San Diego speakeasy, who would poach employees from anywhere but bars: Starbucks, Applebee’s, even the local mall food court.
“He would go in and see who was the hot shit at each place and then try to hire them,” says Ross. “He figured the thing they’re doing well at those places you can’t teach. But you can easily teach them how to make a good cocktail.”
Ross, for his part, claims to recall the specs for such Jamba Juice drinks as the Mango-a-go-go and could still whip one up as easily as he could a Martini or Daiquiri. And that’s why, for today’s top bartenders, they also know that in this turbulent economic climate, they’ll always have something to fall back on if things goes south.
“When the [Covid-19] lockdown happened, when all the bars and restaurants were closed, I noticed the Wendy’s by me was hiring. Competitive salaries, 401(k),” says Pearce.
“And I thought to myself, ‘Could I really do this again?’”