So, you want to be a bartender? The potential for additional income while working with a flexible schedule is surely attractive. Bartenders earn a median hourly rate of $10.84 per hour, and an annualized income of under $23,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Like their server counterparts, bartenders also rely upon tips for a chunk of their incomes.
But bartender hopefuls don’t just walk behind the bar and starting slinging drinks; there’s a process, with hoops to jump through, regulations to follow and necessary training to receive.
Like most states, the Oklahoma Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement (ABLE) Commission requires approved alcohol server-seller training in some capacity. Some online instructional businesses offer this, but the state has no known brick-and-mortar licensed bartending schools, according to the Oklahoma Board of Private Vocational Schools. This puts additional emphasis on practical training, which can mean starting out as a server, host, busboy or barback trainee.
As general manager at The Hutch on Avondale in Oklahoma City, Kyle Fleischfresser hires the bartenders, and says a lot of his choices depend on the style of bartending needed. A craft cocktail bar and restaurant, for example, would have different needs than other venues where bartenders are needed.
At one time, bartending schools were a very popular choice, he says.
“But it’s more hands-on experience now,” says Fleischfresser, who has won the Oklahoma Restaurant Association cocktail contest behind the bar. “People can get more into the craft and forget about the service aspect. We teach that there’s no such thing as a bad drink. The customers get what they want to drink.”
Sarah Elliott, who manages the penthouse bar at The Summit Club in Tulsa, says the most effective way to break into the business is to have a genuine interest paired with passion, drive and versatility.
“I need to know you can help me put away a couple thousand dollars worth of beer and liquor inventory, juice ‘til your arm is sore, prepare the ice, get everything set up and ready, and know when the candles get lit and the guests come in, it is time to shine and do what we do best,” she says.
As for formal instruction, “I am not someone who believes you have to go to school to become what you want to be,” she says. “There are a ton of great tools and resources out there.”
Las Vegas-based Local Bartending School advertises its bartending courses online, offering instruction for all expertise levels in a participant’s homes or at a location that allows physical distancing between the participant and instructor. Local Bartending, also known as Brooklyn Bartending School, is not licensed (per SB 1460) as an instructional school by Oklahoma Board of Private Vocational Schools, but the business promotes its services in multiple Oklahoma communities.
“We send them a kit, and they will gain certification and license after the course,” says Im Regine, Local Bartending operations manager. “Some of our students are taking their hands-on training with an instructor through Zoom, Skype or any apps that they prefer.”
Nora House, director of the Oklahoma Board of Private Vocational Schools, says that while Local Bartending is not state licensed, it “potentially should be for both the online portion of reaching Oklahoma residents and if live training in Oklahoma is arranged.”
But when it comes to tending bar, nothing beats experience, Elliott says.
“Skills can be learned, but you need a foundation of hard work ethic, charisma and charm to pull it all off,” she says.