May 9th, 2010

Let’s hear it for barbacks

barback

If you think of a night out at a bar as theater, barbacks are the seasoned stage hands, making sure that the show runs smoothly and that the actors (aka the bartenders) have all their props for stellar performances. Just as theatergoers never really think about what’s going on behind the scenes, bar customers don’t pay much attention to the bodies whizzing behind the bartenders, tapping kegs, stocking liquor bottles, replenishing ice bins and delivering food. So I asked some veteran bartenders for a few words on the importance of a good barback — and whether great barbacks go on to be bartenders.

Any bartender out there who wants to give a shout-out to a great barback, by all means chime in with your comments!

Josh Childs – Silvertone, Trina’s Starlite Lounge. “I have been lucky to work with some great barbacks, from Junior who saves my ass by pretty much doing all the work Tuesday evenings at Silvertone, to Henrique at the Beehive. While Henrique was technically the barback, he really was the best bartender there — he bartended and barbacked. What makes these guys great is the little things, like, when you have just poured the last of an obscure bottle, right beside you is the backup, waiting.

“I think you know someone is a great barback when the bar staff has given them a great nickname. In the case of [Trina's] Starlite Lounge, we have Trina’s cousin, Joey Vegas.

“Right of passage for a new barback: coordinate with another bar [on the premises] first, then, during a busy part of the evening, tell the barback that you have just broken a glass in the ice well. Send them to get a ‘glass magnet’ at the other bar, where of course, the customers and staff are eagerly waiting (and giggling) for their arrival.

“I believe the restaurant/bar business is one of the last apprentice systems where, yes, a barback can become a bartender. Speaking from personal experience, a barback can even end up owning a bar.”

Danielle Marshall – Green Street. [Danielle recently left Post 390, where she worked with the barback she praises here.] “His name is Magno — not Mango, as he is playfully called. I have no specific example, because I do believe he is the example. Magno has been exceptional every time I have worked with him. He brings his game as well as a positive attitude that almost always ensures an easy, productive night. Magno anticipates my needs and allows me to focus more on the guest interactions and less on dishes, stocking or running food. What separates Magno from the pack is his willingness and ability to speak to guests and management or handle service tickets, but without ever overstepping his bounds. He has a knack for what he does, and it’s truly appreciated by this bartender.”

Scott Marshall – Drink. “A great barback is invaluable. I would say the best I have ever had is Henrique who worked at the Beehive. Every time I had a bottle that emptied, he was one step ahead of me and had the replacement open and ready as I turned around to head to the liquor room. He understood completely that his job was to keep me facing the customer and making money, because that would lead to him making more money. I don’t necessarily believe that great barbacks make great bartenders, because there hits a point when they want to bartend and lose the focus on backing. With a 20-percent cut at the Hive, Henrique made the exact same as the four bartenders, so there was no financial incentive to move up, which kept him plugging along, content to not interact with the public and make just as much money!”

Kevin Martin – Eastern Standard. “A great barback knows the ins and outs of what makes a bar run smoothly and efficiently. My right-hand man knows what I need before even I do, and a great back can even anticipate a guest’s needs. He or she knows the menus and is able to field guest questions, making the tender’s life just a little easier and the guest experience that much more special. A good barback is fluid, on his or her toes and is calm and fast. A great barback can absolutely become a bartender, and a good bar will know when to make this move.”

Bob McCoy – Eastern Standard. I want to sing my praises to the boys in black at ES. I don’t know if I could sum up in one sentence or by one example how important our barbacks are. They’ve saved my ass so many ways, so many times every night, whether it’s getting that bottle or syrup I really need on the fly, taking a plate of dishes off my hands, or just greeting new guests and getting them a glass of water and a menu to buy me some more time. But if there’s one thing that continues to amaze me time and time again, it’s that they have the keen ability to anticipate what you need at any given moment, sometimes before you even know it, and deliver it time and time again. We have such a great team at ES, but special thanks have to go out to our two senior backs, Chris Olds and Nick Korn.”

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5 Responses to “Let’s hear it for barbacks”

  1. R.F.

    WOW! Thank you so much for this post! As someone who has worked as a barback and bartender, the ability to have that “sixth sense” and anticipate an empty bottle, a dry well, or an overflowing bus tub is indispensable, not to mention maintaining a hummingbird-like pace for 8-10 hours a night on a busy weekend. A great barback is like having the best Swiss Army Knife in your back pocket.

  2. ljclark

    Great to hear from someone who has done both jobs. I only regret it took me so long to write about these Swiss Army Knives.

  3. Patrick Maguire

    A great tribute to the unsung heroes. Let’s spread the word about this post and get as many people as possible to chime in.

    I’m just a customer, but I’d like to give a shout-out to Ian, former barback at Toro, current bartender at Coppa. I had lunch with a friend at Toro a few months ago, and in addition to loving the “messy” burger, my friend specifically mentioned Ian’s energy, knowledge and execution behind the bar.

    Say hello to Ian the next time you visit Coppa. You’ll be in good hands.

  4. dianalily

    A well-deserved (pun intended) post. For the time when I was my own barback in tiny NOLA bars, I’d like to give props to my friends and favorite bar flies who, upon seeing I was in the weeds, grabbed the bucket and volunteered to make the trip through the crowd to get ice so I wouldn’t need to stop serving. And in exchange for lagniappe, of course. Thanks!

  5. ljclark

    Dianalily, that is a heartwarming story. You just can’t be thankful enough for customers like that.

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