In the age of Instagram, where pictures are worth a thousand words and everyone has something to say, restaurant and bar work has become romanticized. But it takes more than a picture-perfect snapshot with a pithy caption to run a successful business of this kind. It requires a great location, a thoughtful menu with a point of view and loyal customers. And it takes a whole lot of staff. In today’s market, saturated with quality restaurants and innovative cocktail bars, dedicated employees are in short supply.
In the East Bay new bars are opening monthly. This puts stress on the pool of available bartenders. While East Bay restaurants have been experiencing this problem in the kitchen for the past several years, bars are starting to feel the same strain. So how have things changed, and what does this mean for bar managers, who are constantly looking to fill their team, versus the bartender who has as many options as days in the week?
Back in the early 2000s before the modern cocktail revival was in full swing, there were fewer places in the East Bay to get a cocktail, which meant bar jobs were difficult to find.
“Bar jobs were definitely hard to get then,” said Dylan O’Brien, co-owner of Prizefighter in Emeryville. “There were fewer bar jobs and most didn’t have cocktail programs.”
Bartenders would stay at their gigs longer, knowing that they’d likely have to start climbing the totem pole all over in a new place. That is, if they could find a bar that was hiring.
“It was like what millennials deal with on every level now — if you don’t have any experience you can’t get a job and you can’t get experience without a job,” said O’Brien.
O’Brien had worked in Berkeley as a server at Trattoria la Siciliana for a few years before moving to the now-closed Café Rouge, where he became a bartender. When he left Café Rouge, it was for a job at César, where he started as a server before earning a spot on its bar staff.
“I came up in an environment where it was understood that it took a long time to move up the ranks,” he said.
While the Bay Area has always been a costly place to live, San Francisco became the most expensive city in the country in 2014, passing Manhattan. That’s when things started to change. People who couldn’t afford to live in San Francisco moved, and the populations in cities throughout the East Bay rose. In fact, 100,000 people moved to the East Bay from 2010 to 2015. More bars and restaurants began to open across the bay. It is estimated that between 2012 and 2016, 53 new bars and restaurants with cocktail programs opened in Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville.
“I’ve started to see a change over the past few years because there are more bars now and most of them have cocktail programs. Because the economics of restaurants are so terrible, there’s more incentive for them to have a full liquor license and a cocktail program,” said O’Brien.
At the same time, people were expecting higher quality drinks at bars. As more bars began to open, more opportunities opened up. Existing bars needed to grow their staff to keep up with demand.
“We started really small when we opened in 2011. [Co-owner] Jon Santer and I were bartending too, so that eased some of the staffing needs,” said O’Brien, speaking about Prizefighter. “There were six bartenders and a barback only on certain nights. Now we have eight bartenders and six barbacks.”
Chris Lane, bar manager of Ramen Shop in Oakland, started to notice this growing interest in cocktails around the same time that Prizefighter’s staff started to expand.
“For a while, everything was happening in San Francisco,” said Lane. “The East Bay was kind of quiet. A couple of years ago, I started to notice more bartenders coming out to the East Bay and commenting about how nice it was and how much there is to do here. At Ramen Shop, we have a steady stream of people coming from San Francisco and it’s where I’ve gotten more bartenders start to talk to me about moving here. They see opportunities and ask me questions about my experiences living and working here. I never got those questions before.”
Indeed, bartenders who were looking for a change of pace and more affordable rent began moving to the East Bay. Lauren Steele, for example, lived and bartended in San Francisco for a decade before she decided to move to Oakland.
“I couldn’t find a decent room in San Francisco for under $1,500 a month. I’d been thinking about Oakland for some time and I got lucky when a friend had a room available,” she said. Steele moved and was able to get a job at Ramen Shop when they had a spot open on their bar team.
Another trend that Lane has been seeing is people look for second bartending jobs because the cost of living is on the rise in the East Bay. Bars aren’t just competing with each other for customers, they are competing with each other for staff in an increasingly expensive part of the Bay Area.
“What I’m finding these days is that for almost every person who gives me a resumé — if they even give me one at all — is that they are only looking for a shift or two to supplement their income from another bar job. As an operator, it’s not appealing to me to hire someone to work just a couple of days unless it’s absolutely necessary. They aren’t going to be able to pick up shifts because of their other commitments or be able to keep up with the flow of information in a place like this. They aren’t going to be as present,” said Lane.
Some bartenders, like Steele, are able to secure a job at an established bar like Ramen Shop, while others move around to new places more frequently. This shuffle can lead to novice bartenders climbing the ranks more quickly than they should. In fact, it happened to Steele while she was beginning her bartending career in San Francisco. Already a bartender, she applied for a job at another bar, assuming it was for a barback position, since she had minimal experience. Instead, she was hired immediately as a bartender, and within a couple of years she was a bar manager there.
“I had very little training in terms of team management and customer service. I absolutely was not ready to step into that role. I was working six to seven days a week between four of the company’s bars and was promised that I would receive the training that I needed. I never did, and in a matter of months I was essentially left on my own. I wasn’t paid a lot for my work as a manager, but I wanted the experience and the title,” Steele said.
Steele’s experience mirrors what is now happening in the East Bay, where people switch jobs often and move up the ranks fast without a lot of support.
Ultimately, despite the best intentions of inexperienced managers, customers are often the people who suffer most from staffing issues in bars. Management positions, which are desirable because they have the potential to pay better and be a vehicle for creativity, don’t always go to those who are most qualified. There can be a steep learning curve for what managing a bar entails, so hospitality takes a back seat to the more immediate responsibilities that allow the bar to function operationally.
“In my bar managing job, there was no service training. There was no conversation about how to talk to guests and serve them,” said Steele.
Seasoned employers have responded to this in different ways. O’Brien hires veteran bartenders at Prizefighter.
“We want people who have a solid foundation so we can add things from there. We have a certain expectation of skill and experience,” he said.
They hire barbacks specifically for that position and don’t often promote them to bartenders because they usually don’t have much, if any, experience bartending. (In fact, O’Brien said that everyone who now applies for a barback position is currently driving for Uber or Lyft.) As a result, Prizefighter has very little turnover.
Lane deals with at Ramen Shop by prioritizing work environment, creating a team that gets along, and making sure his staff feels invested in the job.
“We hire for the culture of our shop,” he said. “Everyone has to pull in the same direction and if you hire like that, there will be more loyalty. You have to have a staff that feels like they are in it together. It’s on me as an operator to make sure that they aren’t bored and stay interested in the program, whether creatively or otherwise. It may sound cheesy to say, but it’s about creating a culture. It’s not a sole effort of one or two people, it’s the whole team. And that takes time to create.”
Shanna Farrell is an oral historian an UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center where she works on a wide range of projects, including contemporary cocktail history. She is the author of “Bay Area Cocktails: A History of Culture, Community and Craft,” out September 2017. She is also the co-host of a new podcast about the intersection of food and drink, called the Prix Fixe. You can find her tweets and Instagrams at @shanna_farrell.