Armed with a bachelor's degree in business management from Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, Laurie Matusow embarked on a business suit-wearing career but found the boredom factor too high. When a company lay-off offered free education for those wishing to switch career tracks, she sought training at the International Bartender's School, in Hawthorne, California.
Ms. Matusow completed bartender training in 1992 and has since forged a 15-year bartending career, complete with plans to eventually tap her business degree and create her own bar staffing company.
Her certificate of completion as a licensed bartender initially allowed Ms. Matusow to acquire bartending work through staffing companies. But it was her winning nature with customers and ability behind the bar that helped her to create a niche client relationship with the New York Food Company, in El Segundo, California. Many people approach a bartender for not only a drink, but for also for conversation, fun and entertainment, she notes, adding that she enjoys the daily interaction and regular conversation and the bonus of working the bar at high profile awards shows and industry events.
Ms. Matusow & Her Career
Tell us about your career choice; what path led you to choosing the bartending career path?
I was laid off from a previous job which I wasn't enjoying anyway. I already had catering experience, so I thought I'd try something new in a related field.
What do you enjoy most about your career?
I like serving people great drinks and enjoy meeting new people and conversing with them.
What do you do dislike?
Pushy people and people who don't know when they've had enough when you try to cut them off nicely. There are certainly human hassles in dealing with drunk people on a regular basis, but the fun of the job outweighs them.
Where have you worked in the past and how do those environments differ from where you are working now?
I've primarily worked at catered events (weddings, anniversaries, bar mitzvahs, etc.) as well as at industry events such as award shows and other high-profile events. Weddings are much quieter and have less people than the high-profile events, but the job that I do is basically the same.
How do you go about getting hired for the different jobs that you do?
I really put in my time over the years. I worked for a company for a while and earned my way to being put on their list of top people in the industry which allowed me to get new work. I spend a lot of time looking for new work and getting the word out there, answering ads for jobs and sometimes putting my own ad out there so people can find me.
What personal qualities do you think it requires to do your job well?
You have to be easy-going and able to get along with a wide range of people. You have to be able to be friendly but not to let people get out of control with you; you have to set those limits. So, you really need good people skills. You need to be able to anticipate what the crowd might be drinking and be ready for them when they come to order. You also need to be quick on your feet, be able to multi-task and have a good memory.
What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?
I'd really like to eventually move out of doing bartending myself – it's a physically hard job since you're on your feet all of the time and I've been doing it for 15 years now – and have my own bar staffing company one day.
Education Information & Advice
Tell us about your education.
I have a BS in business management from Pepperdine University which I followed up with a certificate program at the International Bartender's School in Hawthorne, California. Both degrees taught me a great deal about how to deal with people from all walks of life. From bartending school, I learned the specifics of how to make certain drinks and handle the business side of the job, which I already knew a little bit about because of my business degree.
What made you decide to go to bartending school?
I was laid off from a previous employer and they were going to pay for additional education of whatever I wanted to pursue. I had already done some work in catering and I knew that I wanted to move into some type of service job like this, something that would be fun and could earn good money.
How did you choose your school?
I found an ad in the PennySaver (publication) which I followed up on. I wanted to stay in the local area so it worked out for me.
How has your education benefited your career?
I've had the opportunity work some really great events which I don't believe I would have gotten if I hadn't had the credibility of the school behind me. I also was able to meet some of the right people and do some networking and learn all of the basics that I needed to know to be able to do the job.
Do you need to go to bartending school to get the jobs that you do?
Yes. I guess that you can work your way up through the restaurant industry and get in to bartending that way or you can get lucky and get hired on with a company that is willing to train you on the job, but I think that's rare. Bartending school is a quick program which teaches you what you need to know and really gets your foot in the door, even if you don't have any experience in the field.
What can students applying to schools of this kind do to increase their chances of being accepted?
Everyone will be accepted. This isn't a competitive industry, so if you want to try and get a job in this field, you just need to apply to the school and be able to pay for it. The hard part is being willing to devote yourself to the education, finish the program and get into the working world. You need to have the will to learn and have good memory skills for learning all those drinks. You can even take an on-line course in bartending so there are options for anyone who wants to do this type of schooling.
What other advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in this field?
It's a good part-time job that can earn you some great money. It can be turned into a full-time career or used to supplement your income when you need a bit more money. And it's a good skill to have; you get invited to all of the parties.
The Actual Work
What exactly do you do on a daily basis? Besides making drinks, are there other duties involved in the work?
Every bartender has to basically set up and tear down their own bar which means setting up glassware, setting up the liquor display, filling up the ice bins, making sure that you have enough cocktail stirrers, napkins, toothpicks, etc. You need to prepare things on the bars such as cutting up limes and lemons and bringing out items such as olives and cherries. A bartender will usually have a bar back or two to replenish glassware, ice and sodas during the shift, although it depends on where you are working.
Unless you get hired on with a restaurant or bar, you also really need to be able to put yourself out there, spread the word about your work and go out in search of jobs. They're out there, but they don't come to you, so you need to have some business savvy. You need to be able to network with people to get this end of the job taken care of.
Best tip for someone new to this work?
Be friendly and courteous to guests at all times. It's your job to serve them and some of them can be mean about it but they're where you're getting your money. You don't want the word of mouth that's spread around about you to be bad. Also, you should always stay on top of the new drink trends, learn how to make them and be able to readily offer a number of different drink suggestions to guests who don't know quite what they want. You should know at least one fruity drink, one strong drink and one with less alcohol in it to be able to offer to people.
What are the greatest stresses in the job, what causes you the most anxiety?
When we don't have enough set-up time and guests sometimes arrive earlier than expected, it really creates a time constraint on the job that builds up pressure. It gets things off to the wrong start. Also, when there's a line at the bar and you're doing your very best to get everyone their drink in a timely manner and there's just too many people to handle at once, but you get better at dealing with that over time.
What are some common myths about your profession and how do they differ from the actual work?
Most people think bartenders drink and drink on the job which usually isn't true. I'm basically a non-drinker (I might have a Kahlua and crème about once a year) but even if I drank, I would never drink on the job; that is very unprofessional. Nobody needs a drunk bartender who can't do the job.
What contributions do you feel your job offers to society as a whole?
I don't just make a drink to make a tip; I genuinely care about the person that I am serving and will do everything I can to assure them that I'm looking out for their best interest. I want to make sure nobody is going to “drink and drive” and that they always have a designated driver in case they've had “one too many.” So, I think that my job provides a social environment that people in society want and creates it in a safe manner.
Job Information & Advice
What are the benefits of choosing a career in bartending?
It's generally good money, which is why most people get into it, but it's also a really fun job. Plus, since I do event bartending, I can choose which jobs that I do and don't take which gives me a lot of flexibility. I can vacation when I want to and I can work a lot when I'm in need of extra money.
What job options are available to someone who has just graduated from bartending school?
You can easily get a job in catering or with a staffing company to get your foot in the door. There are many ads from companies looking to hire on-call bartenders. Plus, many bartending schools help with job placement or at least have leads for you as far as who tends to hire their students.
How easy is it to get a job in the field?
It's fairly easy as long as you “get out there and hustle,” meaning that you actively send out resumes to a number of different places. You literally have to sell yourself as a person who has the education you need and the will to learn more. That's what I did, and it certainly paid off. I think that the work is always out there if you're willing to look for it.
Do you feel that it is important for someone to be passionate about the work in order to be good at it?
Yes – you definitely have to like what you do and always come to work with a pleasant attitude all the time. You are always going to be interfacing with people and they're going to know it if you hate your job.
What are the best ways to get a foot in the door of this industry? Are big restaurants, small bars or event agencies best for newbies?
A small bar would be a good start but sending your resume out to event agencies is really a better way to land more jobs. Then you can slowly work yourself up to working in a nightclub atmosphere if you like. There are a lot of different options in this field so it really depends on what you want from the job.
What other career advice can you offer graduates of this field?
It's a fun job and it can be truly rewarding on a personal level. When I've had a really good night because of nice people who've “taken care of me,” I feel good about myself and knowing that they'll probably remember me. I've often been requested at events because people know me and know how I work and interact with people. To know that I'm doing something I like and that others are enjoying it as well is a great thing.
Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in the field?
Even if you eventually decide to do something else besides bartending, it's a really great education that can benefit you throughout your life. You can pursue other things while you're doing this job. You can also do it full-time if you're a real go-getter, although that can be hard at first if you're working on-call or event-only. But you really have a lot of options with this certificate.
Editor's Note: Laurie Matusow is happy to answer follow-up questions from students looking into bartending schools or careers; to follow up with her directly, email her here.