What do you do when you're laid off from the job you've been at for 20 years? Why, you go to bartending school, of course.
So says "Voices from the Recession," a multimedia project from The Washington Post. According to the project, enrollment at a bartending school in Virginia is up by 25 percent. But can the same trend be seen in northeast Ohio?
Will Cobbin, director of the Cleveland Bartending School of South Euclid, says that enrollment at the school is up by 30 percent. The school places its graduates in jobs within a 75-mile radius, and Cobbin says that right now, the school has more job openings than students to fill them.
Tribune Chronicle / Amber Ziegler
Alex McDowell, bartender at Vernon’s Cafe in Niles, stands in front of his bar. McDowell has been in the restaurant business for almost 30 years and learned how to tend bar on the job.
However, bartending school doesn't seem to be a trend among bartenders in Trumbull County.
Peter Sfikas, manager of The Rig in Howland, has been bartending for eight years and has never seen a job applicant with bartending school on their resume. "If you've never worked in a bar, you have no idea how to bartend. You know how to mix drinks," said Sfikas. "Mixing drinks is easy," he added.
Sfikas was trained on the job and says that's how it is for most bartenders. "You just have to be in the right place at the right time," he said. When he's looking to hire a new bartender, Sfikas looks for outgoing personality, someone who knows a lot of people and can bring new customers to the bar, good looks and responsibility.
Alex McDowell, bartender at Vernon's Cafe in Niles, comes from a similar background as Sfikas'. McDowell has been in the restaurant business for almost 30 years and has worked as everything from a dishwasher to a cocktail waiter.
He compares bartending school to any other type of school. "Do you think you were prepared for all you were going to experience in your profession from what you learned in school?" he asked, explaining that real experience outweighs training. "This job takes an incredible physical and emotional toll on people," he said. However, McDowell added, "I think anyone seeking knowledge is a good thing."
Dennis Huston, sommelier and bar manager at Vernon's Cafe, works closely with McDowell. Huston explains that even if someone learns how to mix drinks in bartending school, that person will still have to learn the house mixing style when they get a job. "All houses mix drinks differently," he said. This obstacle exists for school-trained and traditionally trained bartenders alike.
Christian Rinehart is a bartender and the owner of O'Donold's Irish Pub in Austintown. When it comes to bartenders with bartending school on their resumes, he says it's not something he looks for.
"Local pubs don't care," said Rinehart, explaining that the typical bartender starts out as a busboy, moves up to a server and then eventually becomes a bartender.
When hiring a bartender, Rinehart looks for someone who's trustworthy and has a great personality. "We'd rather train people our way," he said. However, he explained that because all houses mix drinks differently, people who come from bartending school tend to be easier to break of their mixing habits than those who have been bartending for years.
One thing that sets Rinehart apart as a bartender is his flair bartending skills, which is the use of bar tools to entertain clientele. He and another of his bartenders, Jay Waldeck, have been trained in flair bartending, and, though they've never been to bartending school themselves, they've taught flair bartending at such schools.
Rinehart explained that some nights Waldeck will perform a 15-minute flair bartending routine for customers while other bartenders prepare and serve drinks. "It creates excitement," he said, "and gets the crowd drinking." Rinehart says that these skills are more in demand at places built on entertainment value, particularly in Las Vegas or various cities in Florida.
As for the Cleveland Bartending School, Cobbin explains that people who have never been to bartending school tend to think of it as a traditional school - full of classrooms with desks arranged in neat rows. However, that's not the case. The Cleveland Bartending School features a full-service bar, as opposed to the colored water that bartending schools have used in the past. Classes are one part lecture to three parts practice, and students role-play bartender and customer.
"What they get from our school is someone who can bartend," Cobbin said.
In addition to the basic mixology course, the school also offers a separate certification in responsible service, which involves dealing with drunk customers. This certification is required for bartenders in some states, though not Ohio.