Why the best bars in the country are recruiting from fast food joints


Bryan Schneider, director of corporate beverages for Quality Branded Restaurants, was standing in line at the Chipotle Mexican Grill one day this winter when he couldn’t help but notice the talent of a particular employee behind the counter who was making everyone’s barbacoa burritos and Sofritas bowls.

“[He was] multitasking multiple orders while simultaneously engaging with guests and organizing the mise en place,” says Schneider, using the French term for how professional kitchens and bars prepare and arrange their ingredients. “It reminded me of how a super-fast bartender handles a stressful workflow, yet is still able to maintain composure to greet and engage with guests.”

Schneider’s observation was astute. In fact, at a time when fast food workers continue to fight for unionization and a boost to their often meager salaries while the bar and restaurant industry struggles to find skilled staff, many former burger pinball machines, sandwich artists and burrito rollers have gladly jumped from daytime rush to nighttime mixology.

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“It’s a buyer’s market for workers, why wouldn’t they want to move? says Liz Pearce, bar manager at Aba in Chicago (and former McDonald’s employee).

In fact, as far as I know, currently on LinkedIn, there are about 800 working bartenders who also list Chipotle as a previous job on their resume. You will find similar numbers if you search for the other major chains. OK, it’s not that strange; if you’re embarking on a career in food service, it’s only natural that you’ll rise through the ranks from casual fast food restaurant to family restaurant to sports bar to high-end mixology.

But, hitting the bar can also be the culmination of bringing together all the skills, knowledge, and temperaments that one might have acquired over years of working in fast food, fast casual, and chain restaurants.

The need for speed

“Chipotle has an insane set-up because they’re built for efficiency,” says Jesse Ross, bartender at Turf Supper Club in San Diego. “Ever since I started working in bars, I’ve mentioned how good fast food workers can be as bartenders – that translates very well.”

Ross started his career at a Jamba Juice in his hometown of San Diego when he was just 15 years old. He will work at three different Jamba Juices in three different cities over the next four years. Like Chipotle, the smoothie chain is also well known for its set-up and incredible speed in pumping out orders.

“Where you go to pick up and pour the juice is so simplified, because they had someone from the company design it as efficiently as possible,” he explains. Even today, as Ross consults to help set up a new cocktail bar, he recalls the lessons he learned from Jamba Juice, including breaking down the costs of each ingredient to save pennies. here and there. “I also color code everything and have recipe cards mounted where guests can’t see them.”

A step up from fast food and fast casual dining, family-run “chains” have also played a vital role as a training ground for today’s top mixology stars, and where speed is also essential.

Erin Hayes, a former Lost Lake bartender who is now a bar and beverage consultant, began her hospitality career working at TGI Fridays in her hometown of Chicago when she was just 19. She recalls the rigorous training, saying it’s more intense than any high end. cocktail bar would put its new recruits through these days. Before getting behind a Friday stick, Hayes had to memorize 100 different recipes and become an expert on free drinks.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a jigger in the building,” she says. “You had to do a casting test before every shift and you quickly learned to be extremely precise.”

That speed — saving a second here and there — is a necessity when you’re a bartender at a bar that has a huge restaurant attached, and whose most popular drinks — like Long Island Iced Tea — might have a four-bottle scoop. Even today, though she primarily jigs, Hayes claims she still has the muscle memory to free jig when the service gets really slammed in places like her Black Lagoon Halloween pop-up.

“You can teach anyone how to pour a drink properly,” she says. “And that’s why I’ve encouraged bars to hire service, chain, fast food, baristas, cashiers — people who engage with customers on a daily basis and can always maintain a healthy attitude.”

Empathy and work ethic

“To quote ‘Cocktail,’ ‘A bartender is the aristocrat of the working class,'” says Andrew White, a longtime bartender in Brooklyn. “And I think that’s true. A bartender must weave his way between the working-class guys coming in for a beer and a shot, and the finance guys slamming vodka sodas five hours later when the market closes.

This diversity of daily guests is also why Hayes thinks so many former fast food workers are suited for a life behind the bat.

“The customers of both [fast food] and the bars are so diverse and varied that you meet and interact with all walks of life, from all over the world,” she says. “You really learn to be empathetic outside of your own domain.”

Empathy is something many of today’s bartenders have mentioned learning in the fast food game. This is especially true in the age of entitlement, when so many customers think they’re always right and if you disagree, they want to talk to your manager.

“People in chain restaurants, they learn about hospitality,” says Hayes. “These restaurants still exist for a reason. This is largely due to the way they make people feel when they walk into the room. It’s not the highest quality food, but the hospitality is still there.

And their employees also develop an exceptional work ethic. Pearce began her service career at a McDonald’s in her hometown of Fargo, ND, where she spent three years behind the cash register and running the drive-thru. She credits the fast food industry with helping her develop good daily habits that still serve the business.

At his McDonald’s franchise, a timer rang every 20 minutes and all employees had to wash their hands; every 30 minutes another timer would go off and everyone would have to do their work logs.

“It was like the army,” she recalls. “We were always scrubbing the walls, the inside of the sink, things I’ve never seen done in other restaurants. I just learned to be a clean, super-organized, always-multitasking freak. If you had any downtime, you’d go sweep the hall, pick up the trash. You just can’t teach that.

But what you mostly can’t teach is how to deal with a continuous onslaught of customers who want their burgers and fries as quickly as humanly possible and who want any excuse to get angry. against a 19-year-old who forgot to hold the mayonnaise.

“You’re definitely dealing with weird people, but you just have to make them happy long enough for them to go away,” Ross jokes before realizing that’s kind of the difference between fast food and the scenes. of cocktails.

“Of course, it’s different in bars,” he adds, “where once you finally make them a drink, they just sit in front of you and keep drinking it until they order the next.”

But what about drinks?

“At the end of the day, making a Big Mac really isn’t that different from making a cocktail,” Pearce says, though she admits the general customer doesn’t know as much about dark liquors as they do. surely on the ingredients of the hamburger. “People are familiar with pickles, cheese, and lettuce, but with cocktails, it’s more of a learning curve.”

Ross feels the same. He remembers having a general manager when he worked at Noble Experiment, a posh speakeasy in San Diego, who would poach employees from anywhere but bars: Starbucks, Applebee’s, even the parking lot. local mall restaurant.

“He would come in and see who the hot shit was at each location and then try to hire them,” Ross explains. “He thought they were doing well in those places where you can’t teach. But you can easily teach them how to make a good cocktail.

Ross, for his part, claims to recall the specs of such juice drinks from Jamba as the Mango-a-go-go and could still whip one up as easily as a Martini or Daiquiri. And that’s why, for today’s top bartenders, they also know that in this turbulent economic climate, they’ll always have something to fall back on if things go wrong.

“When the [Covid-19] the lockdown arrived, when all the bars and restaurants were closed, I noticed the Wendy’s next to me was hiring. Competitive salaries, 401(k),” says Pearce.

“And I was like, ‘Could I really do this again? “”

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