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When I was 22, I made a list of three things I really liked to see if I could build a career off any. The first was girls, which was crossed off for obvious reasons, the second was traveling the world (which was the path I ended up going for when I took a job working for an airline!), and the third was beer. I’d always thought it would be cool to be a bartender and expand my social network at the same time, but alas my clumsiness held me back and I never ended up giving it a shot.
A cornerstone of any great side hustle is flexibility. After all, a side hustle occurs on the side, meaning you have other, higher priority endeavors that often need to take precedence.
When I was in college, my job with an event staffing agency seemed like a pretty ideal side hustle for a student because of the flexibility. I would be offered bartending and serving shifts throughout the week based on my expressed availability, and I could pick and choose which events I wanted to work. The flexibility was great and some of the events were actually pretty fun to work.
For example, during the college football season I used to bartend at UC Berkeley’s stadium in one of the VIP sections, which was always an entertaining shift; especially since I am a football fan. Also, during the holiday season I used to bartend at fairly extravagant events, like corporate holiday parties for Facebook and Yahoo, as well as big New Year’s dance parties at the Parc 55 Hotel in downtown SF.
This all seemed great at the time. I was a busy student who was making some extra cash and working cool gigs—but there was one problem: I was being paid $11.50/hr while the staffing agency was collecting over $30/hr for my services. Now, it should be noted that I probably would have made an additional $5-7/hr if I had been working with a catering company directly, rather than working through an agency. I used to work alongside the in-house staff of various catering companies, and it was pretty well-known that they were making more money (around $16-19/hr). Regardless, I soon learned how to make even more money than the catering staff for doing similar work:
I started my own side hustle business as a self-employed
freelance bartender for private events.
When I first realized the staffing agency was receiving $30/hr for my services, I was naturally a little irritated. To me, this illustrated that my services were clearly worth more money than I was being paid. The best way to improve the situation was fairly clear: I needed to cut out the middle man (aka the staffing agency), and start securing business independently. And so, Maguire Private Bartending was born—and it was successful.
In this article I will share everything I learned about running an independent bartending service using nothing more than Craigslist, Yelp, a small bartending kit, and a car.
How To Get Started as a Private Bartender
There’s only one thing you truly need before getting started as a freelance event bartender: you need to know how to bartend. If you have no experience behind a bar but you want to become a bartender, you may run into a classic catch-22: you can’t land a bartending job because you have no experience, but you have no experience because you can’t land a bartending job.
This is actually why I wound up doing private event bartending in the first place; the barrier to entry is lower. I was not willing to climb the ranks of the restaurant world, so instead I tried to circumnavigate a few steps by attending a bartending school.
Some people, especially those in the restaurant business, may tell you that bartending schools are a waste of time. They would point out that a few weeks in a training program can’t replace experience behind a real bar, and that a bartending certification probably won’t get you a traditional bartending job for this reason. And they would probably be right.
However, bartending schools do give you basic bartending proficiency, which is all you need to get your private bartending operation started. You’re not aiming to become a top-tier mixologist at a high-end lounge here; you just need to learn how to efficiently churn out good margaritas and mojitos at a busy wedding reception or corporate party. So, since attending a bartending school worked for me, it is the method I will recommend if you want to start a freelance bartending side hustle without any prior bartending experience. Check out abcbartending.com and see if there’s one where you live.
A typical school will likely cost between $250-500. In terms of return-on-investment, it should only take you about 2-4 gigs to make your money back. After that, you will always be “in the black” with your bartending business because there are virtually zero operating costs outside of gas/transportation.
Tools of the Trade
Once you have acquired the skills, you need to make a small investment in the tools of the trade: a bartending kit. You should be able to find a basic kit online for around $20-$30 – it shouldn’t be a very large expense. Here’s what they look like:
Also, this operation works best if you have a car. You need transportation to the events, and having a car greatly expands your service territory. If you live in a big city, you may be able to reach some events with public transportation. Otherwise, a car is fairly crucial.
Launching Your Bartending Business
When I launched Maguire Private Bartending, I advertised entirely through Craigslist. I posted my ads in the ‘Services’ section under the ‘Event’ subcategory.
The key to a successful Craigslist ad (in this context) is validation. There are some scams on Craigslist, so you need to do as much as possible to make your ad appear legitimate and verify that you are a real person offering a quality service.
One of the simplest ways to do this is to provide pictures. Including multiple pictures of yourself gives a face to your business and helps establish your ad’s legitimacy.
The best pictures to use are pictures of you working a bar. You need to show potential clients what they can expect to receive if they hire you. I was fortunate to have some previous experience, and I made sure to take some pictures of myself bartending at the staffing agency’s events in preparation for launching Maguire Private Bartending.
If you don’t have any prior experience, try taking some pictures of yourself making drinks in a bartending school (if you choose to go). Or you could throw your own party with a group of friends and set up a bar to work behind – this would provide both pictures and practice. Make sure you look professional in all of your pictures. I recommend a black button-up shirt; it’s a classic bartender look.
Once you have your pictures, you can begin putting the ad together. When writing it, just be honest and let people know what you are offering. Describe yourself and the services you provide, as well as the services you don’t provide (i.e. supplying any equipment, glassware, linens, product, etc.). The only things you need to provide are professionalism, the ability to run a small bar, and a few essential bar tools from your kit.
Your ad should also include the fact that you are willing to help your clients plan a drink menu (which I discuss further in the section below). Use the words “bartender” and “bartending” in the headline of your ad so it appears in all relevant searches. Also, make sure to re-post your ad frequently on Craigslist; otherwise it will be pushed to the bottom of the page by other ads.
Once your ad is live, the only thing left to do is re-post it until you receive some responses.
Running Your Business
There’s more to running a freelance bartending business than making drinks – you have to deal with clients. If done right, this should be a consultative relationship (usually through phone or email).
I used to help my clients plan a drink menu, and also offer advice regarding what equipment was needed for the bar. Planning the menu isn’t rocket science; if there is a theme or the client requests some specialty cocktails, you can simply turn to Google for some recipe ideas.
In terms of equipment, I would never supply anything other than the tools in my bartending kit. It was the client’s responsibility to provide everything else.
In addition to drink ingredients and ice, here’s a list of what I always recommend for a basic bar set-up:
- 2 Coolers (One for drinking ice, and one for chilling bottles)
- 1 Empty Bucket (For disposing excess liquids)
- Minimum 1 Trash Bin (Ideally a separate bin for recycling)
- 1 Rectangular Table (The bar)
- 1 Knife Cutting Board (For slicing fruit. Your bartending kit may have a small set, but a more sturdy set is preferable)
- Glassware & Napkins
Being able to advise your clients will improve their level of satisfaction with your services. To maximize your success with this business, you need to make your clients happy!
Once you start working gigs, you can create a Yelp page for your business and invite your clients to leave a review after the event. You can link to this Yelp page in your Craigslist ad to add more credibility your business.
Getting Paid as a Bartender!
Okay, let’s get to the good stuff: how much money can you make by doing this? I used to charge $25/hr base rate for all my events. This may vary by location, so do some research on your market. Search Craigslist for other freelance bartenders in your area to determine what the going rate seems to be.
Do not sell yourself short or try to undercut your competitors.
I made this mistake when I first started out in order to attract my first clients; it’s not only unnecessary but can also make you seem unconfident or second-rate. In hindsight, I probably should’ve charged more—closer to $30/hr.
For the sake of full transparency, below is a sample of my monthly earnings. As you can see, there is a large range. This is because events lasted anywhere from 2-8 hours, and the amount of tips I received was always a variable. It should also be noted that I declined to work numerous events during this time frame, so the total potential income was significantly higher.
All things considered, I was averaging about $160 per event with the events usually running 4-5 hours. That comes out to a little over $35/hr. My all-time record was $420 for an 8 hour gig, which comes out to around $52/hr.
Pros & Cons to Bartending Events:
We’ll start with the pros:
- Flexibility: You are always in charge of the schedule and this side hustle fits in perfectly as a weekend compliment to your day job.
- Lucrative: $25-50/hr is good money, especially considering that this work is usually fun.
- Free Food/Drinks: Clients will often offer you a meal and/or appetizers while you are working, and many encourage you to have a few drinks.
- Fun: After all, it’s a party!
- Pride: It feels good to start your own operation and be your own boss.
Here are the cons:
- Business Hours: This business thrives primarily during weekends; usually in the evening. You may need to sacrifice your weekend plans. There is also an uptick in events during the holidays, so you may find yourself working on holidays if you want to maximize your earnings.
- Seasonal Fluctuations: The business can fluctuate with the season, causing it to be somewhat unstable. The money you made over the holidays in December would be difficult to replicate in slower months like February.
I don’t bartend anymore, but its nice to know that if I ever decide to get back into it, I can re-post my Craigslist Ad whenever I want and pick up right where I left off.
(Funny story: I briefly came out of “retirement” this October for a repeat client who contacted me two years later to work the same annual party (a backyard Zambian Independence Day party). It was at this party that I set the $ record mentioned in this post.)
What do you think? Is bartending for you?
Ben is a San Francisco-based blogger with an addiction to traveling. In between trips, he is frequently thinking about side hustles and money-saving strategies to fund his next adventure. He shares highlights, stories, and travel tips from his journeys at backpacknectar.com.
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