How to Make $25-50/hr as a Freelance Bartender!

by J. Money - Published January 15, 2016[Edit]

make money bartending

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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.

But my man Ben did! And today he share’s his story of how he makes some solid cash bartending it up on the side. Welcome to the 64th installment of our Side Hustle Series.

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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

bartending setup

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:

bartending kit amazon

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.

bartending craigslist ad

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.

bartending money made

(Total: $2,875.00)

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.

bartending in action

(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?

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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.

[For more ways to make extra cash, check out our entire Side Hustle Series of 60 gigs strong]

Jay loves talking about money, experimenting, blasting hip-hop, and hanging out with his two beautiful boys. You can check out all of his online projects at jmoney.biz. Thanks for reading the blog!

{ 53 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mrs. Mad Money Monster | @madmoneymonster January 15, 2016 at 7:07 am

This is a great idea! I’m not sure it would be the best option for myself, being a wife and mother. The hours would largely hinder my success. Not to mention (but here I go), my husband probably wouldn’t want me battening at various parties around town. BUT, for other people, this is a fast-cash option that I would have never have considered without reading this post.

Mrs. Mad Money Monster

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2 Ben Maguire January 15, 2016 at 4:04 pm

It certainly is fast cash! Definitely understandable that the hours won’t work for some people though. Glad you enjoyed the post :)

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3 J. Money January 18, 2016 at 4:10 pm

I’d definitely have to catch myself from flirting all the time, haha… Especially when I know it would bring more tips! :)

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4 Tyler Taghon July 15, 2016 at 10:57 pm

Ben. Isn’t there a risk involved though. Serving alcohol under the name of a business without a liquor license?

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5 Brian January 15, 2016 at 7:59 am

I used to do some gig bartending. Mostly for larger charity parties. I got hooked up with a company by blind luck that did these. While they only paid me $12/hr… I would usually wind up around $40-$50/hr total because people at larger charity parties tend to tip well when there is an open bar.

Its a great gig to have, and I recommend it for anyone who likes to be a little social and have fun.

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6 Ben Maguire January 15, 2016 at 4:10 pm

Wow, $40-50/hr is great tips! The tipping was always so inconsistent when I worked for a staffing agency. There were some events where we were even banned from accepting tips. Regardless, I usually had fun anyway!

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7 Hannah January 15, 2016 at 8:03 am

This is a super-fun idea! My mom is a caterer, and she always enlisted me to help serve larger parties at a very nice hourly wage (maybe $30-40). It was a ton of fun, and a nice change of pace from my regular jobs. However, I never looked to grow that into bartending or some other service.

Great idea!

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8 Ben Maguire January 15, 2016 at 4:16 pm

That’s a nice hourly wage indeed! If I was making that much, I might not have started this operation in the first place :) However, money aside, it feels good to take initiative and start something yourself.

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9 Penny @ She Picks Up Pennies January 15, 2016 at 8:16 am

I feel like this is one of those jobs (full-time or side hustle) that seems really glamorous and exciting…but probably depends largely on the partygoers. I love these sneak peeks. I think I’ll stick to tutoring, though ;)

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10 Ben Maguire January 15, 2016 at 4:40 pm

There’s some truth to that. I mentioned some of my favorite parties within the post, but there were also some boring events…I once worked a kids birthday party pouring juice and soda in the living room–far from glamorous :) But I’m sure tutoring has some great benefits too!

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11 Ramona @ Personal Finance Today January 16, 2016 at 2:52 am

He he, it wouldn’t suit me either, with a kid at home and having to be at home with her. But, before I had her, such a job wouldn’t have been that bad. The initial pay is indeed low, but with tips, you can get quite some income.

I did tutoring back in high-school and college, really great fun. And seeing how nicely your pupils learn and develop – priceless.

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12 Tiffany Alexy January 15, 2016 at 9:00 am

I’ve actually thought about this one a lot. I used to be a barista at Starbucks which I know isn’t the same, but there is something deeply satisfying to me about making a good drink (whether it’s espresso based or alcoholic). I don’t know, maybe because I personally like to enjoy one myself, that it gives me joy to make it for others?

Holiday parties are where it’s at. I kind of missed the ball this past season, but I’ve worked holiday parties before as an assistant and yeah, made bank for not doing much– picking up finished beer bottles, serving mimosas, and smiling :)

Thanks for the inside scoop! :)

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13 Ben Maguire January 15, 2016 at 5:41 pm

I can definitely relate to the satisfaction of making a quality drink! There’s an art to it–whether its coffee or booze :)

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14 J. Money January 18, 2016 at 4:11 pm

STOP MAKING ME THIRSTY, Y’ALL!

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15 Mike @ TipYourself.com January 15, 2016 at 9:21 am

Great detail! Thanks for sharing Ben. Can you talk at all about the response rate you found through Craigslist? Were you getting multiple offers a weekend, or was it more sporadic as well as seasonal?

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16 Ben Maguire January 15, 2016 at 6:02 pm

The response rate could be a bit unpredictable, but periods without a single response were usually fairly short-lived (no more than a week or so). As a general rule of thumb, during the busy months I could book gigs every weekend (sometimes 2x in one weekend), whereas the slower months may only yield a gig every other weekend. Hope that helps clarify!

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17 Fervent Finance January 15, 2016 at 9:24 am

This is an awesome idea! And the startup cost is very low!

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18 Chris @ Flipping A Dollar January 15, 2016 at 9:31 am

So neat. No way I can stay up that late though.

Do you need any weird insurance/licensing? I’m betting that varies by state.

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19 Ben Maguire January 15, 2016 at 7:33 pm

You are right, any licensing/insurance likely varies by state. If you want to do things “by the book” it might be a good idea to research the business licensing requirements in your area. In terms of liability, you could also consider applying for a LLC. There are insurance companies that offer event insurance as well, but that would probably be something for the client to cover.

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20 Financial Samurai January 15, 2016 at 11:33 am

Man, with the economy and stock market falling apart, I might need to look into this side hustle as well, after doing a several hour drive shift!

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21 Chris @ Flipping A Dollar January 15, 2016 at 1:07 pm

You mean stock market going on sale???

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22 J. Money January 18, 2016 at 4:15 pm

OH SNAP! Dropping truth up in here.

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23 Michelle January 15, 2016 at 11:41 am

This is such a good idea! We hired a private bartending service company for our wedding and surprisingly they were the ONLY one we could find that did what they did.

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24 Ben Maguire January 15, 2016 at 7:39 pm

Hmm…sounds like there would some good opportunities for this type of work in your area. Not much competition!

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25 Kristi @ Femme Frugality January 15, 2016 at 12:35 pm

Bartending sounds like a fun side hustle, but with two young kids it isn’t a feasible option for me right now. I have several friends and family members who work side jobs as bartenders, though, and they love it.

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26 Noonan January 15, 2016 at 12:59 pm

I liked this post a lot! You might say that bartending is, um, a pour substitute for becoming an Uber driver. ; )

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27 Ben Maguire January 15, 2016 at 7:43 pm

Ba-dum-chish! Glad you enjoyed the post :)

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28 Crystal January 15, 2016 at 1:09 pm

Thanks for the peek and details!!! This is something I always thought I’d be good at since I’m anal-retentive enough to mix a great drink and I love people…talking to people while mixing good drinks sounds like a side hustle I could really embrace. If pet sitting and my online work ever slows down, that’ll be my backup!

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29 Ben Maguire January 15, 2016 at 7:48 pm

Sounds like this would be right up your alley! The social side of bartending is what makes it so engaging. Plus, good people skills = better tips!

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30 Shannon January 15, 2016 at 4:40 pm

This sounds really intriguing. I’ve always wanted to do this. If the client provides all the glassware, are you hand washing everything before you leave? Yes, I know details. I wonder how this would work in Utah land of many liquor laws…

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31 Ben Maguire January 15, 2016 at 7:52 pm

The only clean-up I ever really did was tidying up the bar area–no dish washing involved :) But yes, it may be prudent to research local business laws/regulations if you like to do things by the book.

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32 Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank January 15, 2016 at 5:13 pm

What a cool idea on earning more money. I consider bartending a really cool job and it really can take you anywhere. The way I see it, this job is an all-time round.

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33 Formative Fortunes January 15, 2016 at 7:04 pm

Well I know what im going to be doing this summer! This is a great and stable way to make money (as long as your good at it lol); the only expense is the class (which you actually learn something) and the small kit. Sounds good to me!!

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34 Lindsay VanSomeren January 15, 2016 at 7:23 pm

What a fun way to make some extra money! I’m more of a beer girl myself. There’s not a whole lot of skill in popping a cap off a brewski, but it still sounds like a lot of fun!

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35 J. Money January 18, 2016 at 4:18 pm

I’m pretty sure bartenders offer beer to the party goers too, haha…

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36 Sarah B January 15, 2016 at 7:47 pm

This is a totally awesome and such a creative way to make some extra money. Especially so for social types who love to be around the parties! Was taking the class cost effective in comparison to the earnings you received?

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37 Ben Maguire January 15, 2016 at 9:36 pm

The class was definitely cost effective! I was able to make the money back within my first month of bartending…it actually only took two gigs. By my third event, the school had essentially “paid for itself”.

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38 Jason Butler January 15, 2016 at 8:21 pm

This is a cool idea. I know you had a blast doing it.

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39 Investment Hunting January 17, 2016 at 4:39 pm

I actually did this exact same thing while in college. I reached out to a few bartending schools and asked to be put on their call list for private parties. I never attended the schools but they referred me to work house parties and small weddings. It was easy side money.

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40 J. Money January 18, 2016 at 4:18 pm

Woah!! Great idea!!

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41 Phil Allen January 18, 2016 at 12:27 am

Side hustles are a great outlet for anyone looking to bring in additional income. Love what you’re doing with the site. Keep budgets sexy!

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42 J. Money January 18, 2016 at 4:19 pm

Glad you’re enjoying it :)

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43 Nicky January 22, 2016 at 7:12 pm

I work as a bartender for my main job, and the money is (usually) great. You do have to be aware of the local laws though. In Kansas City, we have to have a liquor card through the city’s regulated industries. It’s about $40 here (and absolutely worth it just for industry night discounts around town!).

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44 J. Money January 23, 2016 at 3:09 pm

Thanks for the info, Nicky! Sounds like a fun job you have over there :)

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45 Shakira May 9, 2016 at 8:16 pm

Thank You, Thank you and Thank you for this article. It was very transparent and clear. I am looking into starting my mobile business and I am in the research phase. This career is hard to find info on because Im guessing people don’t really wanna give up there secrets of the trade. And you had some great ideas!

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46 J. Money May 10, 2016 at 6:53 am

so glad you found helpful, Shakira! and beautiful name!

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47 Benz June 4, 2016 at 4:08 pm

Hey,

Such an AWESOME read! Thanks bro. I was a bartender going through college. I recently graduated and have always wanted to freelance myself as a bartender. Question is, do I make up a cocktail list for the event and have them supply the liquor? How does this work?

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48 Kristen October 29, 2016 at 9:01 pm

Hi there,

I have a design + event planning business and have also bartended for years in the past. I’m not looking to bartend the events I host, however, I am looking to hire bartenders for my events and am also looking into opening a sister company with a different bar business name. Can you please tell me what steps you took legally to open this business? I know I need all my bartender employees to have food handler cards + bartending experience– but what else is needed to cover my ass legally?

Thanks in advance!
Kristen

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49 Alyssa March 8, 2017 at 11:42 am

This is awesome! I found this very helpful. I’m a bartender and have done some weddings on the side recently with a friend. I was looking to get into this a little more but I was wondering if you have to have any licensing or insurance?

Thanks,
Alyssa

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50 Skye March 10, 2017 at 11:04 am

Alyssa,

Each state has their own licensing requirements. You will need to be certified and over 21 years of age so that you can serve alcohol at events. If you work for a company that sells the alcohol, the company will need to be licensed to sell according to the laws of your state.

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51 Rosemary Brooks March 23, 2017 at 6:43 pm

Good evening everyone,
I am a certified Bartender and responsible alcohol seller in Connecticut and I specialize in event bartending. I have started my own Bartending Service Company called Brooks Bartending Service in Connecticut. If you live in Connecticut please spread the word for me…

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52 Amanda April 8, 2017 at 9:49 pm

Hey! This is awesome thanks for sharing. I have been bartending for 10 years and I am thinking of also becoming a “freelance bartender” (before reading this article i was unsure the name). I truly love bartending, doing private functions would be soo awesome. Definitely a change in atmosphere for me, rather than your local sports bar. I think i am ready for this next step in my life. Thank you for the guidance, I am going to try an book some private functions along with working at a sports bar!

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53 J. Money April 9, 2017 at 2:44 pm

Rock on – glad it helped! Good luck with it! :)

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