Since 1965, the Columbia Bartending Agency has provided training and job placement for Columbia University students and New Yorkers. But in 2008, the Agency had to be shut down after sending students to an unlicensed warehouse party. After re-opening this past fall, new managing director Bryan Wesley Reid has worked hard to streamline the process and make the program more comprehensive. Melanie Jones sat down with Reid to discuss new programs like the Wine Appreciation Class, and why bartending is both the best and worst job to have in NYC.
You started as the new managing director in the fall, right?
I actually started training in, it would have been January 2009. So I was training for a semester, and the summer was when I officially started. So David, the next director, his term starts June 1, and mine ends May 31.
How did the agency change after it was shut down in 2008?
Well, what’s great is that we were able to open again pretty quickly last year. We were up and running again by October. A lot has changed for the agency—like our overall liability—it’s a lot better now.
In the past, what really happened was that a client would call, give us minimum information, and we’d just send a bartender out. Which is really nice for the client, but it really doesn’t help us. We wouldn’t always know exactly where they were going, whereas now a lot of our stuff is done online. It’s great because we can really track our clients, so we have a lot better ways to contact our clients back and get a lot more back and forth. The client gives us the information, we call them back, get filled in on all the details, and then all that information is communicated to the bartender after the contract has been signed.
Now we’ve been really working with our clients to set very clear expectations. In the past, clients have wanted the bartenders to cook food for them, or assumed we were caterers as opposed to bartenders.
What about after you applied?
Being a bartender isn’t just about knowing how to mix drinks. You have to be very social, and strike up the appropriate repartee.
It’s hard, because there’s a lot of stuff that you can really only learn on the job. We can’t really give people that experience. We try and talk about the basics. I really emphasize, when it comes to drinks, really memorizing them, because it’s important not to freeze up if someone asks for something that’s not that complicated. Some of the things in the book are always popular, some of the things people almost never order.
It depends on the establishment, as well as on the bartender himself. If you’re working at a high-stress, high-volume club, you’re going to have to be a certain age, to have a certain level of experience, a certain type of personality. In our test, we have a practical portion where we really focus not just on how to make the drink but also how they present it, how they present themselves. We really try and drill in that it’s more important to be confident. You’re presenting yourself, and that can be more important than getting the drink exactly, 100 percent right. Although obviously that’s also important!
What do you think are some of the best and worst things about being a bartender in New York City, assuming you can get the job?
You’re going to make a ton of money, and meet a ton of people. If you’re a social person who’s into making contacts, it’s a perfect job, because you’re constantly going to meet new co-workers, new customers coming in and out of the bars. You’re going to really do well for yourself, and meet lots of cool people.
Probably the hardest thing is that in any customer-service job you’ll meet a lot of different personalities, not always nice. As a person working at a fast-food restaurant, you’re dealing with people who are nice, mean, who need a lot of different attention. Here, you’re dealing with the exact same people, but they’re drunk. You’re dealing with personalities that change over the night, so you need to be very conscious.
I saw that you guys started up a wine appreciation course this semester. Are you going to do more courses like that, in expanding the agency?
We’re trying to work out the best way to do the wine courses. We did the course over three classes, and it went fairly well. What I think we might do in the future is to do one-class courses, like on dessert wines or white wines for one class. We’re still trying to get at the format of it. But we’re definitely looking to expand it; we have a lot of very cool assistant managers and teachers with us right now who are interested in all kinds of courses. So if we can figure out how this wine class should go, in the future we could do a beer class or even a fusion class, how to make infused vodka. We’re still figuring out what the best business model is.
You guys do a lot of donating, too. You’ve raised over $3,000 since May 2009.
And by the end of this year, more like $4,000. Dealing with the Columbia bureaucracy, there are a lot of various costs when it comes to throwing a party. This year we’re really trying to connect with on-campus clubs and groups. If they’re doing great work, we’re very happy to support them, but just in terms of clubs that go out of their way to have parties on campus, which is the safest thing for students—if something bad happens, it’s best to be on the campus, as opposed to somewhere far away, in Brooklyn or someone’s house. We’re really trying to assist those groups so we can have safe, fun parties on campus.