Barback vs Bartender vs Host vs Server: Which Job Should You Choose?

Barback vs Bartender vs Host vs Server: Which Job Should You Choose?
Laurie Mega

By Laurie Mega

If you’re looking to start a career in the restaurant industry, it can be tough to know where to start. Front of house (FOH) or back of house (BOH)? First shift or second shift? Serving, bartending, supporting, or hosting?

The kinds of shifts you take depends a lot on the schedule that works best for you. And whether you choose FOH or BOH depends on whether you’d like to work in the kitchen, dishwashing or cooking, or in the dining area, serving food and drinks and interacting with customers.

In this post, we’ll be concentrating on four key FOH positions at the core of every patron’s dining experience: host vs server vs barback vs bartender.

Figuring out which restaurant job is best for you is kind of like taking a personality test. Nearly all FOH jobs are great for someone who is extraverted, organized and unphased by pressure. But there are some differences in the requirements and skills for each jobs.

Here, we’ll explore the four different FOH positions, what they entail, and what skills you need to succeed in each one.

5 Skills that Make for An Amazing FOH Job Experience

There are five skills and qualities that all FOH workers have in common. How many do you see in yourself?

  1. People Person: FOH workers constantly interact with people, whether, customers or fellow shift crew members. A friendly, flexible, and empathetic personality makes for a great team player.
  2. Organizational Skills: Taking orders, answering questions, cleaning spills, stocking liquor, cashing out diners and bar patrons — there’s a lot going on during any given shift. Successful FOH workers can multitask and keep everything organized in a fast-paced environment.
  3. Problem-Solving Skills: From dealing with unhappy customers to working through conflicts with coworkers, FOH workers should be able to solve problems on the fly.
  4. Unphased by Pressure: Are you getting the feeling that restaurants are a high-pressure environment? A successful FOH worker can stay cool under pressure.Physical Stamina: No matter where you work in the front of the house, you’ll be on your feet a lot. If you work behind the bar, you may be lifting kegs or heavy cases, as well.

FOH jobs are all, to some degree, customer-facing jobs. They represent the brand to everyone who walks through the door, and the experience each patron has depends primarily on the employees they interact with.

Biggest Job Opportunities in the Front of the House

The responsibilities of FOH staff will depend on the size and type of restaurant you’re applying to. A small cafe may have just one server who also busses tables, for example.

A fast-casual restaurant will have several servers, a couple of hosts, a bartender, a barback, bussers and a manager to supervise them all. But the bartender may also take food orders, while the barbacks take care of less-complicated drink orders to free up the bartender.

We looked at several major job sites to pull together a list of responsibilities, duties, pros cons and pay of the positions in a restaurant common across all types, concepts, and sizes.

Host

A host or hostess greets guests as they arrive at the restaurant. They are the first person patrons encounter. Hosts welcome guests warmly and seat them as promptly as they can. If there is a wait, hosts take a name for the party and keep them updated on the status of their wait.

Hosts work with servers to keep track of empty and occupied tables and keep guests evenly distributed among servers’ tables.

Hosts also take reservations over the phone or in person and keep track of online reservations.

According to Indeed, host responsibilities include¹:

  • Greeting customers as soon as they walk through the door
  • Providing patrons with accurate wait time estimates during busy periods
  • Maintaining a neat, organized FOH environment
  • Seating guests and, depending on the restaurant, taking initial drink orders
  • Assisting with opening and closing tasks and side work as needed (like wrapping silverware)
  • Maintaining a deep knowledge of the food and drink menus
  • Rotating seating between different sections to ensure even workloads for waitstaff
  • Answering phones and scheduling reservations

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 414,540 employed servers in the U.S. in 2017. The median wage was $20,930.²

Server

Servers are responsible for the rest of a guest’s visit, taking orders, answering questions, fixing any issues, and taking money at the end of the meal. Once guests are seated, the server greets them immediately and introduces themselves. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, there’s no difference between waiter and server.

Waiters and waitresses distribute menus, answer any initial questions, and take drink orders, if the hostess hasn’t already done so. They take orders and deliver food from the kitchen. They are available to guests throughout their meal, but they don’t hover. Finally, they deliver the check and process payment before thanking their guests as they leave.

Responsibilities include:

  • Taking and processing guests’ orders as quickly as possible
  • Carrying large food orders to tables
  • Making recommendations from the menu
  • Memorizing drink, dessert, and specials menus and offering them to guests as an upsell
  • Handling guest complaints and requests quickly
  • Handling money and receipts at the end of the meal

According to the BLS, there were about 2.6 million servers in the U.S. in 2018, and their mean annual wage was $25,830.³

Barback

Barbacks don’t have much direct contact with patrons. Instead, they’re responsible for making sure the bar area is clean and well-stocked for bartenders.

That said, barbacks are still visible behind the bar and may be mistaken for bartenders. They are required to answer patrons’ questions and alert the bartender to any issues that may arise. In some cases, they may even fill simple drink orders and deliver food to bar patrons.

According to ZipRecruiter, barback responsibilities include:⁴

  • Restocking liquor, mixers, and garnishes
  • Bussing behind the bar area — clearing empty cups and trash from bartop and tables, wiping down surfaces, pushing in chairs and stools, etc.
  • Ensuring bartenders are equipped with clean rags, glasses, plates and flatware at all times
  • Restocking ice bins
  • Assisting bartenders with BOH liquor inventory
  • Following all opening, closing, and key-holding procedures during each shift
  • Ensuring customer satisfaction by smiling and answering any questions customers may ask

Barbacks usually make minimum wage, but the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires that they receive a portion of pooled tips from the bar.

Bartender

Bartenders take and fulfill drink orders from both bar patrons and servers for their tables. They pour beers and wines and mix drinks to order as quickly and efficiently as possible while adhering to state and local liquor laws.

Bartenders are often extroverted and friendly. It’s not uncommon to see them engaging in conversations with people at the bar. It’s part of the bar experience and increases tips for bartenders.

They may also take and serve food orders.

In some upscale and themed restaurants and bars, bartenders are expected to invent new and signature drinks for the establishment.

According to Indeed, bartender responsibilities include:⁵

  • Delivering a high level of customer service and maintaining a safe environment by identifying problem clients and having them removed
  • Making drink recommendations to customers and upselling special drinks
  • Keeping the bar area clean in accordance with the company’s guidelines as well as the requirements of the local health department
  • Maintaining an accurate cash drawer throughout the night
  • Mixing drinks based on the serving sizes outlined by the owner or company to keep drink costs at a minimum
  • Developing an efficient work pace that keeps customers happy

The BLS lists the 2018 median pay for bartenders at $22,550 per year, but that doesn’t include tips.⁶ There were about 611,000 bartenders in the U.S. in 2016, and the BLS predicts a 2 percent growth in the profession between 2016 and 2026.

It’s important to keep in mind that every state has an age minimum for bartending, which ranges from 18 to 25. And some states require alcohol awareness training or other certifications before you start.⁷

Most restaurants are also looking for candidates who have experience mixing drinks, so beginning as a barback and training under a bartender might be the best way to start your bartending career.

What Are the Skills for Each Job?

We took a look at several server job listings across job sites to come up with the most essential skills for each position. Here’s what we found.

Host vs Server

Because a host is the first person guests encounter, they need to have excellent customer service and interpersonal skills. Often, patrons grow impatient waiting for tables, so it’s up to the host to keep waiting guests in the loop about their wait.

Hosts must also keep the waitstaff happy by keeping their tables busy — but not too busy that they fall behind.

Here is a list of the skills all hosts and hostesses should possess.

  • The ability to stand for long periods of time
  • Strong communication skills
  • Excellent interpersonal skills
  • A welcoming demeanor
  • Team-oriented
  • Detail-oriented
  • Flexible
  • Excellent organization skills
  • Excellent problem-solving skills

Servers are an essential part of the dining experience. A friendly, dependable server who can anticipate the needs of guests, make recommendations, and solve problems can create a positive experience that turns first-time guests into regular customers (and big tippers).

Servers are also team players who can handle high-pressure situations and work at a fast pace.

Here is a quick bullet list of the skills restaurants are looking for.

  • Team-oriented
  • Outgoing, with great interpersonal skills
  • High-energy
  • Detail-oriented
  • Strong problem-solving skills, particularly with guest complaints
  • The ability to work in a fast-paced environment
  • The ability to multitask

Barback vs Bartender

Being a bartender is a bit of a balancing act. You are expected to be quick and efficient with drink orders, but linger with patrons for a quick chat or longer conversation, as well. You have a great memory for drink recipes and you can read patrons to help make recommendations that will satisfy what they’re looking for.

The role of the bartender varies greatly, depending on the restaurant. Some may simply pour craft beers, while others invent and mix their own cocktails.

Here is a list of skills, however, that all bartenders should possess.

  • The ability to lift heavy boxes and crates
  • A great memory for drinks and recipes
  • Strong interpersonal skills
  • Strong communication skills
  • An outgoing personality
  • The ability to stay on your feet for long periods of time
  • Detail-oriented
  • Team-oriented
  • The ability to multitask

You may have noticed one thing missing from the lists of requirements and skills for FOH positions. None of them require a minimum amount of education. In many cases, those hired for FOH positions receive on-the-job training.

What’s really important to restaurant employers is whether or not you are a good cultural fit for the restaurant and the position in general.

So Which Job Is Right for You?

You know you want to be in the restaurant business, and you know you want to work in the front of the house. Now you’ve got to narrow down your options just a little bit more.

If you love working with people, you’re the right age, and you have experience mixing drinks, you may like bartending. If you don’t have any experience, but don’t mind lifting kegs, you might want to start as a barback.

If you’re great with people, but don’t want to handle some of the responsibilities bartenders and barbacks have, consider host and server positions.

No matter what you choose (host vs. server vs. barback vs. bartender) FOH workers have the opportunity to make the restaurant experience great for customers, and they can make great tips in the process!

Once you've decided which role best suits you, you need to consider the type of restaurant you would like to work at. To do that, check out: Working in A Restaurant: Everything You Need to Know


Sources:

  1. https://www.indeed.com/hire/job-description/hostess
  2. https://www.bls.gov/oes/2017/may/oes359031.htm
  3. https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes353031.htm
  4. https://www.ziprecruiter.com/blog/barback-job-description-sample-template/
  5. https://www.indeed.com/hire/job-description/bartender
  6. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/food-preparation-and-serving/bartenders.htm
  7. https://alcoholpolicy.niaaa.nih.gov/apis-policy-topics/minimum-ages-for-on-premises-servers-and-bartenders/38

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Laurie Mega
Laurie Mega

Laurie is a writer with family in the restaurant industry. She lives near Boston with her husband and two boys and has been published in HomeandGarden.com, The Economist, and more.