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An American Bartender in London

Travelogue Entry
Tags: bartending, pubs, working
City: London, United Kingdom
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For student travellers looking for a fun job in London, the answer might just be to work at the very place you will be spending most of your time anyway —- the local pub.

Since September I have been working as a barman for the Builder’s Arms pub, located in Kensington, London. I got this job after obtaining a student through the Bunac program. For any U.S. students interested in working in the UK, I cannot recommend going through BUNAC and getting a work visa too highly. Employers in the UK—- at least in London —- are very conscientious about asking if your work papers are in order.

However, once you’re legal and here, finding a pub job is quite easy, especially during the high season (summer) and pre-Christmas season. Temporary employment agencies exist which specialize in service staff, most newspapers will have employment sections devoted to foodservice and pub jobs and the BUNAC office has a bulletin board with loads of listings. Additionally, magazines aimed towards London’s large Antipodian (Australian, New Zealand and S. Africa) population have plenty of bar job listings.

For travellers hoping to save on accommodation costs, live-in jobs are available at pubs. However, these jobs tend to go to couple (a couple is considered more stable by employers) women (because women are more likely to work both bar and kitchen duties) and in pubs out of central London. Still, someone willing to do a bit of searching and work in a suburb should have no problem getting room and board, plus enough of a wage (£3-£4 an hour) to provide for some spending money.

From what I have heard, the downside of living at your workplace is that you begin to lose out on your free time. Live-in workers on salary tend to put in a lot of hours and split shifts (four hours during lunchtime, a couple of hours off, then the dinner shift) are pretty common.

As far as what kind of lifestyle you will lead while working, every pub is different. However from what I have seen, you can expect some of the following:

Do expect to work with a young and international, yet largely British-free, crowd. At my pub, the manager is Irish, the kitchen/bar staff is Swedish and the three barmen are Aussie, Kiwi and U.S. respectively. Only the assistant manager is British. From what I gather, this kind of mix is fairly common in London. Lifelong London residents tend to avoid bar jobs, either because they want better paying positions or (and this is just my theory) they prefer to spend their time on the customer side of the bar. Since you and your workmates are all travellers, you make friends quickly and tend to start doing things together, from heading out to late night clubs after the pub closes at 11 to arranging weekend travel excursions.

Do expect to find a less than equal opportunity workplace. My pub’s management seemed very anxious to avoid any appearance of sexual harassment, but bar staff duties are pretty strictly gender-segregated. At my pub, both male and female staff serve customers, but the women are also given the kitchen duties, which the guys are not However, we do all the heavy keg and supplies lifting tasks, so it’s actually not as unfair as it sounds.

I have heard from some female friends that not every workplace was as enlightened as mine. From what I heard, some workers and some managers, have the idea that the women coming to live and work in the U.K. for a short while are more likely to be promiscuous than native Londoners. I didn’t hear anyone tell any real horror stories, just about some “date requests” that made these women feel a little uncomfortable

Don’t expect to make a lot of extra money on tips. In the UK, foodservice employers are willing to pay their staff a living wage, unlike the in U.S., where customers are expected to make up for the sub-minimum wages in the industry. Unless you are working in a bar or pub heavily freqented by Americans, you will probably only get 10 or 15 pence as a gratuity, and rarely that. Coming from a tipping culture, it still amazes me how long British customers will stand by the bar with their hand out waiting to get their 5 pence change back, to carefully put into their change purse.

Expect to see a different culture in a way you wouldn’t as a customer passing through. Unlike U.S. bars, which are largely either places to get drunk and meet new people, British pubs are almost like communal living rooms. The British tend to spend a lot of time in their pubs —- they’ll stop off at the pub before going home, meet their friends at the pub instead of at their own house and watch their sporting events in groups there.

After you have worked there awhile, you will start recognizing some of the same faces, often in the same chairs, every day. Before you know it, you will start talking to these people, and they’ll start talking back. Eventually, as I have found out for myself, you will even start going there yourself on your days off. Hey, like the song says, sometimes you just want to go where everybody knows your name.

Written By:
Steve Schneider