Cocktail catering has historically been a rewarding option for bartenders wanting supplemental income, but it is particularly attractive now, considering the persistently high rate of unemployment among hospitality and leisure workers. For bartenders wanting to stay in industry, cocktail catering can be a temporary side hustle, particularly as we move into the holiday season.
Though consumers are looking to celebrate and mark important occasions, many don’t yet feel comfortable gathering inside public establishments. This is where a cocktail caterer comes in, to help elevate the drinks at these more limited gatherings.
And bartenders can choose among different types of cocktail catering opportunities. Many traditional catering operations hire bartenders to serve simple, standard drinks like rum and Cokes and G&Ts, but some emerging catering businesses specialize in craft cocktails prepared with fresh juices, top-notch spirits, and high-quality ice. These businesses are looking for more highly skilled bartenders who are knowledgeable about classic recipes and techniques and who bring a strong sense of hospitality.
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What makes cocktail catering a good side hustle? First and foremost, there’s the money, which can be very good. “I think that a lot of bartenders who work full-time in restaurants—even mixologists—would be really surprised at how much money [traditional] caterers are willing to pay staff,” says Justin Pasha, the owner of The Cup Bearer, a high-end cocktail catering company based in Fairfield, in Connecticut.
“A lot of caterer bartenders earn $20 an hour plus tips,” he says. “And that’s just to make screwdrivers and maybe a batched cocktail.” Cocktail catering operations that offer a more elevated drink experience, like The Cup Bearer, tend to pay bartenders by the event, not the hour. Pasha’s policy is to match the amount that a bartender would have made at his or her usual bar that night. For the caliber of mixologists he hires, the rate for a Saturday night event, he says, starts at $300.
Ross Steidel, who owns The Perfect Pour Cocktail Co., a specialty-cocktail catering company in Seattle, compensates his bartenders a little more than the total amount they’d make (base pay plus tips) during a shift behind their home stick. Whether they break even or earn a bit more, there’s another payoff, says Steidel—they’re “not grinding away in the well for eight straight hours.”
In some ways, cocktail catering is simpler than working a regular bar shift. For example, most of the mixologists hired by The Cup Bearer who show up for a four- to six-hour event, says Pasha, already have everything prepped for them when they arrive. They don’t have to deal with the cash register either, which, he points out, is normally half their responsibility as a bartender. “They can just shake and flair,” he says, “and be theatrical, and let their egos soar—and have fun with the guests.”
Frederic Yarm, a bartender at the River Bar in Somerville, Massachusetts, says he sometimes averages $60 an hour (including his fee and tips) at specialty-cocktail catering gigs. “It’s pretty solid money,” he says, “and honestly, it’s not that hard. [With] a lot of bartending, the energy is in selling the product and doing the financial transactions, where[as] there is none [of that] at catered events.”
Abigail Gullo, the head bartender at Compère Lapin in New Orleans, says that with some of her gigs, money doesn’t ever change hands. For her, cocktail catering is sometimes a means of barter and trade. “I will create a cocktail for a friend’s wedding and that’s their wedding gift,” she says. “They’re very appreciative since they know what my time and talent are worth.”
Bartenders who work independently as freelancers can set their own rates. Pasha says that in these cases, it’s especially important for the freelancers to be strategic about what they’re charging clients. “Double whatever you make on your best night,” he advises, “because you are now in a position where you have something they can’t get anywhere else.” He adds that extra work can make the gig more labor intensive and should be accounted for when you calculate your rate. For example, you might have to buy crates of citrus and juice it, prepare syrups and garnishes, rent and return glassware, secure the appropriate licenses and insurance, or hire and pay additional bartenders. “Every time you do something,” says Yarm, “it adds time. You have to be business savvy.”
Money, though, is not the only benefit of cocktail catering. Kevin Lauter, a bartender at The NoMad Bar in New York City, keeps his Saturdays free for cocktail catering gigs. He says he enjoys the side hustles because they give him the opportunity to widen his scope. It’s always a learning experience. He gets to work in different settings, with different bartenders, new clientele, various management styles, and alternative ways of making cocktails. “I love what I do,” he says, “and this allows me to do something beyond what I do every single day at the bar.”
The feel-good vibes are an added bonus, says Lauter, noting that these catered events tend to be festive occasions, like birthdays and weddings, where guests are in high spirits. He says also that when he’s mixing cocktails as a side hustle and it’s not his main source of income, his heart is in it more. “I’m chasing happiness,” he says, “for me and others.”
Steidel points out that a certain satisfaction also comes with bringing the urban craft cocktail experience into unusual venues—say, suburban venues, or even people’s homes. “It feels good,” he says, “when someone tells you that what you do is really cool.”
A challenge that any bartender new to cocktail catering should be aware of is that catering bars are rarely as functional as regular bars—and this can come as a surprise, especially if you haven’t been able to do a site visit in advance or if the person who’s hired you hasn’t communicated all the specifics of the setup. Lauter recommends bringing a set of your personal bar tools to ensure that you have the essentials. He also advises that you always ask if there will be “access to water, rags, and ice,” and whether and how garbage can be disposed of.
TJ Girard, the owner and creative director of Twist by Pinch Food Design in New York City, explains that catering requires you to be a bit of a camper. “You have to be an on-the-spot problem solver,” she says. As a bartender, you also need to learn the vernacular and systems that standard caterers use. “There’s no room for divas.”
Another concern, says Yarm, is that bartenders may not be able to command the same level of respect at catering gigs that they’re used to at their own bars. Sometimes, he says, you’re at the mercy of difficult guests who may not understand your role and who may go out of their way to “make sure you’re treated like an outsider.”
Getting Into Cocktail Catering
Bartenders who want to take up cocktail catering as a side hustle can start by contacting local caterers to get on their radar. Traditional caterers might also be able to steer bartenders toward specialty-cocktail catering operations in their area that hire skilled bartenders.
Yarm has found a number of his cocktail catering gigs online—he suggests researching specialty-cocktail catering companies through a basic Internet search or through social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook. Steidel also recommends sites like Poached, a job-matching system for the hospitality industry. Additionally, he suggests networking through your local chapter of the United States Bartending Guild. The bartenders also say that catering opportunities often simply present themselves. Lauter says he’s found that when “you leave yourself open, things fall into your lap.” And Yarm says that he also gets contacted by word of mouth about side gigs. “With my life,” he says, “people find me.”
As the craft cocktail trend continues to grow, along with the expectation that the drinks will be as elevated as the food at special events, opportunities will multiply for skilled bartenders to step out from behind their bars and not only earn a little extra but have fun with cocktail catering.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated on October 25, 2021.
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Diana Pittet owns Night Owl Hospitality, a cocktail catering company in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and is an adjunct professor at New York University, where she teaches a graduate class on the history, culture, and politics of drinking.