Food & Drink

This Bar Is Changing the Way Bartenders Make a Living

Courtesy of Five to One

Bartenders may be more visible and more respected today than ever in history, but they’re also working harder than ever. With knowledgeable and insistent customers, new recipe ideas and inspiration from all sides, liquor brands looking to endorse and partner with aspiring bartenders, global cocktail competitions offering tempting PR platforms, and enough craft ingredients to fill the Library of Congress, the demands on bartenders are constantly mounting. Burnout is not uncommon, and more bartenders are grappling with the effects of intense stress, vampiric schedules and excessive partying. In this hectic environment, it’s somewhat shocking that the industry is still figuring out how to compensate bartenders for all this work, and to keep servers healthy and sane.

Bar owner Trevor Frye is hard at work on the problem at his Washington D.C. watering hole, Five to One, turning the bar into an experiment in cooperative bartending. According to Frye, the bar operates as “a hybrid of a profit-sharing [business] and a co-op.” Rather than pay bartenders by the hour, Five to One instead distributes 28.5-percent of net sales from every drink to all employees equally. All tips are pooled separately and distributed equally among workers. To make sure everyone earns their share of the pay equally, workers rotate between bartender, server and host positions.

Frye devised the model while working at other D.C. hotspots like Dram & Grain and Jack Rose as a way to overcome the limited income possible in small craft cocktail bars, while respecting the immense amount of work servers put in at these establishments. The system was partly inspired by Frye’s conversations with fellow D.C. bartender and owner Devin Gong, who runs a similar system at his bar Copycat Co. Frye also took inspiration from meetings with Bobby Heugel of Anvil in Houston. At the Texas bar, Heugel leads weekly staff meetings where they discuss the bar’s finances, giving workers a chance to better understand the economic side of their jobs. According to Frye, several of Heugel’s former employees have learned so much through this system that they have gone on to open bars of their own.

“The most important thing for this all to work is transparency,” Frye says. “We have a spreadsheet for every pay period for our sales and labor that our staff has access to.”

As Frye sees it, paying employees a fixed percentage also benefits the bar itself, allowing bar managers to accurately predict labor costs in a notoriously unstable industry. While the total income to the bar may fluctuate from week to week, labor costs will never grow out of proportion to the rest of the finances. Reduced income from drink sales means the bar will have to pay out less in wages. On the flip side, employees’ fates are tied to that of the bar in a more direct way than at other establishments.

Employees gain quite a few benefits from the system, but chief among them is that rare perk in the service industry: full health and dental insurance. 

Scheduling flexibility is another bonus. “One of the complaints you’ll hear a lot in our industry is people missing out on things because they can’t give up Fridays and Saturdays. That’s how they make their livelihood,” Frye explains. “You don’t really have to be locked into that Wednesday through Saturday because those are typically the better money nights. So, if it’s approved, staff can change shifts pretty easily. It also allows them to take time off without losing money. A Monday shift is no more valuable than a Friday shift in this system.”

Five to One offers plenty of opportunities for bartenders to take advantage of their newfound free time. Some workers have chosen to pick up brand ambassador positions on the side, which has the added benefit to the bar of encouraging interaction between Five to One and the industry community at large.

Even more impressive is the bar’s education fund, which is generated from a small percentage of the bar’s net sales. The fund is meant to sponsor bartenders on trips around the U.S. and abroad to learn more about the industry, outfitting travelers with airfare, hotels and per diems. The bar opened in July just before Tales of the Cocktail took place in New Orleans, making for the perfect opportunity to kick off the program. Four of the five employees made the trek down to the conference. Frye adds that he’d like to arrange one domestic and one foreign trip each year, and the team has already been researching possible excursions to Puerto Rico to learn about rum and Oaxaca, Mexico to study up on mezcal.

Meanwhile, one bartender, French Scotty Marshall, is set to compete in the USBG Legacy Cocktail Competition finals. Marshall, who is competing for the first time, was able to take advantage of coworkers more seasoned in cocktail competition, as well as the bar’s full support.

The nontraditional system fits with Five to One’s generally experimental vibe—the unconventional bar acts as an ode to nearby music venue 9:30 Club, with weekly cocktail “set list” menus designed for performing artists—and feedback from bartenders and customers alike at the 8-month-old bar has been positive so far. But Frye has also been working to spread the good word to other bars around the country. He has tweaked the model for venues that serve food as well, distributing pay among back of house and front of house workers. That formula obviously becomes more complex when managers must consider highly skilled labor like chefs and unskilled labor like busboys who could not rotate positions like Frye’s trim staff. Still, a tiered percentage system could still make wages more stable across the income spectrum and allow workers at the same level to rotate shifts without fear of missing out on high-tip nights.

As more owners and managers navigate the bar industry during the tumultuous era of President Trump, whose administration has recently enacted new rules around tip-pooling, Frye only expects more venues to experiment with nontraditional forms of labor. While many bartenders have reacted in outrage to Trump’s decision to allow managers to withhold tips from workers altogether, Frye’s system presents the upside to tip-pooling, making the finances of the bar completely transparent and involving bartenders in the distribution of collected tips.

The two sides to the tip issue illustrate how complex ethical wages can be in the bar industry, but Frye has distilled the basic moral reasoning behind treating bar staff right: “The number one rule is ‘don’t be an asshole,’” he says. “If you pay your staff and take care of them, you generate loyalty. I’ve heard nothing but positives.” Seems like a win-win to us.