An Interview with Bartender and Flair Competitor, Rob Husted

by Cathy Sivak
An Interview with Bartender and Flair Competitor, Rob Husted

Florida bartender Rob Husted has more than a decade of experience as a bartender or, as they say in the business, “behind the wood.” But bartending is much more than mixing up a few cocktails for this Flair bartending professional. Bottle tossing and flame lighting behind the bar is not just for the movies… real people like Rob are trained to entertain and pit their talents in high-profile bartending competitions.

Already a bartender, karma may have led Rob to the annual Bartenders Bash in the Florida Keys in 1999. While looking for his friends near the main stage, he caught a glimpse of the Flair bartending competition underway and has been hooked on the profession ever since. In recent years, Flair bartending and its competitions have been featured on A&E, The Travel Channel, CMT, and MTV.

A Flair bartending professional for the last seven years, Rob currently showcases his craft at the nightclub Club Safari in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and previously placed 11th in the world at the annual Legends of Bartending competition.

He does more than serve drinks with panache to promote his profession. He also juggles such activities as the Southeastern U.S. representative for the Meridian, Idaho-based Flair Bartending Association, teaches basic bartending at the Florida Culinary Institute, trains Flair bartenders throughout Florida and writes a monthly column for Florida-based hospitality magazine In-the-Biz. In addition, he consults for Bacardi U.S.A., serves as the vice president of Flairbar.com (a resource for the sport of Flair bartending) and is CEO of BarWars L.L.C., a three-day, annual Flair bartending competition in South Florida that also provides the public with Flair bartenders for hire.

One of the biggest myths about bartenders is that they will someday get a ‘real job,' Rob says with a laugh. “Just because I don't have to set an alarm clock everyday and wake up at the crack of dawn just to fight traffic and drive to work like the majority of everybody else doesn't mean what I do for a living isn't real. I absolutely love what I do for a living… and I don't plan to stop any time soon.”

Rob Husted & His Career

Tell us about your career as a bartender. How did your career unfold to allow you to advance to where you are today?

My career as a bartender… well it didn't start out like this. I started off in the hospitality field in the kitchen, making and preparing food. Then I moved to the front of the house as a host, and soon after I got promoted to server, then eventually to bartender. Once I was a bartender, I fell in love with the job. It's not easy finding a job that you truly enjoy and make great money at as well.

My career unfolded around the same time as our sport of Flair bartending did. The veterans before me paved the way for all of us to be where we are at today. Without all of their dedication and hard work, who knows how long it would have taken?

I have over 11 years of real experience behind the wood. I've been Flair bartending for seven years. I teach basic bartending at the Florida Culinary Institute, consult for Bacardi U.S.A. and train Flair bartenders throughout Florida.

What led to your interest in flair bartending?

A yearly event down in the Florida Keys called “Bartenders Bash.” It was 1999, and I had just moved and started working at a new bar. All the employees were talking about this big party down in the Florida Keys that I couldn't miss. So I was in. The event is always the day after Mothers Day; those of you already in the hospitality industry know Mothers Day is one of the busiest days of the year for a restaurant.

Well, one of the bartenders I was working with that night decided to call in sick and not show up…because he was on his way down to Bartenders Bash. So after working a very long and busy shift by myself, I was exhausted. So I ended up over sleeping the next morning and headed down to the Keys way later than everybody else. When I finally got there, I found myself in a sea of people looking for my friends. I called them on my cell phone and tried to find them, and remembered my friend Sean saying “Meet me in front of the stage.” I made my way to the front of the stage and looked all around for them, and then I caught a glimpse of what was actually happening on stage: A Flair bartending competition. I looked up and saw Rob “Tin Man” Ford throw a mixing tin behind his back and catch it sideways on another tin. I was blown away. I immediately hung up my phone and whipped out my video camera and began filming Rick Barcode performing, along with everybody else afterwards. I was hooked. I bought some Flairco practice bottles with some training videos and the rest is history.

What do you enjoy most about your career as a bartender?

That each day is something different and I get paid to party and entertain people while introducing them to each other and helping them forget their problems and to enjoy life.

What unique challenges and rewards come from working in the field?

The challenges are the same as the rewards, as in each day is something different. You never know what to expect and what curve balls the job will throw at you. The rewards come from the outcome of your problem solving skills. Satisfaction in knowing whatever life throws out at you, you can handle with a smile.

You are a member and a national representative of the Flair Bartenders Association. How do these types of professional groups support your career goals? The bartending profession as a whole?

These groups help support all of our career goals as Flair bartenders. We all work together, rather against each other, to help make the pie bigger for everybody. We support each other constructively, financially, emotionally and help promote each other positively in any way we can.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

In the near future, I'm trying to buy my first house (while my business partner is on his third) and begin raising a family. On the professional side: win the Legends of Bartending, where I previously placed 11th in the world; grow Flairbar.com into bigger and better things; continue BarWars as one of the largest Flair bartending competitions in Florida; and help grow our sport of Flair bartending in a positive manner.

What are some common myths about the profession of bartending?

“You can't do this forever, when are you going to get a real job?” I always laugh at this one. A real job… just because I don't have to set an alarm clock everyday and wake up at the crack of dawn just to fight traffic and drive to work like the majority of everybody else doesn't mean what I do for a living isn't real. I absolutely love what I do for a living! The majority of the people that make that statement can't say the same for themselves. I have a 401k plan, money in the bank and have ventured into other avenues of income through my profession. Bartenders make all kinds of contacts; we are everybody's best friends and some of those people can help you in many ways. I am quite happy doing what I do and I don't plan to stop any time soon.

Best bartending tip for a novice?

Learn the drinks and organize yourself behind the bar. Also, a good firm handshake to your guests is a must.

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about the profession of bartending in order to be successful?

The truly successful ones almost always seem to be passionate about what they do. Once you find your passion, go with it and don't stop because someone says you can't do it. Live your dream. Take a chance…

What contributions do you feel the profession of bartending makes in society?

We help take people's minds off of their everyday routines. We give them an outlet to have fun and unwind. All work and no play makes for a dull and stressful life. Also think about how many relationships (and one night stands) have started in a bar or nightclub? Without us, where would you go to meet people?

Education Information & Advice

How did you decide to study to become a bartender? How did you choose the school you attended?

I didn't choose bartending, it chose me, as I mentioned before. I never attended a bartending school, I learned on my own. From my experiences with them, I feel for the most part they are there more for your money rather then for the student. There are better ways to learn the art of bartending. If you don't know of any other means, they are a good start and they help you with job placement.

What did you like and dislike about your bartending education? In retrospect, what do you know now; that you wish you knew before you pursued your education?

My education has been the school of “hard knocks,” as my Dad used to say. I wouldn't have changed it in any way.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a bartending school? Are there different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in a certain culinary area?

Remember you can always negotiate with these folks. I hear so many stories on how one student paid “X” amount of dollars and another student in the same class with the same experience paid hundreds of dollars less. Also, if you are interested in Flair bartending, most of the typical bartending schools will tell you they teach Flair bartending to their students. But from what I have almost always seen, they don't, or at best, they teach you nothing more then a basic Flair training video you can purchase yourself online for $40.00 through Flairbar.com.

What are some of the most respected and prestigious schools or programs for those wishing to pursue the bartending profession? Does school choice make a difference in landing a good job?

As far as schools for bartending, there are a handful of respected schools throughout our Flair community: ShowTenders in Tampa is well known, Flairco in Canada, BarWars L.L.C. in South Florida, Flair Devils in Las Vegas, Universidad del Cocktail in Argentina. There are some great Mixology classes in Las Vegas and the UK as well.

When is it a good time to pursue advanced bartending training? Is it necessary to be successful in the field?

I would say learn basic bartending for at least one or two years, and then move on to more of the advanced stuff. It will make you a much better bartender in the long run and will save on countless hours of frustration for you and your teacher.

How do you feel that the bartending educational system could be changed to better serve society?

First off, make it more uniform and get everybody on the same page. Some places teach this, others teach that and still others don't teach this or that. Getting everybody to work more together can go a long way. The Flair Bartenders Association and the International Bartenders Association are making much headway with this.

Bartending Information, Trends & Advice

Describe a typical workday for you.

A typical day would be to wake up around noon (I never have to worry about oversleeping), have some breakfast and run some errands. Then I come back and practice Flair bartending for about an hour, perfecting moves and inventing new ones, always evolving and wanting to become better at my job. There aren't many jobs out there that the workers actually practice and study at home to become better at what they do. Now that's dedication and passion for our sport! During the day, I also work on the computer answering emails and producing Flairbar.com.

Nights that I work at Club Safari, I generally get there around 10:00 p.m. and work until 5 a.m. During that time, I entertain my guests while serving various drinks in a timely manner. It's one big party where I am the host. It's great to bring a little bit of happiness into so many people's lives. I love it!

How can the reality of being a bartender differ from typical expectations?

It depends on where you work. If you work at night in a busy bar, then most of what you hear is true. But if you are working during the day, like in a restaurant, then most of your day will be spent preparing everything for the nighttime bartenders. Nothing is worse then being stuck behind a bar when there is nobody there. So it is up to you, the bartender, to promote, to give better service then the bartender down the street and to remember everyone's name and genuinely make them feel special every time they walk in that front door.

Also, it is not just fun and games. There is so much physical and mental work that it can get overwhelming real quickly. Imagine 15 people all trying to order drinks at the same time while you are trying to remember six previous drink orders in your head while trying not to forget to make change for the orders before.

What are some of the trends that you see in the food and beverage industry field which could help bartending students plan for the future?

Some cool trends we are witnessing are more people are interested in Mixology and the art of making a great cocktail, rather then just pouring a single liquor with a mix of some sort. People want something new, something more for their money. Flair bartending and Mixology is the perfect way to accommodate this trend.

What are the best ways to land a bartending job?

In a word, personality: Bartending can be taught, but personality is something you have or don't have.

How available are hands-on learning experiences?

Pretty available, and by far the best way to learn and retain everything. It is easier to start off as a barback and learn the ins and outs of a bar before you get promoted to bartender.

How is the bartending job market now? How do you think it will develop over the next five years?

The world can always use a great bartender. To get the good jobs, you either have to know the right people or be able to prove your skills and convince the ‘powers that be' that you can do a superior job and make them more money then someone they have on staff now.

What we are seeing more of lately is bartending unions. The unions are putting better bartenders in these positions, and the bartenders are getting increased compensation along with benefits, job security and other incentives.

What is the average salary/compensation package for a bartender? What can recent bartending school graduates expect as a salary range starting out? Once they get to the top of the profession?

It all depends on you: where you work and how much you promote yourself. Another reason I love bartending is because you are as busy as you want to be. I look it at it like the four walls of the establishment belong to the owners. But the four walls of the bar are mine. The establishment is giving me my own business to make money for both of us. The more I promote and ensure great service with good drinks, the more we will both make. There are bartenders who make a couple of hundred a week, there are some who make a couple of hundred a night. When you get towards the top, you will see well over $1,000-plus a night.

Any tips for boosting tips?

Make people feel special and remember their names. Also, the quicker you are behind the bar, the more drinks you can make. The more drinks you can make, the more sales you will have. The more sales you have, the more tips you will make. Sounds simple, right?

What other career advice can you offer future bartenders?

Try to learn as much about you trade as possible. The more you know, the better you will be. Also don't be afraid to talk and get to know your guests. You never know who is sitting at your bar. It could be a CEO of some big company that may be impressed with you or someone who will introduce you to your future wife. You just never know. Some of my best friends I met at my bar, along with my girlfriend.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the bartending profession that would be interesting or helpful to students?

If you seriously want to learn more about the world of Flair bartending… go to a Flair bartending event. There are numerous competitions throughout the world. You can find out about them through Flairbar.com or the Flair Bartenders Association.

Editor's Note: If you would like to follow-up with Rob Husted personally about the field of bartending or Flair bartending competitions, click here.

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