It’s a familiar scene. A patron stands at a crowded bar, trying to order a drink. They finally manage to make eye contact with someone and begin shouting their order over the music. The person behind the counter shakes his head, motioning toward the bartender. Why won’t this guy help?
He’s probably a barback, part of the invisible army of service workers that powers New York City’s bars. They are the people who clear dirty glasses, tap kegs, and cut limes for gin and tonics. They are often men and frequently immigrants. Though they are often blocked from serving customers, they spend long hours on their feet, hauling kegs, working fast to clean and restock the bar throughout their shift.
When the night ends, however, barbacks are faced with something else: an opaque, inconsistent, and often unfair system of tip-sharing that leaves them subject to a game of chance.
“You can’t do this job and have an ego,” said Carlos “CJ” Infante, who barbacked for two years at The NoMad in Manhattan, once voted the best bar in North America before it closed in 2021. Infante was born in Queens, grew up in the Bronx, and worked in restaurant kitchens before deciding to move to front-of-house work, hoping to make more money.
Infante said that barbacking a shift is intense.
“Kitchens run in minutes, a bar runs in seconds,” Infante said.
The NoMad’s liquor store room was up three flights of stairs, and Infante would sprint up and down several times a shift to keep his bartender stocked. “You’re always playing catch-up,” said Infante, “it’s a thankless job.”
His compensation reflected that.
Infante said that at The NoMad, front-of-house workers were paid a tipped minimum wage. This means that they’d be paid less than minimum wage, as long as what they earned in tips met or exceeded the standard minimum. The city’s current minimum wage is $15 an hour, but restaurants and bars are allowed to pay their front-of-house employees $10 as long as they are making at least $5 an hour in tips.
The tips at The NoMad were pooled and distributed according to a point system, he said, with servers and head bartenders getting one full point per hour and assistant servers and barbacks getting a half point. So, if bartenders who worked eight hours accrued eight points, barbacks would receive four points, and thus half as much tip revenue for the same number of hours.
Other bars have different pay and tip structures for bartenders and barbacks. Clodagh Flynn, a bartender at The Red Lion in the West Village, said barbacks get 25% of the pooled tips. She said that there are usually one to three bartenders and one to three barbacks working, depending on the shift. Jesse James, a bartender at Dive Bar on West 96 Street, said that all front-of-house workers split tips evenly, regardless of role. Kara Koenig, a bartender at Dos Caminos on East 47th Street in Manhattan, said the tipping structure has been in flux since the restaurant opened in July; currently barbacks make $20 an hour but get none of the tips.
Kevin McMilleon, a barback at Jupiter Disco in East Williamsburg, said that he is paid $20 an hour and receives 20% of all tips, mandated by management. He walks away with $80 to $100 in tips after each weekend shift, “$120 on a really good night.” This level of compensation is rare, and McMilleon knows it. At previous jobs, he said, barbacks “almost always got minimum wage, and were tipped out by their bartender.” This means that bartenders could share whatever amount they chose with barbacks.
Miguel Carrillo came to New York City 18 years ago from Veracruz, Mexico. He has been a barback at Mekelburg’s in Clinton Hill for the last three years. “I do everything,” he said in a mix of English and Spanish. “Me and the bartender work like twins.”
When asked if he received minimum wage, Carrillo nodded but did not elaborate. Carrillo said that he and the bartender would split cash tips evenly. When asked about credit-card tips, he paused, then shook his head. “Somebody fixes it,” he said, adding “I don’t know.”
Barbacks can be at the mercy of bartenders, receiving whatever portion of the tips that the bartender decides is appropriate. Even when management mandates tip-outs, bartenders often handle the tip money exclusively, offering little visibility about how much barbacks are owed.
Carrillo works with Jose De Jesus, a former barback, during his Saturday shifts. De Jesus said that he splits tips evenly between himself, Carrillo, and Carrillo’s nephew (a new barback). Carrillo and his nephew seem to have found a bar where they are adequately and consistently compensated. In the invisible world of New York City barbacks, they are some of the lucky ones.