Looking For A New Start, We’re Heading Back To (Bartending) School

A Tampa bartending school teaches students new skills through the decades. (Photos: Bob Thompson)

It all began with an ending.

Unhappy in a failing marriage, a young mother decided to file for divorce from the unsupportive husband who had recently transplanted their Yankee family to Florida. And to support her children, Patricia “Pat” Baird turned to the family business.

Her father had been a bartender and restaurateur, and his mother had also worked in hospitality. Pat had been serving food and drinks since she was able to carry a tray, and she began bartending in the lounge of a Howard Johnson at the corner of Cypress and Westshore in Tampa.

“I wanted to buy my ex-husband out of his half of the mortgage,” she says. “So I went behind the bar. I was working seven days a week between two hotels for a while, but I got the house and I was able to leave my kids at home with a nanny.”

There is no longer a Howard Johnson at the corner of Cypress and Westshore but the foundation Pat built there is still supporting her more than 40 years later, in the form of the American Bartending Professionals mixology school.

Pat Baird (photo: Bob Thompson)

Bartending leads to personal as well as professional growth.

Her new last name also came from that bar.

John Baird was one of her regulars, along with other insurance salesmen and postal workers and nurses mixed among the hotel guests.

“I had a regular ‘Cheers’ bar,” says Pat, laughing.

John pursued Pat for months, asking for just one dinner date, playing Billy Swan’s “I Can Help” on the jukebox. It was abundantly clear Pat did not need John’s help—but, eventually, she agreed to let him try anyway.

They dated for about 18 months. They were married for 45 years before John died in 2019.

Early in the marriage, the Bairds bought into an International Bartending School franchise. Over the years, they also opened schools in Orlando, on 66th Street in Pinellas, and in Sarasota. In 1992, the Bairds terminated the franchise agreement with International Bartending Schools, and rebranded as the fully independent American Bartending School.

After a death in the family in 2015, the Bairds sold American Bartending School to the Miami-based investor Ramon Valente. Pat stayed on as director except during a 2018 sabbatical to care for John.

And when in January 2021, under the pressure of the ongoing COVID pandemic, Valente informed the staff to not enroll any more students because he was shuttering the school, Baird—who turned 78 in August and has seen second-generation students graduate from the program—bought back the business without a second thought, rebranding as American Bartending Professionals.

Going Back to (Bartending) School

“I don’t want to give it up,” says Pat.

And I am very glad she has not.

Early last year, I was desperate to find a new beginning. I had become trapped in a retail job after taking it as a way to help make ends meet when my wife and I moved to Tampa. I reached out to American Bartending School, and Pat personally replied within a week, inviting me to visit the school, maybe sit in on a class and step behind the bar, before committing to the program.

I delayed, and then the school paused operations due to the onset of the COVID pandemic.

 More than a year later, with the pandemic finally beginning to retreat, I received a follow-up email from Pat Baird. The school was enrolling again—was I still interested?

I was. Thankful to have remained employed while so many struggled through the pandemic, I still was looking for an escape from retail—even if into another service industry.

Although I had more experience at drinking than most of the other students, many of whom came from the University of Tampa and were looking to score summer jobs behind bars in their hometowns, I still was able to benefit from lead instructor Jeff McClure’s knowledge of bartending technique and mixology basics.

One of the first things I learned was how to free pour—a practice that makes jiggers superfluous and thus makes building drinks faster. The technique requires a steady hand and a basic sense of rhythm, with counts ranging from one-two for a half-ounce all the way to eight for two-and-a-half-ounce Martini and Manhattan measures.

Practice cocktails (Photo: Bob Thompson)

Throughout the intensive, immersive two-week course, I started to understand the way certain drinks play off basic recipes and how that knowledge can help a bartender memorize drink builds and make drinks faster. Accuracy and speed are the two most important abilities to help a bartender through a busy Friday or Saturday night.

And less than a month after completing the program, passing a written final and a live service exam to earn a certificate in bartending and mixology, I landed a new job at a high-volume, cocktail-focused hotel bar in Tampa. I continue to learn on the job.

“Once you complete the program, you’re moldable. You’ll grow. You’re going to keep learning when you get out there,” she says. “But you need a foundation to get you through the door. My goal is to make our bartenders the best we can possibly make them for the time we have them.”

Over on Cypress Street, American Bartending Professionals continues to teach. Pat  and Jeff McClure are planning a new bar management program, set to launch in 2021.

“I love what I do because it helps people,” says Pat. “It’s just a fun, fun profession.”

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