Tony Mamo's Main Line Center for Bartending Serves Thrills and Skills

No matter how the economy gets shaken or stirred, the bar industry remains strong, especially with a new crop of professionals mixing things up.

Tony Mamo, owner and director of the Main Line Center for Bartending. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)Standing in front of a series of sinks, Jennifer Hill explains why every used bar glass needs to be put through the triple ringer, so to speak. It’s not necessarily to improve the taste, or even for sanitization—though both are important.

It’s more about chemistry. Any film left on a glass will kill the head of the next beer. And every beer should have a head—about a half-inch, to be exact. Without it, most customers assume the keg is old or deficient, and ask for another, costing the owner money—and the bartender a better tip. “Make sure you use that soap,” Hill tells a class of first-timers at the Main Line Center for Bartending in Manayunk. “Wash, rinse, sanitize, dry.”

And about that last tub of cold water: “How does a cold beer in a hot glass sound?” Hill poses. “Terrible, right?”

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For the past three years, business has been booming at the center, which attracts students as young as 18 (the state’s legal age to serve liquor) and as old as 65. “A lot of people think it’s just college kids looking for jobs,” says Tony Mamo, who’s owned the school for the last 18 years. “It’s not.”

Nationwide, bartending classes are full. Attendees are picking up skills, finding jobs, and seeing immediate returns on their investment.

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Many are undergoing a career change. One recent registrant was a 44-year-old dental assistant. “It’s also definitely a lot of people who’ve been laid off,” Mamo says.

Locally, the Mixology Wine Institute—Philadelphia Bartending School on City Avenue also serves the Main Line and surrounding suburbs.

As for Mamo, he grew up in Bala Cynwyd, graduating from Lower Merion High School and Villanova University. He bartended throughout college, mostly at Germantown Cricket Club. He launched his school while rotating among other jobs behind the bar, landing in Manayunk, then the city’s most up-and-coming section. With all the new bars and restaurants, it was a logical place. “It was just starting to brew there,” he says.

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Mamo keeps classes small—generally four to seven students—and hands-on. Seventy percent of class time is spent mixing more than 250 different practice drinks. The other 30 percent is lectures. Other areas of focus are responsible drinking, alcohol awareness, customer service, keeping the bar clean and improving attention span. “That’s the key to good tips,” Mamo says.

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Mamo also offers TIPS (Training for Intervention Procedures), a national elective program that provides the additional alcohol-awareness certification more and more establishments seek, since it helps lower liquor liability insurance premiums.

Marcus Fero Jr. was trained and TIPS-certified with Mamo. He needed TIPS to  land his job working the complimentary daily happy hour at the Embassy Suites Philadelphia-Valley Forge Hotel, where he can make up to $150 in tips in two hours. At Hangover Sports Bar in Upper Darby, certification helped Fero get the job over another candidate.

The 36-year-old Fero bartends on the side for additional income, but also to help network for leads as a real estate agent. “It gives me an even balance,” he says. “For the one, I’m helping people with the most important investment in their lives. In the other, people are more social because they’ve had a couple drinks.”

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Why bartending? First off, it offers flexible hours and people skills. And it’s recession-proof.

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“People will always drink,” says Mamo. “There’s catering companies, country clubs, hotels—they all need bartenders. Philadelphia is so huge, and now you have the casinos, too.”

To help, Mamo’s Main Line Center for Bartending offers job-placement assistance. Mamo gets calls looking for bartenders. He’ll also cold-call places. He posts job listings. There are no guarantees, but his experience tells him that four or five applications will land a job.

Mamo’s regular 40-hour program earns a certificate or diploma of mixology. Students pay a $50 up-front reservation fee, then another $440. A few good nights of tips recoup that tuition. More than that, though, Mamo says his students have a trade they can transport anywhere. “We’re putting people back out there and working,” he says. “For others who were sitting in front of a computer all day, now they’re in front of people and having more fun. Their lives have totally changed.”

Some take the class to generate additional income to pay bills and credit cards. If you can make $200 one night a week, that’s $800 a month, says Mamo.

Back in class, Hill tells her students to turn to page 28 in their manuals to learn some drinks. “You’re going to be doing a lot of flipping,” she tells them.

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First, it’s the highball category—rum and coke, vodka-cranberry, gin and tonic. They comprise 80 percent of typical mixed drinks. That’s a good thing, Hill says, since they’re easy to make.

Students pull from a shelf of liquor—though here, the hundreds of bottles are filled with colored water. They sit on the customer side of the bar on stools. Hill tells them to fill a highball glass to the top with ice, then measure out the pretend vodka, either with a jigger or the more efficient free-pour counting system.

All the while, she urges them to make drinks efficiently, quickly and correctly. “That makes it possible to get to as many customers as possible,” Hill says. “They’re happy because they have their drinks, and you’ll be happier because you’ll get better tips.”

For the free-pour method, she retrieves a pre-prepared whiteboard: One ounce of alcohol equals three counts, three quarters of an ounce equals two, and a half-ounce (top splash) equals one.

Hill is a graduate of the Main Line Center for Bartending. She’s currently only working private parties and functions at the University of Pennsylvania, where she also teaches an elective mixology course. Hill learned from her mother, then bartended in and out of college.

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Hill has been teaching for Mamo for three years. She also works full time as an international logistics specialist in the maternity clothing industry. “This is a great area,” she says. “There are so many bars and restaurants, and so many of them are familiar with our students.”

Next week, Hill’s class will dip into multiple-alcohol drinks, do more drills, and even have a go at some practice testing with their manuals tucked away to see what they remember. At this point, these five students all still have their books—and minds—open.

Another of Hill’s students has come to complete her one-on-one test. She takes off her rings, lays two cocktail napkins out, and begins searching for the right shade. “It’s funny. Some people will come in here thinking it’s a real bar, asking for a drink,” Hill says. “We have to say, ‘Sorry, it’s colored water.’”

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