A few years ago Collectif 1806 asked me to speak on bar management as part of their educational series. I liked the idea, as most presentations in this industry are focused on bartending, spirit categories, cocktail history and technique, etc, but not enough is done on bar management. I didn't have a lot of time to speak, so couldn't get too analytical, but I realized there have been some guiding principles which I have carried from position to position and bar to bar which were the basis for my work.
I recently came across the presentation while looking for something else. I had almost forgotten about it and I enjoyed revisiting so I and thought it may be useful to put it out there in the "cocktail universe."
Hope you enjoy....
In the (new) beginning of the cocktail movement, we dazzled guests with fresh juice, home-made syrups, stirred manhattans, and egg white foams. Soon it was infusions and house-made tinctures. The cocktail was the focus, so much so, that many times it was the only focus. Telling people what they could not have became almost as much of a focus as telling them what they could have. Guests were to come in, select from a curated house menu, and were to enjoy a glory of a resuscitated relic in hushed tones. Luckily, today we’ve progressed a lot and have arrived at the point we should have never left: bartenders using proper technique with quality ingredients in most any bar or restaurant setting. The craft is a craft, after all, and there are standards to be met but we should not lose focus of why we are there.
What defines a quality cocktail program these days is the total package: the way the menu is presented, the room in which the cocktails are enjoyed, the service standards of the bar team, the glassware and garnish, the overall concept, and most importantly the systems and training behind it all. If you can’t nail an off menu classic or work the bar with speed and efficiency, your “program” isn’t worth a dime. I sell myself to my clients as the guy who can build your bar long lasting systems. You can change the cocktails and concept over time, but the systems remain. These are the daily and weekly set up and prep systems that keep a bar running smoothly. The cocktail is the tip of the iceberg, you have a lot under the surface to take care of to really make a cocktail bar hum.
When and where does a cocktail begin? When is it completed? When do you know what your “cocktail program” will look like? It’s hard to say. There isn’t a clear path. Just like with any piece of art, inspiration can strike from anywhere at any moment. When you see something that inspires or simply intrigues you, it’s important to note it and hold on to it, and to recall it when needed. Sometimes a “muse” will help with this inspiration. For Sparrow, I used two items to help me develop the cocktail menu concept. First was a post card of a 1950’s neon sign which read “Icy Drinks,” from here I started picturing what cocktails would look like. Secondly was a white frosted Collins glass. From this I started imagining the space and the type of person who may be drinking from the glass.
Cocktails are more than ingredients; they are greater than the sum of their parts. This should equate to some sort of transcendental experience for the drinking. Hopefully.
For the first three months of any bar, you will experience a wave of people who you will never see again, their only purpose to spill upon you a torrent of opinions and self serving desires such suggesting a different beer selection, cheaper prices, free snacks, different music, etc. It’s tough to hear these, especially after you’ve spent months planning for the open. But you have to stay focused on your vision and play the long game of building your clientele and business.
I truly believe you cultivate your clientele. I’ve done enough consulting jobs where I have clients complain to me about their own customers; it’s not the crowd they want or the place it used to be. I think too often this is because owners have been pushed around by their customers, their suppliers, and their own bar team, to the point where the bar has lost its identity because it now a mash-up of opinions. If you hold steady to your concept - if it is sound and one which you are proud of - and if you are there nurturing it, you will build a successful business over the long run and for years to come. You don’t have to execute everything all at once off the bat. Put a great foot forward, think about ways to build on the program, and start walking down the long path to success. If you build on a program, you will always give guests a reason to come back. After all, a business signs a lease for five to ten years, not six months to three years.
Your co-workers, your bartenders, your bar-backs, your servers, and your doorman are your support team. So you need to support them. You have a goal with your program, the restaurant or bar owners have a goal with their investors, your guests have a goal when they come into the place, and so your support team must have goals too. It could be as simple as sharing in your vision so this then becomes a common goal for everyone.
It is important to sit and talk with your team, one-on-one, a few times a year to understand what their personal goals may be. Some may want to learn ordering and inventory, some may want to focus more of their craft, some may just want to show up and do their job with out any other expectations. That’s fine. Just understand everyone’s motivation and help him or her to achieve his or her goals. If your team knows you are invested in them, they will be invested in you.
Be in your space. Know the guests, know the team, know the neighbors, know the sales reps, know the delivery drivers, and know the rhythms of the space. Guests who see a manager or owner in the space welcoming people, clearing tables, picking up trash, lending a hand, and saying thank you at the end of the night will build lasting impressions with guests. They will feel more connected to the space and willing to support the place if they see you personally working the room. It is always amazing to me the number of bartenders who tell me that they need to attend every cocktail week in order to be a better bartender, when they could often learn so much more by focusing on their own bars.
Being in your space also helps in maintaining your vision. The focus of a bar can slide quickly, for a variety of reason, you need to be there to shepherd that vision.
You know that part in Michael Jackson’s Beat It? That guitar solo that comes out of nowhere and doesn’t seem connected to the song at all? It really sticks out like bad toupee. That’s because Eddie Van Halen showed up at the studio, thrashed at his guitar for a bit, and they patched it into the song. And you can find this in a lot of Eddie Van Halen's work. No matter what the rest of the band was playing, Eddie was on his own island whaling away with his fingers. I find too many bar managers or bartenders to be Eddie Van Halens. They show up, declare major changes or directions in the bar, pay no attention to the theme of the restaurant, to what has already been established, to the direction of the menu, or work to understand the already existing clients.
If there is a problem, obviously it needs to be fixed, if there is an opportunity to elevate service then do it, but don’t start whaling away on your drinks and crashing your shaker tins with complete disregard for the rest of the space. Again, think about the long game. Everything should work in harmony.
I’ve somewhat regrettably given myself the nickname of “Grumpstinos.” But this spun from some on-line tirades I would go on after visiting highly touted and publicized “cocktail bars” that honestly fell on their face on all fronts except for possibly bar design. Too many people were doing mediocre work and then other people would copy that mediocrity because the first place was getting so much press. Then I would get upset at the press! I was more upset that people were blindly following leads without stopping to do their own research or call things into question. Learn to use your palate, learn to assess spirits, and understand how to talk about them. You need to train and then trust your own palate and you need to ask the right questions. Try multiple versions of a drink until you really understand it and how to produce it.
Any growing community needs to band together and help the growth of that community, with that comes a bit of self-policing. There are a lot of great resources being provided for the bar community right now, but that doesn’t mean they are all correct and for your benefit. Start asking some questions and do what is right for your bar and customer
We talk a lot about respecting our customers and respecting our co-workers, but people who are often left out of the respect conversation are our suppliers and distributors. I know it can often be an aggravating system, but there is a partnership here that has to be respected for it to work. Suppliers can help you succeed in your business by providing deals, knowledge, trainings, opportunities, and even helping to drive business. And as a bar manager, you need to do your part to respect their business as you demand respect for yours. Make your vision clear to them and ask them to bring you product that fits that vision.
Do your part to ensure your orders are clear, correct and sent in on time. It is your job to ensure your pars are correct and you are stocked for the week ahead. If you make a mistake, acknowledge it was your error, and work to correct it. If you have a healthy relationship with your suppliers and distributors, you will see the results blossom in your business.
… or Queen or The Talking Heads or Sade… or whoever you like. The point here is to build traditions within your bars. Drink in Boston would always have Sazerac shots at midnight and at a bar I ran in the west loop we would always do daiquiri shots when someone was cut. At another spot we would always break down the bar to Led Zeppelin on vinyl. It was a tradition, it was our tradition, it was something the bar team did together.
It’s important to build traditions for the “family.”
Ever go to a casino and get offered a free room or buffet? Maybe free tickets to a show. I can guarantee you, you’re not beating the house. They have it figured out and they are making lots of money on you by making it seem that you are getting a deal. Same thing will happen with suppliers, they’ll come in to offer free goods, case drops, tickets, straight up cash etc. Sometimes it’s ok to “cash in” on a long standing relationship by taking part in a trip or dinner. If negotiated properly, the case deals will often make sense. But for the most part, you need to take a birds eye view, take in to account long term pricing, and if this partnership makes sense for your concept.
It may feel you’re negotiating a great deal, but remember the long game. Selling out your menu or space for the sake of personal gain will be reflected in your work. Your customers and co-workers will notice.
I went to school for television production and had a chance to work in it for a while. I interned at a few spots in Boston during college and I met a great guy named… Doug. Doug was amazing at his job, Doug was very well respected, Doug was hysterical, Doug was just a great, great guy. I felt very lucky to know and work with Doug. One day I remarked to him that he must be the best cameraman in Boston. He said you can’t think like that, you can’t think that you are ever the best. If you start to believe that, you start to lose focus and stop trying to better yourself. You always have to look around and see what others are doing and try to improve your game.
You can’t create in a vacuum, so you always need to be exploring, learning, and discovering new ways to improve yourself, your team, and your bar.
Don’t forget, it’s a business. Often the financial business gets overshadowed by the hospitality business. Being in front of guests and maintaining the room takes a lot of energy and will provide for a lot of instant gratification. It's easy to feel good about yourself behind a busy bar. And it can be very easy to make the choice to catch up with friends after work instead of heading home for some needed rest. So after a few long days, it can also be easy to push off some important administrative work. Allow yourself time to keep your records in order, to review costing and expenses, to put out schedules in a timely manner, and to take a birds-eye view of the business.
A lot of people are depending on you and this is really where your job as a bar manager takes shape. Take care of yourself, take time for yourself, take time for the business, and you’ll find ways to grow and improve the overall operation. Again, the cocktail is no longer the thing.