Thursday, November 13, 2014

:: the three phases of hospitality ::

One of the most valuable talks at this year's Thirst Boston for me as someone in the service industry was "The Three Phases of Hospitality." Moderator Andy Seymour led the three pronged attack with Jon Santer of Bourbon & Branch and Prize Fighter fame discussing everything that can be done before a guest walks into the establishment, Joaquin Simo of Death & Co. and Pouring Ribbons fame focusing on what can be done once the guest is inside, and Sean Kenyon of William & Graham expounding on crafting a culture and community to foster hospitality.

Seymour began by defining hospitality as the linchpin of any establishment. In this new Golden Age of the Cocktail, we are trying to raise everything to a higher level -- not just the drinks, but the experience as a whole. Bartending is a job that comes from the soul -- some part of you needs to take care of other people. How do you make a guest feel at home in your space? Nothing happens by accident. A bartender is a facilitator of good times by making a community and giving comfort and a sense of welcome. And with that lead-in, Seymour handed the reins over to Santer.

Santer began by comparing and contrasting coffee shops and bars. At coffee shops, there is a counter, a transaction, a making of a drink, and a hand off just like in bars; however, in coffee shops, people are very happy to wait in line for their drink. Whereas coffee shops are orderly in the wait, bars are chaos. So how do we control the chaos and make things more manageable? Consider the layout of the space. First, strive for a symmetry -- something that we are hardwired to appreciate. While asymmetry is interesting to the eye, symmetry is in the end calming. Small things like having all the bottles on the backbar clustered logically by spirit type, all bottles facing the same way, and no pour spouts on these display bottles. Recognizable brands, whether on the shelf or on the menu, provide comfort; too many obscure brands can be discomforting to the guest. Lighting is also very key since sight is a dominant aspect of the bar and restaurant experience; we often worry more about the taste of drinks than how things look or sound. For example, Santer's bar has multiple dimmer switches to regulate the feel of the space.
For bars that have multiple work stations, having identical mise en place is crucial as bartenders then do not have to think as much as they go from well to well. In addition, everything needed for list drinks should be in arm's reach. When it comes to drink selection, the cocktail menu should be an exercise in empathy, not creativity. Chunking information such as in rules of three per page (like cocktails, beer tap/bottle, wine). Put the vodka drink first. Santer favors menus with all nouns and no adjectives that list key flavors. Brands are less important, and they generally are not about the guests.

Simo was next up with his take on how to prepare your environment for service to communicate that you have the guest's best interest at heart. No interaction at the bar is more important than the interaction with the bartender. The bartender is the linchpin and helps to shape how guests will view your establishment. Guests will return if they (1) have something delicious and/or (2) have great service. Mastery of the environment is crucial, for the bar is a tough work space. Starting as a host, busser, barback, or doorman will help; support roles help to form your sensibility. Copping an attitude makes things harder for the staff, as such negativity creates an us-versus-them mentality and tone.

Simo listed important skills for looking out for your guests. Preparation. Anticipation -- don't wait to be asked. Order and familiarity -- if you don't know where things live, you look foolish, and guests are reading you to gain faith. It is perhaps easier to go from the blindingly fast world of club bartending to craft cocktail bartending than it is to start as a craft cocktail bartender and learn speed (such as without jiggers). The club environment teaches both speed and efficiency of movement. Working in a variety of bar environments is helpful for other reasons. For example, learning to cut people off and be thanked later instead of offending the guest or even starting a brawl is an important skill. Moreover, one learns gentler ways to cut someone off when the average guest in question is a large, tough, burly one. Preparation also includes guest banter, and Simo devotes two hours each day to reading with at least half of that devoted to booze for this purpose. The rest can be newspapers, websites, and books (loosely related to booze). He does not read to be an expert but to figure out how to ask intelligent questions to a guest. The bartender can be the expert or can give their guests a moment to shine. Knowing about restaurants, television shows, neighborhoods, and home team sports schedules is important. Even if working service, a bartender needs to look past the drink rail, for the job is to serve guests; the ability to multi-task will help both guests and co-workers alike.
Kenyon began his section by describing his hiring process. In an interview, he wants to differentiate between actors and genuine hospitality people. Kenyon often takes perspectives out and sees how they relate to service people. Are they genuine? This includes eye contact, saying hello, and treating people well. You can teach skills and mechanics behind the bar, but you cannot train some to have a personality. Actors can't fake it; when things get tough, they first take it out on the people working with them and then on the guests. An actor can do service for it has steps; hospitality has soul though, and it comes from the heart.
Bartenders need to be able to come into work with a good attitude about their lives for their shift, and they need to be able to absorb any negativity from the guests or the fellow staff. Radiating positive energy is crucial. Asking "what do you want?" or "what do you need?" is not as hospitable as "what would you like?" or "what can I get for you?" While the term customer implies a cash transaction, the term guest does not. Tips are not the reason for the work but a fringe benefit. Seymour added that these actors burn out for the role was not who they were. He commanded us to respect the people we work with. Hospitality extends in every direction from not only the bartender to the guest but the bartender treating the barbacks and other supporting staff well.

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