Friday, January 4, 2019

:: the art of the return guest ::

First published on the USBG National blog in February 2018; slightly adapted version here.

At my first bartending job, I worked a lot of lunch shifts before I began adding in a dinner swing shift and full night shifts. During one of the morning pre-meal talks, our general manager discussed how it was more important to get people to return during the daytime shifts than to upsell the experience which was more key at night. For lunch, time can be limited and getting the guest what they need and out the door in their time frame was crucial; if you violated some aspect of the lunch hour, it was unlikely that the guests would ever return.

The more I bartended, I discovered that these concepts on getting a return guest held true even after the sun had set. Sometimes people are in a rush to get to a movie or concert, and you need to deliver their experience of food and beverage in that time window, but other times it is quite the opposite. Sometimes the guests want to linger and experience their friend’s company as well as the warmth of the establishment. At moments when bar seats are scarce such as peak Friday and Saturday nights, it is not wrong to pressure people to order to extract the most sales per seat which promotes speeding up the departure of people who are done ordering. Hopefully, everyone will understand that others are piling up to sit at the bar and begin their evening, and that the sated guests should close out and go. But on slower times, should you let people linger?

I had a coworker at one bar that would forcefully ask guests if they wanted another round, and when they replied no, he slammed down their check. This occurred even if they were the only people at the bar, and it could leave the bar empty after those guests paid and left. From a new guest’s perspective, what is the perception of walking into an establishment and seeing an empty or sparsely seated bar? Compare that to seeing one where it is over half or mostly full and you spy enough seats for you and your friends? Bodies attract bodies since there must be something right with the hospitality experience there, and people seek out comfortable and communal experiences. Scientists might hint at this being a sign of group learning.

Even at night, the service still needs to be timely but not necessarily rushed if the guests do not want it that way. If you do not need the bar seats back, consider inquiring how the guests are doing instead of giving them more of an ultimatum as to whether they want another drink or not. If the seats are not needed back, why not let the guests linger, enjoy the scene and each other’s company, and establish a fond connection to your place? Keep refilling their water glasses, adding to their conversation with bar banter when appropriate, and showing your appreciation that they chose your establishment.

I remember at one place, I had two guests who got a round of wine and were locked in conversation even after their glasses were empty. One owner-manager came up to the bar pass to push me to get them to order something else; I tried to explain that I could not get their attention without interrupting brusquely. When this was followed by the second owner-manager voicing the same adamant concern, I decided to give it a go -- I politely yet forcibly interrupted their conversation to ask if they would like another round. They did indeed order another round and an appetizer. Was this a success? Yes, in the short run. However, I never saw either of them back at our bar again. Perhaps it was coincidence, but their body language as they were facing each other suggested that they were not planning on ordering more, so it was not surprising that this push tactic yielded a one-time windfall.

Bars are businesses, and getting transactions to happen is key. However, getting guests to return and speak fondly of your establishment and acquiring new guests that enter to sense the comfortable environment of happy patrons will help generate business on the slower nights. Even at the end of a busy night and everyone left is done or slowing down in their drinking whether by choice or last call, can you let people linger as you start wiping down the bottles? At a certain point, either by law or by house policy, they need to leave. However, some of the places I have worked at would locked the door early when the last guest leaves -- even if it is before last call, so there have been debates over the tone to set when no new orders are coming in.

Part of the return guest idea is keeping within their comfort zone. Over-extracting guests with limited funds might suggest that your place is out of their budget’s regular rotation list. Try to adjust to the guests’ rhythm and pace to deliver a positive experience for them, and sense what they are looking for at that moment. That can also factor in how they are getting home as well as what important things they have the next morning such as work. It is possible and decently effective to have the call for a next round voiced as wondering if they have everything they want. It is not so wrong to ask directly if they would like another beer if it comes across as more of a thoughtful act of service than a push. Judging the guests’ path and thirst allows me to chose which tactic I ought to take.

A lot of this came to mind when I was part of a new establishment’s opening bar team, and we were trying to drum up regulars who can keep us afloat. But this sort of thinking has also occurred even in more mature places that I have worked. Pushing drinks will help the sales, but how will a few rather drunk patrons affect the experiences of the other guests that you are trying to welcome in or to convince to come back? There’s a fine line between service and over-service especially when it comes to the bar’s decorum. And that level can depend on what night of the week, what hour of the night, and the mood of the room. And that level can vary from guest to guest in the same moment. A business meeting is different from a first date, and both are different from a group of friends celebrating a birthday. But all of those groups present opportunities to make your establishment one that they want to return to.

No comments: