Wednesday, January 16, 2019

:: bartend as if you were the guest ::

First published on the USBG National blog in March 2017, and slightly modified for publication here. Photos are from my adventures during Portland Cocktail Week 2012.

One of the ways I learn to be a better bartender has been sitting at various bar stools and restaurant tables and observing how it feels to be a guest. I am not just talking about the good moments that you should figure out how to deliver to your own guests, but also the bad moments that you should figure out how to avoid. In a nutshell, I strive to bartend how I like to be treated as a patron.

Things I have thought about are: "How does it feel to be strong-armed into another round?" And, "How does it feel to be interrupted?"

For the former, I can recall a bartender that I knew socially who helped to rejuvenate an old establishment’s program. I was one of his few guests that night and about two-thirds of the way through my first cocktail, he was already asking me if he could start on the next. When that happened as well on my next round that I was rushed to get, I just asked for my check. I finished my drink, paid, and left never to return thinking, “Dude, I’m not your cash-cow.” On busy nights, there is definitely a need to turn over seats, but on slower nights, shortening your guests’ visits makes the bar look more desolate and might impact their desire to return. Part of buying a drink is being able to rent the stool for your own third space needs, whether it is to catch up on your phone or with your friend. A guest being rushed out (who is done ordering) when there is a line behind them will hopefully understand the reasons, but when there is not a line and in fact empty seats, it might seem like that bar stool has too high of a cost associated with it. All too often, I have seen bartenders ask (or perhaps almost demand) if they can get a guest anything else – one in no appearance of being in a rush – and then hand them their bill; the bill is promptly paid and the guest abruptly leaves. This seems to fly in the face of hospitality and how I would want to be treated, especially when I am visiting on a slow weekday night. In a way, it sort of delineates the difference between a guest and a customer.

For the latter in terms of interruptions, there are brunches and nights where I am catching up with my wife after not having spoken to her for several days due to differing schedules. How does it make me feel when a server or bartender interrupts me mid-sentence for something trivial? And how does it feel when I realize that I have lost my train of thought? How does this translate to two guests that meet up at your bar and need a moment to catch up? There is a point perhaps where you need to save them from themselves and refocus them on the fact that they met for food and drink, but understand that the drinking and dining part might be secondary in their evening’s plans.

Some of these concepts even trickle down to drink service. When going out for beer, how does it feel getting an expensive brew with 2-3 inches or more of head? Or what about receiving an IPA with no head at all? Or in cocktail service, what does it feel like when a you receive a drink that has a sea of ice shards, a poorly presented garnish (if any), etc. at an otherwise respected cocktail joint? What is it like to be served by a drunk bartender or a bartender who is more interested in his friends or co-workers than you? In essence, serve drinks like you want to be served. Treat each request from mocktail to “make me something special, not too sweet… and with vodka” with the same respect as you would want your or your date’s drink order taken.

Often, it is hard for a well-known bartender to get the same treatment as the commoner in many establishments. For example, there is one establishment in town that I like to go, but I recommend it with caution on lists of places to go for my guests; I explain that I get treated well there and the drinks are good, but I have often observed them treating guests rudely. However, there are always places and bartenders that do not know you in town who can give you their average handling, and if not, there are plenty of opportunities when traveling. On one trip, I went with my drinking buddy to three places after we broke off from the main group. The first was a recommended cocktail establishment, the second a whiskey bar, and the third a true dive bar. At the first, the three bartenders in suspenders were talking to their friends and I observed no drinks being made. After being ignored for a while at their dirty bar, we left. At the whiskey bar, we were given average treatment; after a Facebook photo that I posted, a friend contacted the owner who texted the bartender to give us a pour of something special. At the third place, Jack, the 70ish year old white-haired bartender, was the sweetest bartender I met all while still maintaining the room. He provided such warmth that I would return again if I were in that city (just as my drinking buddy did this time); drink-wise, all he had to offer us were cheap pours of Old Granddad Bonded. My friend commented that the second establishment’s bartender was so great to us; I replied yes-and-no: unlike the second, the third was great because he did not need to be told by his boss to treat us special – he just did.

Unfortunately, a lot of this comes at odds to bars and restaurants being a business, especially with interactions with the owners and management. And it also comes down to our tips. True, pouring a gigantic beer head means that beer costs go down, but is that what you truly want to give to a guest or receive yourself? When I worked a lot of lunch shifts at a previous job, we were taught a long term view of doing everything we could to get guests to return instead of thinking in the short term of how to maximize every encounter. There are definitely ways of enthusiastically selling to guests to increase their experience without seeming too aggressive. Whether it be dropping hints that there is a special down-cellar bottle or giving them a taste of another IPA to get them thinking about another round, there are ways of making the business side of things happy without stressing out your guests. In the end, try to be the guest’s advocate and sense out what sort of experience and budget they are seeking; your read on their needs can help to ensure that your bar seats are more filled in the future.

So the next time you go out, don’t just think about what to drink, but use the opportunity to take notes on how to improve yourself in the trade. There are definitely some bartenders who I go visit partly just to watch how they interact with their guests to make them feel special all without necessarily sending out free food or drink.

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