Wednesday, January 25, 2023

:: as a beginner bartender, how can i be less nervous? ::

When Dr. Jorge Vera of Convite Mezcal asked the audience if there were any questions following my talk, one person spoke up and asked, “I am just a beginner in the world of bartending, so how can I control the nervousness?” To which I replied the following:

There are many ways. One is to learn to own the space – this is your bar. When you are a server, the guests rent the table in a way, and you are approaching their domain. If they choose to sit at the bar, it’s your bar. You own this bar, and you take pride in it. When there is a problem in a restaurant, servers will often run away, and bartenders often will not. I can act fifty pounds heavier and confront the problem.

Other things you can do are go out and experience a bar – another bar – and see how every interaction makes you feel. Like when the lights are too bright, the music is too soft or too loud, the bartender doesn’t give you water, the bartender doesn’t get you a drink fast and instead talks to their friends. How does that make you feel because that is the way your guests may feel. Now you know. You’re going to make a lot of mistakes, but seeing other people make mistakes and learning from it will aid you.

It’s not about being perfect but being aware, being mindful of what you’re not doing right. And asking a mentor, an older bartender “What do I do?” I remember I had one coworker who was a great mentor. When you say that you have a problem or a bad shift, some bartenders will just say, “That sucks.” Instead, this bartender explained what I ought to do in those situations and these are things that have worked for them.
When I first started bartending, all of the guests knew I was new, I was vulnerable, I was fresh meat in the water for the sharks. Some made it a game of making fun of you, and being mean, and eventually you learn tricks. You’ll learn your own tricks. One is to have more energy than them – be animated, have a smile, seem like you want to be there, that you care about them, and very few people will give you a hard time for they do not want to lose that energy. Also being able to conjure that angry parent voice… You control the candy. They will be like, “I don’t want to hear that voice from him again.” Learn to conjure it and then bring it back to normal to see how they react. If they continue pushing you, then just say, “No más!”

There are other ways if a person is giving you a hard time or you just don’t like that type of person. Sometimes you are working with another bartender who can deal with people that make you uncomfortable or angry and they will handle it, and there are people where I love that challenge and I’ll switch with them to the other side of the bar and I’ll make their life easier.

This is a career and you’ll get better if you want to get better. Find books, find podcasts, find teachers – they’re here. They will teach you. You either have to come to them or observe [them working]. When you see bartenders doing something right, steal from them. I remember I used to say “Hey guys, welcome to my bar” and ‘guys’ has a gender. And then I had guests that were transitioning and I became self-conscious about how that phrasing seemed very disrespectful. They’re not coming here to be judged or have any linguistic slight. So I stole from a bartender named Sother Teague. When you sit at his bar at Amor y Amargo in New York City, he says “Welcome friends!” So, “Amigos!” — well that has gender… oh crap! Amigxs with an ‘x’? Perhaps “Mi gente” since it doesn’t have a masculine or feminine aspect. So I stole that from – borrowed it, stole it without shame since I attribute that to him.
Know when you are lacking something, seek out the answer whether you ask or observe, you will find ways. Not all of the ways will work for you. And some will work better depending where you are working, who you are working with, and who is the guest. It will vary if you are working at a dive bar, a fancy cocktail bar, a casual restaurant, or a fine dining restaurant. You will acquire different tools, and the more diversified the tool kit, the better.

To reiterate, you’re going to spend hundreds of hours behind your bar, sometimes thousands. I actually did the math of how many hours I worked at different places. It’s your spot. You get there before the guests, you can wage a war of attrition and you’ll be there at the end. Take pride. Take ownership. And realize what you’re doing wrong. You don’t have to be perfect now. You only have to get better. Wonder what went wrong that night. I always beat myself up over it and get overthoughtful about what I did wrong.

You may be a bartender for a couple more months, and you may be a bartender for decades. Even if it’s not long term, getting better at the craft is applicable elsewhere. Once you become a good bartender, you become a good businessperson. You can then move on. The skill set is how to deal with people. True, you make drinks – it’s arts & crafts and it’s fun. Does it matter? Yes and no. I make great drinks – I hope, but people come back to me because I try to make them feel good, try to make them feel special, try to give them what I think they want. There are two concepts, the Golden Rule and the Platinum Rule. The former is “Do unto others as you would want to be done to yourself,” and the latter is “Do unto others as you think they would want to be treated.” What you want is not necessarily their need, but if you can figure out what their need is, you can do better for them.

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