Monday, January 23, 2023

:: mindful bartending, my master class at casa convite:

Below is the master class that I gave at Casa Convite for bartenders in Oaxaca on January 12th. It was on "Mindful Bartending" and bartender Jorge Vallejo from Chicago followed with "Mindful Menu Design" (and he translated my words and thoughts into Spanish).

Greetings, I am Fred Yarm and I was last at a bar called Drink in Boston where I was the general manager, bar manager, and bartender, and our bar was rather unique in that we were a cocktail bar without a drink menu. This required a lot of connection with the guest – we needed to start a conversation to get them the best drink possible, and I often made use of a concept called mindful bartending.

My interest in mindful bartending came from reading Gary Regan’s thoughts on the matter in his 2011 Annual Manual for Bartenders, which led me to attend his Cocktails in the Country retreat in 2015. Many of these thoughts either stemmed from his teachings or from what I learned through experience or through other resources afterwards.

In This Must be the Place: Memoirs of Jimmie the Barman, Jimmie who worked in the Mountparnasse section of Paris in the 1920s said, “Almost anyone can learn to mix drinks accurately and fast. That is the least of it. I have always believed success behind the bar comes from an ability to understand the man or woman I am serving, to enter into his joys or woes, make him feel the need of me as a person rather than a servant.”

Mindfulness is often associated with Buddhism, but one need not be a Buddhist to practice mindfulness. And it’s not a one size fits all, but is a way that is tailored to the individual and establishment and can change over time.

In a bartending sense, mindfulness means that you are aware of everything that is going on around you and focusing on all of your guests’ needs. It is not something that needs to be 100% perfect but it is worth striving for that.

Mindfulness of a bartender begins by leaving one’s personal problems at the door so that they can focus on the guests and set their intentions to be of service to them. Once that happens, it’s easier to be aware of what the guests want, what else is going on with their coworkers and what is happening in the whole restaurant.

Part of that preparation for the shift can come from some sort of meditation. Silence, loud music, or actual meditation can separate one from thoughts of life’s troubles. I have never personally taken it as far as proper meditation, but it was something Gary did. Lately, for me it was listening to podcasts while walking to the bar. Whatever can block out the conversations in your mind will work.

Intuition is an essential tool for the bartender that takes a lot of practice to hone in on. A bartender can sense when guests need something, when a guest should not be served any more, or when there is tension between two guests. Tricks to accomplish this include scanning the entire bar on a regular basis if not the entire restaurant. Observe the body language and vibes of the guests. Try to figure out why the guests are there, how much they want to be interrupted and by whom. An example of this was when I was first bartending at night, a senior bartender asked what I observed at the corner of the bar. I replied “An older man with a middle-aged woman.” He countered, “What else? … Look at their hands.” I then noticed, “He has a [wedding] ring and she does not.” My mentor explained, “Exactly. That is everything you need to know. They do not have names, do not want to be spoken to, and will be paying in cash (as opposed to a credit card that could be traceable).” He was right. Indeed, everything can be a clue.

Nobody goes to a bar for a drink. You can drink at home, but people go out to celebrate, meet other people, find romance, conduct business, or read. People will go out for a drink if they hear that the place has quality cocktails, but they will not return if that is all they get. The most important goal of a bartender's job is to make sure that every guest leaves the bar happier than when they walked in. Something Maya Angelou once said that has a lot of applicability to bartending, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

Communication is also important, and listening is just as important as talking. Listen intently and make sure that the person who is talking is aware that they are heard. Guests respond very well when they realize that the bartender is focusing all of their attention on them. Communication with coworkers is also important because if you are mindful of their needs, they often gladly reciprocate when you are falling behind.
Communication is also important in terms of phrasing. Telling people that they ought to think about doing something often works better than telling them what they should do. People will be more receptive if the phrasing of the request is mindful. This even worked in a supervisory role where I brought to their attention an issue and asked that they consider changing certain behaviors instead of making demands. Moreover, asking for help also works well especially in getting one of their friends to correct a behavior.

Communication without anger is key. Take a moment, breath, observe, and practice mindfulness to proceed without reactivity. Figure out what is making you angry. Same with the guests and figure out what is driving them. Anger is based in fear and embarrassment. Reducing any fear such as confusion of what the guest ought to do in a situation works well if applied early. (At our menu-less bar, teaching the other bartenders on how to anticipate fear and embarrassment in the ordering process led to happier guests and fewer bad reviews online). Being pre-emptive in addressing these issues pays dividends.

Gary Regan declared that fear and love are key, and every other emotion is based on these two. Anger is based on being afraid; if you take away fear, you can take away the anger in a situation. You can count to ten and in that time figure out what you are afraid of. And when you get angry, it is really only affecting one person – you. Finally, mindfulness can change your reality. For example, if you pretend to like the people you really do not, those people will change the way they interact with you.

Another point is that it is important to stay humble.

Regardless of any accolades and accomplishments of a bartender, each guest is a new challenge that you need to prove yourself to them. True, prior experiences offer confidence, knowledge, and a depth of tools to make the next guest’s experience better and to make that moment matter. In my mind, it is the only moment that matters. No guest will be consoled that their mediocre (or worse) night out was handled by someone who on paper should have been above average.

During the beginning of the Pandemic, one of my quarantine reads was The Book of Ichigo Ichie: The Art of Making the Most of Every Moment, the Japanese Way. Ichigo ichie is a tenet of Zen Buddhism, and it is often used as a greeting or a goodbye. It conveys that the moment is unique, special, and once in a lifetime. In martial arts usage, it means that there is no “try again” in life-or-death moments, but in casual usage, it is a means to focus on the moment at hand for it will never happen again. That guest sitting at your bar will never have a first greeting, first cocktail, or first night sitting at your bar ever again. They will be celebrating that birthday, anniversary, or promotion only once. They may return, but that special moment has fled. The book quotes the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who declared, “No man ever steps into the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Ichigo ichie will lead to greater satisfaction if one is not weighted down by the past or anxious about the future; if one can live fully in the present, the journey can be a unique and once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Subtle self-promotion does have its value especially in gaining the confidence in the guest, but this needs to be backed up with action eventually if not first. I am not without an ego for sure, but I try to put it on a back burner for most of my bar shifts unless the guest begins to inquire. Self-aggrandizing perhaps has its place to some extent in reassuring a guest as to why that moment is unique. Many have a curiosity as to why this interaction feels different and special, and they desire an explanation. Without prompting, that same story reveal is unnecessary and pretentious, and it could across as insecurity and seem like a way to make up for shortcomings by resting on laurels or worse – acts of fiction and delusion. Micah Solomon in The Heart of Hospitality: Great Hotel and Restaurant Leaders Share Their Secrets wrote, “The heart of hospitality, for me, is the ability to focus completely and totally on one person, even if only for a matter of seconds, yet long enough that you’ve got a clear connection, a channel between the two of you.” Working towards that connection is the goal with many ways of getting there.

In thinking about other bar mentors in the industry, I wondered what would legendary NYC barman Sasha Petraske say about all this [since he was a bit of an iconoclast]. In his Regarding Cocktails book, he instructed, “Do things not for applause or personal gain, but simply because it is the right way to do things.” Indeed, Sasha promoted the idea of hospitality over self-needs to choose the best path possible for the guest.

In returning to Gary Regan, he stressed to not underestimate your ability as a bartender or server to change the world one customer at a time. If you make one guest happy and they pass that on to other, and if you consider how many guests you see in a work shift, in a week, and in a year, it can make the world better.

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