The HeART of Bartending

I’m sure many of you might have seen the latest video doing the rounds on Youtube – Shit Bartenders Say. If you haven’t, look it up…it’s a satirical and funny look at the pretentious and ridiculous side of the modern cocktail renaissance that many of us are, at least in part, guilty of.

It features a hipster-esque ‘mixologist’ saying and doing an assortment of wanky cocktail-nerd things that perfectly highlight the problem a lot of us face. We get so caught up in crafting ever more complex cocktails with the most obscure ingredients and latest techniques that we forget the single most important reason behind our job…to look after our guests.

Molecular Mixology, small batch bitters, the Japanese Hard Shake – all the buzz words of our industry at the moment are focussed on ‘perfecting’ our drinks but another trend is slowly coming to the fore, led by some of the bartending world’s leading lights. It’s not only about the drinks. Sure, they’re important but in the words of Gary Regan, author of The Joy of Mixology and guru of what he calls mindful bartending, “People might remember how good your drinks are for a few days, but they’ll remember how good your service is for a lifetime.”

The role of the bartender is an ambiguous and multi-faceted one at the best of times. In the most fundamental sense, we pour drinks for our guests but anyone who believes that is the extent of the job has either never been behind a bar or never seen a really good bartender working. From mixologist to matchmaker, bouncer and best friend, a bartender fills so many sets of shoes it would leave your average centipede looking confused and that’s the way we like it! If you don’t enjoy dealing with people, don’t multi-task well or don’t cope under pressure, bartending is not for you! For those of us however that feel at home behind the stick, that (to borrow another phrase from Gaz Regan) love the sense of power we get behind that waist high piece of mahogany, there is an art to juggling not only drinks but people, that only comes with time and practice. Making guests feel special and welcome while still turning out great drinks and still (in the case of the best bartenders) somehow making it look effortless (The old adage goes that a bartender should be like a swan…calm and graceful on the surface but paddling like crazy under water) is a skill far more important than many rookies believe and is in my opinion what seperates great bartenders from merely adequate ones.

In the rest of this article we’re going to look at a few tips and techniques to make your guests feel more at home in your bar. After all…that’s right where you want them – sitting at your bar, spending money with you, and enjoying the experience enough to come back and do it again. It’s called hospitality and it’s the reason we’re in business!

While some of these might be difficult to do if you work in a busy nightclub for example, most can be at least adapted to best suit the environment you work in. People, after all, pretty much want the same thing no matter where they are; to relax, have a good time and feel like you are looking after them.

Welcome your guests: Good service starts from the second a guest walks through your door and nothing ruins a first impression like being left standing at the door wondering where to sit or who to ask. While this is often not the primary job of the bartender, you can keep an eye on the door and ensure that new customers are attended to. When someone does approach the bar however, make sure to always acknowledge them within a few seconds of them arriving. Even if you’re busy with another guest, a nod of the head or quick greeting will go a long way to helping them feel relaxed and confident in the knowledge that you’ll be with them as soon as you can.

Body language: Studies vary but conservative estimates are that around 50%-65% of what we communicate is non-verbal. Put simply that means more than half of what you are communicating to a guest is completely unrelated to the words coming out of your mouth! This is obviously a very important factor when trying to make someone feel relaxed and sociable and means that simply being polite and reciting the ‘yes sir’ ‘no sir’ lines is just not enough. Open body posture, direct eye contact (but not too much as this will leave people feeling uncomfortable), open friendly gestures with hands and arms, standing up straight – all of these are good habits to cultivate and surprisingly uncommon once you start paying attention to them!

Andrew Nicholls has written an excellent article on the Barchaeology network (www.barchaeology.net) examining body language as it specifically relates to bartending and I highly recomend that as a starting point for anyone wanting to learn more about it.

Memory: Cultivating a good memory is probably one of the most vital bartending skills you can learn. Obviously remembering orders and pricing is useful but far more important is a memory for names, faces, regular drinks and all the other hallmarks of recognition that create regular customers. People will feel far more at home in a bar where the bartender knows their name, greets them with a warm smile and goes about getting their favourite drink.

Interestingly, in the gentlemen’s clubs of days gone by, the rules for the way a bartender interacted with a member were strictly regulated. If a club member was at the bar by himself it was acceptable for the bartender to greet him by name and remember what he drank. If however he was accompanied by friends or guests, the bartender should only address him as ‘Sir’ and politely enquire as to his drink preference (even if he knew it well) as a degree of familiarity would imply that said gentleman spent a lot of time at the bar! To this day it is still considered impolite for a bartender to refer to a guest’s previous visits to the bar although familiarity with regular customers is generally welcomed.

Comfort: An often overlooked part of the bartender’s job as we tend to think of it as the job of management, cleaning staff and so on. As a bartender however, you are far more intimately aware of a guests needs and as such, ensuring they are comfortable should be one of your top priorities. Is the music blasting over people desperately trying to have a conversation? Is it too hot? Too cold? Too bright? Too Dark? Pay attention to your guest’s reactions and interactions with each other and you’ll quickly figure out what you need to do. Pay attention to temperature, music volume, lighting, odd smells (bars are full of them!) as well as cleanliness of the bar and seating area.

Remember, it all comes back to the simple fact that you want your guests as comfortable as possible at your bar. The more they enjoy their experience, the longer they’ll stay and the more likely they’ll come back.

Conversation: People talk to their bartenders. It’s a simple fact of the industry that people will treat you as a friend, confidant, wing-man and sounding board. It’s important that you develop conversational skills to cover a broad range of topics. Read a newspaper, remember a few jokes and stay away from topics like religion and politics.

Also play to your strengths. If you’re good at telling jokes, are a walking encyclopaedia of sports trivia or fancy yourself a whisky or wine connoiseur, learn to use those topics to your advantage and the entertainment of your guests.

Anticipation and attention to detail: Probably the two most important aspects of good service. Anticipating what your guests are going to need or want before they have to consciously think about it or ask you for it is one of the most impressive hospitality skills and will almost without fail leave a lasting and postive impression on your guests. It is also one of the most tricky to master as it requires expert situational awareness and people-reading skills – Both of which usually only come with time and practice. If you are consciously trying to anticipate the needs of your guests however, you will spot those opportunities far quicker than the bartender with his head down, only worried about pumping out drinks.

The follow through of good service is of course in the implementation and this is where attention to detail comes in. Obviously attention to detail in your drinks is vital – perfect consitency, technique, presentation and taste are all about the details, but everything from the way you’re dressed to the quality of the soap in the bathrooms contributes to an overall impression of you and your bar – one that will greatly influence how your customers feel and act and once again we come back to the fact that you want your guests enjoying their time with you as much as possible so that they stay and return.

All of these tips should help you realise that there is far more to bartending than simply pouring drinks. There is an art to working the bar, to balancing the needs of people that far exceeds the technicalities of simply dispensing drinks. The people, both bartenders and guests, are after all what give a bar its ‘soul’. Without them it is simply a room with some chairs, a counter and some dusty bottles, it is your job to nurture the relationship with your guests so that they become loyal customers and sometimes even friends. Without that human interaction there may as well be a vending machine in your place. Enjoy the privilege of not being replacable by a machine.

“There is soul, and there are things.
Imagine a world made up only of objects,
A world of idle tools,
A restaurant of nothing but tables and chairs,
A large empty theater or a deserted plaza in summer.
…They cry out for the service of man,
The service to give them life.
We call on man to display his splendid capabilities.
And
We observe with undivided attention,
Because
The little nuances in the quality of his service
Give a flawless measure of his mind
They tell us frankly what his soul is worth,
Because,
To serve is first to love”.

 

This article was first published in MUDL Issue 1 2012

About Ryan Duvenage

Ryan is an award-winning bartender, trainer and consultant for the Barcode Bar Academy and an enthusiastic ambassador of good drinks. His areas of interests include classic cocktails, cocktail history, wine, spirits and beer. Occasionally coffee too but only at a civilised hour...he is not interested in early mornings. Other interests include guitar, music, books, bodyboarding and travel. He regularly writes about drinks, bars and cocktail culture for several blogs and websites and has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers including Mudl Magazine, The Independent on Saturday, SA Chef!, Food and Home and Men’s Health as well as being featured on several television shows.
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