Jeff Ruth, Beverage Innovator ExtraordinaireFebruary 14, 2012 By: Robert Plotkin
Tennessee Soda Jerk Turns Showtender
One of the laudable things about Jeff Ruth is that he has so many reasons to take himself seriously and yet, for some reason, he doesn’t. He has a lengthy résumé, a killer command of mixology and a seriously great job with an impressive company. Having spent his entire adult life working behind the bar, Ruth has developed a ready smile and an easygoing manner. His accrued acumen and knowledge also has made him one of the most sought-after beverage professionals in the trade. All of our futures should be so bright.
Ruth’s career in service began at age 15 as a soda jerk at Swenson’s Ice Cream Parlor near his home in Tennessee. Little did he know then how relevant and familiar serving guests at a bar would be to his career. By the time he enrolled as a freshman at the University of Tennessee, Ruth had become the manager of a new Swenson’s that opened adjacent to the campus.
In 1983, Ruth landed his first bartending gig at a local Chili’s. There, he readily took to the demands of being a “speed” bartender. He worked at the restaurant throughout college and, upon graduating, advanced to corporate trainer.
After a brief stint bartending at a private dinner club, Ruth began tending bar at a busy Knoxville, Tenn., nightclub called Doodles. The club’s marketing hook was serving two drinks for the price of one regardless of what was ordered at what time of day, which largely explains the venue’s high volume of business. It also partially explains why the club closed, sending Ruth back out looking for a steady gig.
The break that Ruth was looking for happened in 1988 when he was hired as a bartender at a Knoxville TGI Friday’s.
“It’s where I was struck with the idea that becoming a professional bartender was a viable pursuit,” Ruth says. “Friday’s bartending training program was considered the elite of its day. Even after five years of experience, I was required to successfully complete a 45-day training program before I was allowed to work my first solo shift, and even at that it was a day shift!”
After two years working behind the TGI Friday’s bar, Ruth pulled up stakes and began working at a Friday’s in Clearwater, Fla. He soon became a “city trainer” that made him responsible for certifying employees at the store level. After that he graduated to “corporate trainer,” which made him responsible for new store openings; he eventually became an “international trainer” and assisted in the opening of a new Friday’s in Europe.
At the same time, Ruth began entering bartending competitions. “All told, I won seven championships, culminating with a title as National Champion in 1993. These competitions were very flair-oriented, and I indeed had bottle-flipping skills and appeared on my fair share of television broadcasts to demonstrate the art form,” Ruth says. “Other aspects of the profession were tested behind the scenes, including free-pouring accuracy, recipe and drink-making techniques and detailed product specifications. I felt it made those who competed better bartenders.”
During this time, he began working as a trainer for the newly formed consulting business, “Showtenders,” envisioned by elite ex-Friday’s bartender trainers Jimmy Skedas and “Magic” Mike Werner.
“Training was our primary focus,” Ruth says. “We spent an inordinate amount of time examining and rationalizing every aspect of the bar and drink making. I continued to hold weekend bartending positions at various nightclubs and bars to supplement my income and maintain my skills. However, the turning point in my career happened around 1995 with a restaurant concept that would become known as Bahama Breeze.”
Bahama Breeze was among the pioneers in targeted and themed signature recipe development on a national scale. Previously, bars were known more for how they prepared common drinks — such as a Long Island Tea or Sour Apple Martini — than for preparing unique signature drinks. Bahama Breeze was different. Ruth helped create, among other drinks, the Bahama Rita and Ultimate Piña Colada.
While with Showtenders, Ruth began incorporating more Monin syrups into his cocktails and mixed drinks. Monin’s extensive line of flavors and premium positioning was a perfect fit for Ruth’s drink development. By 2007, Monin was poised to make an impact on the on-premise business. To seal the deal, Monin’s management drafted Ruth to head the company’s in-house recipe-development program.
“One of the great things about being Monin’s Beverage Innovation Director is I get to ply my craft in their state-of-the-art tasting facility in Dallas,” Ruth says. “It has a 30-foot full-service demonstration bar with an integrated [audio/visual] system, a full-service kitchen, a photo studio and a well-appointed conference room. And I get to use this amazing space to explore and validate beverage ideation and present those ideas to our customers in a controlled and distraction-free environment. Life is good.”
Ruth has conducted scores of training sessions for bartenders and has developed a keen sense of what it takes for a bartender to succeed. There are four indicators he looks for when sizing up a pro, none of which is more important than the individual’s ability to consistently render great guest service.
“In this day and age, we are so focused on the drink itself that we tend to discount the importance of service,” Ruth says. “A great bartender has the ability to put guests at ease through service and attentiveness. To me, a great bartender endeavors to provide that guest a great cocktail and right now. A bartender that builds their business through service is likely to know many of the guests by name and vice versa. I would look for this trait when evaluating my staff.”
Ruth cites organization as the next indicator. Every item behind the bar has an associated cost, be it monetary or perceptional. An organized bartender works neatly and precisely and multitasks in a way that appears effortless. Organization helps manage a dependable cost structure and reassures guests that they are receiving the best possible cocktail for their experience.
The third benchmark is being confident without being arrogant. A great bartender exudes confidence through knowledge of everything bar. Confidence through knowledge suggests that the bartender has the skill set needed to cater to individual guests’ needs through beverage choice and preparation.
“A great bartender should also be empathetic toward their guests,” Ruth says. “Not so much as to try and live in their shoes, but in a way that the bartender accepts that he/she is working to create an experience for the guest and not that the guest is there to create an experience for the bartender. You would be surprised to learn how often the latter seems to be the reality. By doing this, the bartender can better anticipate the needs of the guest and more easily engage them to create a positive and enjoyable experience.”
When asked if he had any advice for bar managers on how they can improve the working relationship they have with their bar staff, Ruth was quick to answer.
“One of the most effective strategies to create a positive working environment is to develop a beverage program that drives sales and creates more quality ‘money’ shifts,” he says. “If the bartenders feel management is doing its part to develop a regular client base, they’ll reciprocate in kind and do everything possible to give the guests a memorable experience when they do frequent the bar.”
Ruth also advises managers to become advocates for their staffs. “For example, scheduling meetings where the staff can address issues or be presented with an opportunity to enhance their skill sets instills a sense of pride in the bar that everyone is on the same page of the playbook, so to speak.”
If your business is in need of a creative boost and there are no 30-year veterans around to help you plumbs the depths, give Monin a call and ask for Jeff.