What advice would you give a bartender working your bar for the first time? Sure, you’ll give the person an employee handbook; while important, a manual is largely full of policies and procedures — rigid, formally worded directives.
Advice is different. The moments before a bartender’s first shift is the most opportune time to make an indelible impression and provide insight and guidance. What you say could genuinely affect someone’s career. After all, the person hasn’t had the opportunity to learn any bad habits or pick up an attitude.
As the saying goes, “You only get one chance to make a good first impression.” In all likelihood, most new bartenders would welcome constructive advice. Bartending a high-volume bar often is stressful and uniquely demanding. Some well-intended direction from you might have a significant impact.
So, what would you tell the person? While there likely are a hundred things you might say, I recommend giving an understanding of what his or her primary responsibility is behind the bar. Typically, bartenders contend that their primary job is to make drinks and collect money. The assumption is patently wrong.
A rookie bartender needs to understand that his or her job is to make guests feel appreciated and cater to their needs. Bartenders need to treat guests to a night on the town that they’ll remember and tell their friends about. While bartending obviously involves preparing and serving drinks, it’s no more than a secondary aspect of the job. What’s ultimately important is that they play the role of gracious host and treat the clientele like guests.
Once you disabuse rookies of the notion that they are mere drink-slingers, it’s time to sit them down and open their eyes to a few other realities of the business. To that end, following is a short list of things to cover in that initial pre-shift meeting.
• Always give people an honest break. Everyone deserves to be treated fairly. In this context, an honest break means equity in all transactions — no overcharging, under pouring or shortchanging. This fairness doctrine dictates leaving all prejudices and preconceptions at home. There’s no such thing as a second-class guest.
• Always remember that you represent the house. Don’t violate the trust being placed in you. Bartending is a pivotal position that affects nearly all aspects of the operation. While on duty, place the best interests of the house ahead of your own. Few, if any, are able to perform competently while advancing a hidden agenda. Don’t let the social environment distract you from your professional responsibilities.
• Card anyone, and be vigilant against inebriation. It’s imperative that you establish the age of anyone ordering alcohol prior to service. Asking for identification goes with the territory. While carding guests may not be expedient, serving a minor can have disastrous ramifications. So, too, will serving someone to the point of inebriation. Whether it’s a question of someone’s age or sobriety, when in doubt, don’t serve.
• Always run an honest till. As many ways as there are to steal from a bar, there is an equal number of ways to get caught. Bartending can be stressful enough without stealing and attempting to avoid detection. If there is any question as to the propriety of what you’re doing, think twice and don’t do it. Don’t cash in your integrity, run an honest till.
• Never serve an inferior drink. In this business, quality assurance is measured one drink at a time. Make sure that what is being served is exactly what the guest requested. Check that all of the ingredients being used are good — sodas are sufficiently carbonated and juices and prepared mixes are still fresh and of good quality. Don’t commit bad products to good liquor and hope for the best.
• If there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean. There is more at stake keeping the bar clean than just passing health-code inspections. Lack of sanitation can result in the spread of disease and illness. The bar’s cleanliness also reflects on the establishment’s overall sanitary condition: If the bar is dirty, imagine what the kitchen must look like. A spotless bar is the mark of a true professional.
• Set professional standards and maintain them. From a pressed uniform to a positive attitude, professionalism matters. Be ready to work, in every respect, before you punch the time clock. Appearance and demeanor need to reflect that every night is a new performance. Establish personal standards and refuse to settle for anything less. Make professionalism a personal benchmark.
• Wear comfortable shoes. It’s nearly impossible to be gracious when your feet are throbbing. There are shoes specifically designed for bartenders and waiters — sturdy, long lasting and meant for people who earn their livelihood on their feet. An aching back makes smiling a physical improbability. Along the same lines, hunger can make bartenders surly, so make sure to eat before a shift. While you’re at it, don’t drink too much caffeine while you’re on duty; a jittery bartender is no asset behind the bar.
• Relax and enjoy yourself. Having fun is an integral part of the job, even when the job has stopped being fun and turned frenetic. When it’s busy, remain cool and work as expediently as possible. If the internal thermostat feels like it may blow, try silently chanting, “This will pass, this will pass.” The key is to have your composure last longer than the “rush.” Nothing more can be expected of you.