This is not a “one-size-fits-all” kind of industry. What works for one operator may be the kiss of death for another. That said, some operational behavior is so deleterious and counterproductive that it should be universally banished.
To that point, we asked our panel of beverage experts about the things they see other beverage operators, bar managers or bartenders do that make them cringe just thinking about it. Here’s what they had to say.
Kim Haasarud is a celebrated mixologist who owns a beverage consultancy in Phoenix called Liquid Architecture. “Today it seems as if everyone is jumping on the mixology bandwagon, but I’ve been seeing many restaurants put the cart before the horse. So, when reading their cocktail menu, the drinks look and sound fantastic—bartenders making their own syrups, bitters, infusions, etc.—but it was clear after tasting a few of those drinks that the bartender didn’t understand the first thing about balance in a cocktail or how ingredients work together. It’s like opening a burger joint and advertising that you are making your own ketchup, baking your own buns, getting the meat from a local cattle ranch, etc. But, at the end of the day, the cooks don’t know how to cook a hamburger patty. All that creativity may get customers in the door, but it won’t keep them coming back.”
Sean Ludford is a spirits judge, the publisher of BevX.com, a site dedicated to reviewing spirits, beers and wines, and is the assistant chairman of the New York Ultimate Beverage Challenge. “Failing to appreciate the first principle of management—lead by example and demonstrate hard work and integrity. Remember that you are always on the job while in your place, so maintain the highest level of professionalism. If you’re going to have more than one drink, do it someplace else. I see far too many bar operators erode their authority with staff (and customers) by getting intoxicated in their own establishments. For the beverage operator it is vital to have clear objectives that the staff is keenly aware of and apply enforcement of these standards and objectives evenly. Make your place as perfect of an environment as possible for your most passionate and conscientious staff members. It’s easy to get bogged down with the problems that will inevitably arise, as well as problem staff. The challenging members of staff can divert all of your attention and energy. Don’t fall into this trap!”
Tobin Ellis is an accomplished bartender, the former president of the Flair Bartenders’ Association and owner of the beverage consultancy, Bar Magic of Las Vegas, Inc. “I think it’s a huge problem when bartenders forget that the reason they’re behind the bar is to take care of people by way of profitably making and serving drinks. Ask any bartender what the most important skill a bartender can have and they are going to tell you whatever they are best at. I call bullshit. A great bartender needs to be able to do it all, head up, smiling, and making money for their owner and themselves. You should be good at everything and therefore you should always be learning. I still can't pick an olive on the first try and my stirring technique still needs a lot of practice.”
Willy Shine is the co-owner of Contemporary Cocktails, Inc, a full service beverage consultancy based in New York City. “It makes me cringe to watch the process by which many bartenders make drinks. Start with the least expensive ingredients first, then add the modifier(s), then the spirit, and last, add the ice before vigorously shaking the drink. By adding the ice last you won’t over dilute the ingredients while you are preparing the cocktail. Also, by starting with the least expensive ingredient first, if you mess up your proportions you can start over without throwing the spirit away and losing money.”
Jim Meehan is an author, cocktail authority and general manager of PDT in New York. “I’m a critical fellow, but those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. It’s tough for me to criticize other beverage operators when I don’t walk in their shoes. I guess the most disheartening thing I witness is influential operators squandering the opportunity to set meaningful examples for the rest of the industry. Thankfully, there are role models for operators of massive high profile programs like Tony Abou-Ganim, who took on challenges at the Bellagio years ago and never made excuses. I hate excuses.”
Ciaran Wiese is the bar manager and head barkeep at Scott & Co in Tucson, Arizona. “What are some of the biggest mistakes I see bartenders make? Oh man, that’s a long list. For starters lacking the proper tools of the trade. Cooks in any reputable restaurant have all their own tools and they take proper care of them. So why would a bartender go behind a bar without being prepared for anything that comes at them. Another thing is knowing how to use the tools. I've seen jiggers right next to a drink being made and every ingredient gets free poured, or there is at least one barspoon on the bar and yet every single drink is shaken and poorly at that, it's for that reason that I drink beer when I go out.”
Tammy LaNasa is the first beverage director for Del Frisco's Restaurant Group, operators of restaurant concepts Sullivan’s and Del Frisco’s. “The biggest mistake bartenders make? I think it’s not admitting that they don't know something. It impedes their ability to learn. My advice is to just completely focus on the guest and their needs and you almost cannot go wrong.”
Jeffrey Morganthaler is the beverage manager at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon. “I think that we as bartenders, on the whole, have a sort of blindness to our own futures. We tend to think only as far as the next shift or the next paycheck, and don’t seem to—as a group—take our careers very seriously. I’d love to see us change that.”
Toby Cecchini is the former owner of a New York cocktail lounge—Passerby—and now a writer for the New York Times. “I think beverage operators need to heed one credo; namely never ask your staff to do something you wouldn’t do yourself. I work alongside my staff. However, I am willing to do much for my place, so don't take this job if you're not willing to step up to the plate as well. We work brutally long shifts, with no benefits, no breaks. We take care of everything that goes on in our space. If the porter hasn't arrived yet and someone yaks in the bathroom, guess what? That said, I pay my people well above what the industry standard is, give them fat bonuses at Christmas alongside a good bottle and try to listen to their ideas and respect them as people. I also tell them, just once when they first start: we work hard, we make fat bank. I train you well and then I trust in your character and discretion with cash and buybacks. If I ever catch you stealing from me, however, I won't even bother firing you, I will simply knife you in the throat and remove your keys from your cadaver, clear?”