What’s the point of guest bartending?
It’s a common phenomenon today: bartenders from another bar or city or representing a brand will come into a bar for one or two nights to show their stuff. I admire the current camaraderie among contemporary barfolk, but this is one example that, except on the rare occasion, I think is an operational mistake.
I was reminded of this recently when I heard from a bartender about a complicated situation that arose when he welcomed a traveling drinkmaker into his place for a night, only to find the guest was part of a touring promotional show for a brand that he, the host, didn’t feature, and that included numerous drinks that didn’t fit his bar concept. In fact, it was the drinks, more than the confusion over the source of the visit, that disturbed him the most, as they weren’t beverages he’d serve or that his customers have come to expect from his bar’s style.
Paramount in your mind — whatever the reason for inviting an unfamiliar bartender into your place — should be: What will this tell your customers? What they expect is waaaaaay more important than industry camaraderie, hosting traveling bar stars and making room for brands to show off their wares. Most customers, even the surprisingly well-educated tipplers who haunt the many craft cocktail bars in nearly every city, return to a bar regularly for a certain consistency of drinks, servers, food, atmosphere, style and type of customers. If a bar I frequent suddenly starts hosting a light beer night and reduces the number of rotating craft drafts, they risk losing me. If I’ve developed a relationship with a bartender who now knows what I like and suddenly there’s a stranger behind the rail who wants me to try his stuff, I may not be in the mood. For every person a guest bar shot entices, my bet is that it risks alienating two more.
Customers bond with establishments first, but the bartender’s skills solidify the bond, and it’s hard enough keeping up with today’s “Where’s Waldo” bartender, who, in New York City at least, is likely to be working in two or even three places in a week. (This is a rant for another time, but I’m annoyed when I must check with a bartender’s schedule to find out where exactly he or she will be working; this, too, cuts down on a bar and bartender’s ability to build a following, that old-fashioned but crucial part of the business). Disrupting the steady stream of regular customers puts any bar at risk, so at least when you make way for an unusual night, keep your reliable customers foremost in mind, because a quick hit in the till from a special event isn’t worth much if it cuts off the lifeblood of your bar.