A Deep Dive into HIDE, Part Two: Learning, Hiring and Firing

Image: Clark Cabus

In part one of this three-part dive into Dallas cocktail bar HIDE, we spoke with beverage director Scott Jenkins about funding, partnerships, investors, opening doors, and expansion.

Now, in part two, we’re going to look at one of the hardest parts of being in charge in this business: An operator realizing they don’t know it all and coming to terms with the fact that they’re going to make mistakes.

Even those with years of hospitality industry experience—be they bartenders, chefs, shift leaders or managers—don’t know everything about this business.

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Being an operator means being a leader, and that means being the best leader possible to recruit and retain top talent. Every operator is going to make mistakes, some (seemingly) minor, some significantly costly. The best operators can set ego aside and continue to learn for the benefit of their operation, their employees, their partners, and themselves.

Part three of this series on HIDE will dive into Jenkins and his cocktail creation and menu development process. HIDE is a serious cocktail and Jenkins’ approach certainly reflects that fact.

Learning

Jenkins self-identifies as a cocktail nerd. He probably wouldn’t argue with being identified as a spirits and hospitality nerd—he’s passionate, curious and driven to create and innovate. The initial investment included capital to purchase specialized equipment that many operations simply don’t have, like centrifuges and evaporators.

It’s doubtful Jenkins would say he knows everything about creating cocktails and developing menus, but he knows an incredible amount. He learned, however, that he didn’t know as much as he thought he did about operating a bar. And Jenkins came to that realization before HIDE was ever ready for doors to open.

Working with general contractors, logo design, SEO marketing, driving traffic to a website, understanding and using Google algorithms, coming to terms with Yelp, building brand culture, telling people what a concept is without coming across as pretentious… These were all unknown quantities to Jenkins. To succeed, he and business partner Nick Backlund would have to learn about all of those and much more.

If I had been asked why I think HIDE is so successful after my visit last year, I would have pointed to the location, the quality of the drinks, the inventive but approachable menu, and the passionate, welcoming staff. I’d still say all those points are contributing factors. But I’d also mention the humility of Jenkins and Backlund. During our conversation, Jenkins readily admitted that mistakes were made by leadership. And he doesn’t sugarcoat his errors—he told me without prompting that his mistakes led to good employees quitting.

Check this out: How to Create a Hiring System that Works

The most important lesson Jenkins shared is the realization that a new owner is going to make mistakes. Nobody knows everything, particularly going into their first concept. Learn and know as much you can, Jenkins says, but know that there’s a lot you don’t know. He also says everyone is going to screw up, which is fine as long they learn and make corrections.

One reason Jenkins and Backlund have limited making even more mistakes? They don’t drink at HIDE during shifts or on their days off. They focus on adapting quickly to consumer and industry trends, competition, and learning from the mistakes they do make. Jenkins believes that an advantage of small independent operations over large restaurant groups is agility, adapting quickly.

Hiring

An unfortunate byproduct of the rise of cocktail culture is pretentiousness. This obnoxious trait often rears its head in burgeoning cocktail scenes. It shouldn’t be a surprise that being pretentious, argumentative, and intimidating isn’t great for the guest experience.

“It’s about service,” says Jenkins of guest experience. “We want to dispense with the concepts of pretentiousness and condescension.”

One of the challenges Jenkins faced was learning how to elevate the traditional guest experience to transform guests into discerning drinkers while avoiding relying on gimmicks at HIDE. Bartenders, barbacks, servers, managers…all wear tees, hats and shorts that are HIDE branded. Bartenders aren’t wearing leather aprons or suspenders.

“There aren’t tons of fancy garnishes cluttering the bar. Everything is done with a purpose,” says Jenkins. “We wanted to have a direct line to [the guest] experience.”

Check this out: Gamify Your Way to Improved Guest Engagement

As operators are painfully aware, even well-trafficked areas have to fight to increase guest counts and convert first-time visitors into repeat guests. Not only are operators competing against other bars and restaurants, they’re up against industry disruptors like delivery. Getting today’s (potential) guest to leave their home to spend time and money in a bar can be challenging.

“You have to tell them why they should eat and drink at your place—because they get value experientially and for their dollar,” says Jenkins.

Having the innovative cocktails and high-quality food HIDE does helps, but the best food and drink in the world doesn’t mean much if the people hired to interact with and engage guests are chasing people away.

Jenkins and Backlund have one employee who was with them from the beginning. Otherwise, employees last around nine months on average, and sometimes left much earlier. Their turnover rate has improved, with some employees remaining for 12 months and counting. Those employees want to learn about the industry, and they want to learn at HIDE.

When it comes to hiring, the sweet spot for Jenkins is someone who’s “semi-green, eager, and humble. Perhaps more importantly, Jenkins’ hiring process has evolved as he’s operated HIDE. He admits to having been fooled by a hire who interviewed well but turned out to be toxic. So, his interview tactics change as he grows as a person and becomes better at this crucial task.

Jenkins prefers an organic approach to interviewing. Applicants today probably won’t have gone through the exact same process. Jenkins may ask one applicant to make him a drink. He may tell another that he needs to run to take care of something, but while he’s gone could they grab that glass off that table. He’ll be monitoring how quickly they fulfill that request, and what their body language says about their attitude while doing so.

Applicants may be asked about how they’ve handled complaints and conflict in the past. Jenkins will attempt to get a feel for their vocabulary, as he believes that language is crucial to the hospitality industry.

Again, Jenkins says people will be fooled by people who interview well. He has been fooled, and he says he’s lost good employees because of toxic new hires. All you can do is learn from that, adapt, and move on. Jenkins also says the solution isn’t as simple as just firing a toxic employee immediately. Operators have to ask themselves a few questions before just terminating someone’s employment: Who’s going to cover those shifts now? Are you going to cover those shifts? Are you going to give extra shifts to other employees to pick up the slack? Do employees want those extra shifts?

Check this out: What Gets People Fired: 6 Common Reasons Why People Lose Jobs

When it comes to management, it took HIDE over two years to find a hire the right general manager. They hired two in the recent past, and each remained in that role for only about two weeks. It’s not realistic, says Jenkins, to think you’re going to find the right GM immediately. This is particularly true for new operations. Without having spent significant time running the operation themselves, how can a new owner put someone into that role and expect them to succeed?

Giving up control to someone else can be frightening. Someone can’t just, as Jenkins puts it, hire a GM because they have 20 years’ experience running other operations, then cut them loose to run theirs. Before hiring a GM, Jenkins suggests that operators spend time learning about their operation, learning from their mistakes, learning about their strengths and shortcomings, and developing a sense of the plight of the GM they’ll eventually be adding to the mix.

There are many ways to realize the dream of taking an idea for a bar or restaurant and making it a reality. And there are many factors at play that determine success or failure. But there’s a constant: Never think that you know it all. That way lies madness and crushed dreams.

Don't miss part three, the conclusion of this series—we speak with Scott Jenkins about creating cocktails, training bar staff on them, menu development, and beverage operations.

Resources

HIDE website

HIDE Instagram

HIDE Facebook

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