Our 2019 Bartender-Owner of the Year knows the three secrets to staff retention and delivering amazing guest experiences.
Those secrets ingredients are smart hiring, training…and more training.
Molly Wellmann owns, operates and bartends at Japp’s Since 1879 and Myrtle’s Punch House in Cincinnati, Ohio. She owned restaurants, a bourbon bar, a nightclub and a private event space until she bought out her partners and condensed operations last year. Years of operating and managing multiple concepts have proven her approach to hiring and training works.
“I think the [key] is hiring a staff that is passionate and personality-first, and then teaching them everything. They have to have a passion for wanting to learn how to do the bartending,” says Wellmann. “And they need to have that personality to want to talk to people effortlessly. I think that’s so important.”
Today’s owners, operators and managers need to understand how the business and labor are changing. Tending bar, once seen as a way to make money while a college student earned a degree for their “real” job or as a résumé gap filler for graduates, is now viewed as a viable long-term career. As such, bar team members expect their employers to show an interest in their careers.
Employee turnover is expensive, particularly in our industry. Turnover rates tend to be significantly higher in the hospitality industry than in others. Losing just one employee can cost several thousand dollars. Those losses can skyrocket to the tens of thousands if an operation experiences high turnover, and those losses can come quickly.
Read this: Stop the Turnover Bleeding
That’s to say nothing of the damage that can be done to a bar or restaurant’s reputation if it experiences turnover bleeding. Word will eventually spread that there’s an issue with ownership or management, making it difficult to recruit top talent. Having to settle for sub-par employees affects business in every way, from inconsistent menu items, poor service, negative guest experiences, and an even higher employee turnover rate. The resulting hits to revenue mean disaster—and permanently closed doors—for an operator.
To decrease turnover rate, build and maintain a positive reputation as an operator or manager, and achieve a healthy flow of revenue, hiring the right candidates is a great place to start.
“I hire people on personality and passion,” Wellmann says. “So, first I hire on personality. You can teach somebody to make a drink, you cannot teach them how to smile or converse with a guest.”
Of course, that approach to hiring doesn’t apply solely to bar team members. Any guest-facing role benefits from this hiring and interviewing tactic. Asking questions and observing the body language of potential hires can reveal their character, personality and interest in serving and interacting with people.
“I think that 80 percent of bartending is personality. Basically, you’re a salesperson. You are selling liquor and you need to know the product, and you need to know how to make it a drink and sell it properly,” says Wellmann. “So, if you don’t have a personality or know how to sell or have a passion for learning, then you have nothing. You can have the curliest mustache in the freakin’ world but if you don’t have a personality to go with it, you’ll never get anywhere.”
Personality, eagerness to serve guests, and a dedication to learn sorted, it’s time to train. As bourbon aficionados know, Molly Wellmann is a household name in markets across the nation when it comes to whiskey. She has selected private label barrels of Maker’s Mark and one of her former bars, Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar, boasted more than 500 bourbons. With that specialized an inventory, education is paramount to success.
“At one time I did have a bourbon bar and I needed to know that information in order to be able to sell the bourbon properly. So, I taught myself as much I can about bourbon especially, and whiskey, and [teamed] up with different writers and historians as well on that subject, like Mike Veach and Fred Minnick,” explains Wellmann. “I actually write a cocktail column for Fred Minnick’s new magazine called Bourbon+. So, with that, I keep in the know of a very popular spirit, bourbon. And I love bourbon, so I go bonkers over the history of it and I can remember it.”
Wellmann’s desire to constantly seek out information and pass it along to her employees pairs perfectly with her unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Anyone who has spent time in her bars or spoken with her is acutely aware of her love for learning. It’s a key element of her success as an owner and operator, and one that benefits her employees and their careers.
“The big thing about it was that when I trained my bartenders—two to four months I would train them—I would have them read certain books. Like, I always had them read the book by Bernie Lubbers, it was just called Bourbon Whiskey, and then the books by Mike Veach and, of course, the books by Fred Minnick,” Wellmann says. “I would have them read those, and then every time we that we would get a new whiskey in we would sit and talk about it and look up everything we could about it just to get an overview of what made it so special. And then after, they thought they were ready…”
But there’s much more to Wellmann’s training. That two- to four-month process was just the first step in continuing education. The second step…it’s a doozy and not for the faint of heart.
“There’s a certain way I love to conduct the hospitality in my bars as well. So, I would give them a 250-oral-question quiz from behind the bar that they would have to answer just so I knew that they could handle themselves selling to an enthusiast or a novice when it came to bourbon and having everyone feel welcome in that bar,” says Wellmann. “I still do that with all of my bartenders. I want to make sure that everybody is knowledgeable but not snotty, not pretentious, and I think that’s really, really important.”
Step two isn’t the finish line, either. Wellmann’s training strategy has no finish line—employees are like long-distance runners. Their quest to keep learning is like a runner’s mission to increase stamina. Knowledge is their oxygen. Collecting information and honing their guest interaction skills serves their longevity in this industry.
Wellmann has found that she needs to give her 250-question quiz to team members every few months to keep bartenders sharp. It’s the third element of the “Hiring + Training + More Training” equation. The telltale sign she needs to take a seat on the guest-side of the bar and conduct the quiz is her observation that her staff appears to be getting a little too comfortable. In other words, if customer service standards slip a bit, the quiz tightens them back up.
Read this: Growing Pains: How to Evolve Your Business
Of course, all that education means nothing without putting the guest experience first. This is where hiring for personality pays off. Operators need to be on high alert for team members who are using the information they’re obtaining as a weapon. Pretentiousness ruins guest experiences, putting people who have chosen to spend time and money in a bar on the defensive. It only serves to boost the ego of the team member looking down their nose and create a negative perception of an operation. Molly has a simple method for combatting pretentiousness at the start of shifts.
“Treat everyone like they’re going to give you a million dollars. I tell them every shift, ‘This is your time to be the host or hostess of your own party and these are your guests in your house. I want you to treat them like they’re guests in your house,’” says Wellmann.
Wellmann’s approach to hiring and training not only saves money, it makes money. It’s a simple enough equation:
Hiring + Training + More Training = Retention and Revenue
Of course, execution is another story. Evaluation of hiring and training practices will need to take place. Changes in operator and manager mindsets need to occur. And a genuine love for learning helps. If that’s not an operator’s strong suit, a love for generating revenue may help build up that component. But it’s hard to overstate how a passion to learn can benefit leadership.
“I think that’s the number one thing for anybody out there who really wants to know more about the subject: you have to have a passion for it,” says Wellmann. “You have to want to know. You have to want to put the work in to find it. “It’s like a treasure hunt, it really is. You’re not just gonna Google this—you have to dig. And I dig, I dig a lot.”
Knowing where to dig and taking that first bite with a metaphorical shovel can be difficult. However, the 2019 Nightclub & Bar Show takes place next month and it’s rich with educational treasure. Beginning Monday, March 25, workshops such as “Critical Systems to Lead Your Bar & Restaurant to Success” with Fred Langley and “Teach & Coach Your Staff to Become Hospitality Heroes” Bob Brown will help attendees develop as leaders, as will education sessions like “Profits Meet Practicality” with Erick Castro and Tim Rita, and Kelley Jones’ “Service in America Sucks.”
Jon Taffer will deliver a keynote on Tuesday, March 26, titled “Cut the BS Excuses that Hold You Back.” Anyone who says they don’t have time to revisit their hiring practices or develop new training systems will find that they’re just making excuses that are holding them back from massive revenue and success. Don’t miss out—register now!