Seven Keys To Assembling a Great Team with Brian Bartels

Brian Bartels.

It's easy to look at the current state of the hospitality industry and say things have changed. But is that really the case? What if it's not the industry that's changing, it's the way operators, managers and staff members are approaching their roles that has changed?

Take, for instance, the fact that everyone in this business works long hours. That hasn't changed—it has been the way of this business for decades upon decades. What has changed is how the people who put in all those hours focus on their health and happiness.

That's just one of the topics Brian Bartels, managing partner and bar director at Happy Cooking Hospitality, and Fraser Hamilton, bar manager at Sweet Liberty in Miami, FL, will discuss during their education session at the 2019 Nightclub & Bar Show. The duo will also share best strategies and tips for hiring, staff retention, cultivating a healthy workplace and brand culture, and ensuring staff members feel empowered and that their roles within the business are meaningful.

You've worked at some great places with some really talented industry folks, all starting in Wisconsin with your current business partner and big names like Jim Meehan. What are the similarities between that first high-performing team and the teams you manage today?  

Yeah, I was very lucky to work with Jim Meehan, Gabriel Stulman, and a good amount of other talented young colleagues who developed into industry superheroes of modern day. Apart from their ability to be trustworthy, loyal friends (which are irreplaceable traits, in my opinion), they all master the trifecta of preparedness, focus, and execution. Working with Happy Cooking Hospitality (our restaurant group in New York) is an extension of the discipline we initiated in our youth, which was finding the proper balance of having fun when the moments were available to us, but knowing there was work to be done, and not letting details slip through the cracks. I am a better professional today by learning through years of working alongside Jim, Gabriel, and a slew of other talented, hard-working professionals and visionaries who understand the almighty disciplines and balances of daily workloads.  

brian making drinks

Congratulations on the success of Happy Cooking. The number of operations just seems to expand each year! How do you build and maintain great culture as the employee count continues to grow?

First off, thank you! Honestly, it starts with the people we have running our restaurants, and how they maintain our culture and philosophy through such growth. If that were to slip through the cracks we would never forgive ourselves, so we maintain through the one word we cannot use enough: communication. No one can learn a culture without communication playing a part. We are responsible for cultivating that awareness, and it’s a source of pride for the team, the people we hire to represent Happy Cooking, and the guests visiting our homes away from home.

Can you talk about the qualities you look for when hiring? How do you really get to know someone throughout an interview and hiring process?

Are they engaged? Do they have a genuine interest in human relations and a desire to learn a trade or grow within a community-based sensibility? We don’t really vibe with egos, so anyone coming in who believes their experience (or previous well-reviewed restaurant or bar) makes them superior to our environments usually stands out in a negative way, and we tend to avoid those personalities. Also, are you someone who shows up to work on time? And by that we mean, do you arrive early? As interviewers, we have to ask the right questions, so that plays a part. And there are always bonus points for a professional-grade resume with a healthy amount of references.

Your session at Nightclub & Bar 2019 is about employee retention and cultivation. What information do you hope attendees walk away with and implement at their bars, nightclubs, and restaurants?

New philosophies to implement into their programs. Also, we all agree we work long hours, but how are we staying healthy, happy and moderating our excess and distractions? Additionally, I hope we retain a level of professional conduct becoming true industry representatives and not dismiss the important reminder that we are in the business of managing people, and reflecting that, we need to care and think about our staffs and co-workers as though they are family, and listen more, and give them a chance to have a voice, and not be so judgmental, and not make them feel uncomfortable.

Do you all have a set of core value statements that your operations live by? How do you reinforce them?

Yes. Under-promise and over-deliver. Make the extra effort when we can to help a guest feel a little more comfortable. Make them feel at home. We reinforce these values through daily service meetings, steadfast employee check-ins, and monthly email newsletters. I send out a monthly newsletter to all of our staffs reflecting service notes and observations I have made in the past month, and pepper that attention to detail with fun little anecdotes where we remember to laugh. A healthy reminder: at the end of the day, it’s food and beverage, the foundations of what brought people together long before we got here, and what sort of people bond over food and beverage? Families. So remember: don’t get stressed out. You’re always surrounded by family, and family should be there to help.

You're currently working on your second book, An American Drink Book, with Tales and Traditions from Every State. It’s been a lot of fun following you around the country through your Instagram. How many bars do you think you've visited over the last year to research this book? What are some noteworthy insights you've gathered?

Yes indeed. So excited to share this book on regional drinking cultures through America. The United States of Cocktails: An American Drink Book with Tales and Traditions from Every State, arrives in Spring 2020 with Abrams Publishing. I’m doing my best to really capture every square inch of America through its history of bars, cocktails, and drinking traditions. I haven’t counted them up, but I would say I have been to approximately 250 bars in the last year. Possibly more. I haven’t drank in every single one, but I have sampled their history in my own unique way. One of my favorite lessons I have learned is, while you can find a healthy amount of information on the Internet, there is nothing that replaces the ability to communicate with a local bartender face-to-face. They almost always have the best answers for must-visit destinations in their neck of the woods, and that is irreplaceable. That, and if you’re writing a cocktail book about the United States, best not to try and drink at every spot you visit.  :) 

Based on what you've learned over the years, what advice do you have for the next generation to become the best leaders they can be?

Keep learning from the guardians of the bar and service galaxy. Any chance you can get. Ask questions. Study other programs. Listen to lots of different kinds of music. And read whatever you can get your hands on.  

Bonus question: Any current productivity tools you're using or books you're reading that you want to share?

Cheryl Charming’s The Cocktail Companion is a great resource for our craft cocktail history in the US, and Paul Clarke’s The Cocktail Chronicles features some of the best recipes from some of our leading bar professionals (and Paul is the editor of Imbibe, so he has his finger on the pulse of just about everything), and also Pittsburgh Drinks by Cody McDevitt and Sean Enright, which is a terrific and well-researched rabbit hole of Pittsburgh’s drinking history from pre-Prohibition all the way up to modern day Steel City.

Read this: Five Questions with PDT's Jim Meehan About Talent, Training and Time

Operators serious about long-term success won't want to miss "Best Strategies on Employee Retention & Cultivation," scheduled for Monday, March 25 at 10:00 a.m. Register now!

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