Train Your Way to a Hospitality Empire

Bartending 101 college ruled paper
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Bobby Heugel has built a bar and restaurant empire in Houston. It all started in 2009 with Anvil Bar & Refuge, recognized repeatedly as one of the best bars in the nation since the doors opened.

OKRA Charity Saloon, a philanthropic concept, began operations at the end of 2012. For every drink a guest purchases at this bar, they can cast their vote for one of four locally-based charities that have been chosen by Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs (OKRA). Votes are tallied at the end of the month and the winner receives the proceeds from the following month. The concept, organization and community have donated more than $1.1 million to local charities.

A mezcaleria named The Pastry War followed in 2013, and The Nightingale Room opened in 2014. Heugel and his team were busy last year, opening Tongue-Cut Sparrow and Better Luck Tomorrow. A new concept from the Houston bar mogul will open next door to his first bar, likely before we say goodbye to 2018.

This is to say nothing of the various projects he’s been involved with over the past several years. Heugel’s success, an empire that will soon grow to 7 venues, inspires many questions, one of which is: Just how does Houston’s King of Cocktails ensure that his ever-expanding empire runs smoothly?

What’s His Secret?

"Training is how I get to live my life because I can’t be six places at once," said Heugel at the inaugural Bar Convent Brooklyn.

As Heugel sees it, an owner needs to do more than just give someone a job. Owners need to help their employees progress in their careers, and that means providing training. In fact, Heugel thinks any operator who thinks they won’t lose employees because they’re not educating and training them is a fool.

Read this: Stop the Turnover Bleeding

“There’s nobody left to hire,” Heugel said during his BCB presentation. “[Bartenders are] taking brand ambassador and beverage program manager positions.”

And why are they quitting to take such jobs? It’s not just because those are considered the sexy roles in this industry. Oftentimes it’s the career bartender who decides to throw in their towel because they believe there’s no way for them to move forward at their current bar. According to Heugel—and I’m inclined to agree—that’s due to a lack of training and education.

That deficiency in training can be perceived by bartenders as a signal that they have but two choices: remain in their current position or quit.

Train to Maintain

Of course, training also makes sure employees maintain expected standards. Heugel didn’t grow his empire solely through giving his bar staff careers instead of jobs.

Some may scoff, but Heugel considers the training process McDonald’s uses as one of the best in the business. While it has become fashionable to ridicule the fast food giant, there’s no disputing they maintain standards. There are reasons a McDonald’s hamburger looks and tastes the same regardless of where one is ordered around the world: standards and consistency.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Heugel has taken the McDonald’s training manual and run with it. Rather, he has developed his own training process.

Blind 50 & 100 Day

When a new bartender is hired for one of Heugel’s businesses, the training begins. Every operator has their own reasons for hiring a particular person for a certain job. For Heugel, hiring for fit is more important than hiring a certain skill set. Skills, after all, can be trained.

For example, Heugel likes to hire what he refers to as a “puppy” if that person is a good fit. A puppy is someone the team can rally around, a person who brings everyone together with their infectious optimism and positive energy. So maybe their shake, garnish game or speed aren’t perfect—those skills can be improved through training. A positive attitude and passion for hospitality, not so much.

Bartenders are expected to move through 12 training stages at Heugel’s bars before they attain principal bartender status. Interestingly, each stage is rewarded with a raise commensurate to what a trainee would earn if they were a fully-fledged bartender. So, beyond education and pride, there’s a financial benefit for navigating Heugel’s training stages successfully.

Read this: Strengthen Sales with Brainy Bartenders

Like other successful operators, Heugel tests his bar staff to ensure they’re adhering to standards. One such test is the infamous Blind 50. This is a blind taste test of 50 spirits. To pass, bartenders must correctly identify at least 48 of 50 spirits by type and brand—in one day.

When a bartender passes the Blind 50 (Heugel says 90 percent fail on their first attempt), they earn the position of principal bartender. However, that doesn’t mean testing is over. Part test, part celebration, the new bartender now faces the 100 Day test. A list of 100 drinks is taped to the bar, each priced at $1 for the public. As they’re ordered and made, they’re crossed off the list.

That’s a graduation ceremony I think we can all agree staff and guests will look forward to attending.

Reward: Responsibility

Again, education doesn’t stop just because a test has been taken and passed. Bar team members who have completed training are taught about operations through ownership of an assigned operational element.

As an example, one bar team member may take ownership of pour costs. They’re expected to know the cost, present it at the weekly meeting, and provide a reason should pour cost increase or decrease.

It may not seem like much for one employee to be responsible for a single element of operations. But look at it through the eyes of an employee: their employer is being transparent about financial information and entrusting them with a portion of it. That pays huge dividends, like putting a stop to employee turnover bleeding.

Other responsibilities bartenders are encouraged to take on are mentoring duties; providing input for hiring decisions; and helping price menu items.

Heugel encourages mentoring among his staff, and that’s not limited to management. As he says, sometimes an employee needs someone to talk to about work issues who isn’t their boss. Mentoring, of course, teaches management skills and brings team members closer together.

He has also made the hiring of additional staff a team discussion. It’s not a complicated conversation and can be boiled down to one question: Do you want to dilute the number of available shifts or pick up the slack as a team? This is another management lesson, and it also strengthens the team.

When it comes to pricing, Heugel takes the approach of need versus can. The bar needs to charge enough to not lose money and be a sustainable business. But the market may dictate that the bar can charge a higher price and make more money. This teaches employees about values and the guest experience. Heugel, by the way, isn’t a fan of drinks that cost much more than $12.

Owners are also responsible for teaching staff members about values, his and his brand’s. Heugel uses charities to teach that lesson, incorporating charitable elements to educate his team about his values and those of the business that employs them. Being charitable also encourages maturity, a necessary characteristic for anyone seeking to be a mentor, manager or owner in the future.

You don’t have to create a 12-stage bar training program. You don’t have to ensure your bartenders can identify at least 48 of 50 types and brands of spirits in a blind test. And you don’t have to “graduate” your bartenders via a 100-cocktail final exam. But what you must do is take an interest in their profession and future through training and education. Otherwise, you’re just giving someone bartending experience before they quit and find an operator who will give them a career.