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David Flaherty
David Flaherty

Your staff makes a special, special

Bar expert David Flaherty discusses how to make promotions count by engaging your employees.

It’s only natural that restaurateurs and bar owners place great value in their promotions. Much energy and creativity go into coming up with ideas that will draw in new guests and keep regulars coming back. Discussions abound about what will be done for the holidays and what sort of happy hour specials the bar will offer. Do we serve bowls of mixed nuts or jars of potted duck fat? Do we focus on the wines of California this month or feature $2 Mud Slide shots at our 15th Annual Slick Willy’s Wet T-Shirt Contest?

Owners and operators are fixated on what will get people through the door and how to maximize sales while not losing sight of the brand they’ve poured their hearts and souls into creating.

But too often these promotional flights of fancy are a waste of precious time and resources. And more importantly, they’re misguided and overlook the most valuable asset any owner or manager has: the staff.

Operators who harness the power of their staff are more successful, more engaged and more profitable, for staff members are the ambassadors of your brand. They’re your knights on the field, your aces in the hole. You get them on your side, and everything else falls into place; you lose them, and you’re dead in the water before Daiquiri December even fires up its first blender.

While this may seem obvious, it’s actually dumbfounding how many bars and restaurants are filled with employees who are undervalued and underenthused. Just think back to the last time you dined out. What do you remember? The font color of the menu listing seasonal cocktails? The clever wordplay of that night’s Featured Shooter? Or is it the employees who served you? My guess is it was the staff members. And depending on their attitudes, it may have made or broken your experience.

So how does one go about accomplishing the goal of executing successful promotions? Plain and simple: staff education. Each day, every day. Not once a week, not by monthly staff bowling nights, but each day they walk through your door. They need to be engaged, challenged, informed and activated. It doesn’t matter that the vast majority of them don’t call this profession their true calling. It doesn’t matter that if they get that role in “The Nutcracker” next week, they’re out the door faster than you can say “Sugar Plum Fairy.” What matters is that you’re taking the time to educate them and to challenge them.

Getting them engaged

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Let me give you an example. The concepts that I manage operations for recently participated in New York’s Cider Week. A vigorous, progressive list of artisan ciders was offered by the glass and bottle, along with food pairings and cocktails incorporating local hard cider. Each night, I opened different ciders for our staff, but we didn’t just talk about the notes of yeast in the aromas or the grip of tannins felt in the cheeks. We talked about the overall world of cider — the challenges that the producers face in a market quickly becoming corporatized. We emphasized how introducing our guests to this little-known beverage was actually shining a light on hardworking farmers and awakening our guests to what true farmhouse cider tastes like before the market becomes awash in mass-produced plonk.

Credit: BOB FILA KRT/Newscom

Their eyes lit up. They were empowered with a mission, and they seized it and became advocates. Let’s be real: Not many people walked through our door having already decided to order cider with their roast pork.

And the numbers? Astounding. While we may average between 20 and 30 orders of cider in a regular week at Hearth Restaurant and the original Terroir location, in that week those stores alone had more than 500. It didn’t matter that the lists were well-curated, the menus well-designed and our promotional materials in plain view. It was our staff that made it successful.

Juliette Pope, beverage director at Gramercy Tavern, summed it up this way: “Nothing is more critical than education. The point of educating your staff is to engage them — to keep them stretched, interested, learning, challenged — with the main purpose of building their confidence, which is the name of the game. Their confidence is what your guests need most — more than they need hard facts.”

It’s not easy, and it’s not quick, but educating your staff is the No. 1 way to make your promotions take off. Tell them why you’re doing them, and teach them about the facets that excite you. Most of us in this industry are beverage geeks; we crawl over each other to get the newest, greatest craft beer or go through countless iterations of a cocktail to get the blend just right. But if we don’t share that passion with our staff and challenge them to push guests to branch out from the familiar, then bottles of delicious drink hiding in the back of our bar fridges will just gather dust.

David Flaherty is the operations manager and beer and spirits director for Hearth Restaurant and the Terroir wine bars in New York. He is the cider and spirits editor for the New York Cork Report and also writes about wine, beer and spirits on his blog, Grapes and Grains,

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