What do you get when you combine the balletic movements of a sushi chef, the memory retention of a mathematician, the exactitude of a chemist and the friendliness of the next-door neighbor? An amazing bartender.
As one of the most dynamic, challenging, and guest-facing roles in the restaurant, a skilled bartender can enhance your guests' experiences in profound ways. The right person at the helm also leads to an increase in regular guests, as well as higher sales, and they can create a more unified front-of-the-house team.
We’ve all had memorable bartenders who seem invincible in their abilities, are able to field dozens of tickets, face the crush of a crowd unfazed, and make each and every guest feel like they’re the most special person to grace the bar. Conversely, we’ve all felt the anxiety ripple through us as we watch a bartender flailing, the bar top getting increasingly more splattered like a Jackson Pollock canvas, while servers angrily look on, awaiting their long-ago-ordered drinks.
How do you ensure you have a superhero behind the bar, rather than a demoralizing weak link? It starts with hiring the right people then properly training them. I recently reached out to three top bar managers with a combined 35 years of experience to discover the qualities they look for when interviewing and training new recruits.
Andy McClellan, Bar Manager at Westward and Little Gull in Seattle, has spent more than 10 years behind the stick and currently manages a team of four bartenders and two barbacks.
“A great bartender loves people,” he said, “and is always looking to make new friends, is nonjudgmental and makes everyone from all walks of life feel welcome at the counter. He or she is an ‘experience curator,’ has a developed palate, has knowledge of all the products on the back bar and knows how to utilize them in the mixing of cocktails, is clean and organized, and is well read.”
Those are big shoes to fill, so what qualities does McClellan look for when interviewing potential new employees?
“Hospitality is paramount, putting guests above all else,” he said. They also need to “be respectful toward their coworkers and work efficiently.”
Many prospective bartenders come to the interview process with a number of previous gigs on their résumé, so I was curious which quality was more important: skill or personality?
“I don’t really look for overall skills, to be honest with you,” said Bryan Dayton, co-owner and beverage director at both Acorn in Denver, and Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder, Colo.
“I look for people who are personable, open-minded and excited for the job —the kind of person who wants to fully immerse themselves in the work. Speed does help too. I love hiring people who’ve previously worked at beer-and-shot places who want to now learn how to make craft cocktails.”
Two must-haves for bartenders: Hospitality and composure
Keith Nelson, beverage director for the New York-based properties of the Tao Group (who, along with a team of three other beverage directors, oversees close to 50 bartenders) agrees with Dayton.
“The key to success behind the bar is hospitality and composure,” Nelson said. “It is more important to focus on those skills than on technical ones, because most bartenders show up with the technical. Bartending is very calculated; we can make drinks very quickly.”
For Nelson, the three most important things that he teaches any of his new staff members are to “make eye contact, wash your tins, and smile.”
Washing tins shouldn’t be discounted: The notion of “working clean” is not only paramount, but also a quick indicator of skill and experience. That may be surprising to those who have never held the job. Being behind the bar is a unique spot in the restaurant: All of the work is done in front of paying guests who see not only every move one makes, but also every dirty glass and spill left untended.
“We talk to them about being on a stage,” Dayton said. “Once your shift starts, it’s like the curtains going up. You need to be fully prepared. You need to put your game face on and get after it. Cleanliness really sets the tone for everything. They need to have everything ready to go and prepped, and they need to be sure things are always in order. Everyone gets turned off by a dirty bar.”
Once a bartender is hired, the training begins. Since every operation is different and presents a unique set of challenges, well-developed systems on the part of management will ensure the new face behind the bar is quickly brought up to speed and can be relied on by the rest of the team to carry their weight.
In a place like Oak at Fourteenth, there is an ever-changing roster of libations, so the servers will often look to the bartenders to keep them knowledgeable on the products being served. “We want to make sure our staff knows at least three things about every product behind the bar, whether it’s beer, wine or spirits,” Dayton said.
In addition to product knowledge, McClellan noted the importance of mastering the social side of bartending.
“You have to love people,” he said, “and love being around strangers. You must be able to multi-task and compartmentalize tasks in a fast-paced environment under duress without showing the stress on your face.”
Conversations, and sometimes counseling sessions, between guest and bartender are as old as time, requiring finesse and respect for each patron.
“The bar is still ground zero for the community experience, so my bartenders should be up on what’s going on in the world so they can be comfortable in the myriad conversations that can happen throughout the night, whether its news, pop culture or sports,” Dayton said.
Above all other necessary traits such as technical skills, product knowledge or the ability to converse with anyone and everyone is the idea of staying calm under pressure.
“A great bartender is someone who’s personable, unflappable and fast in the well,” Dayton said. “But they also should be nimble, because they’re in a situation that constantly changes. Things run out, every guest at the bar is different. Someone asks for something you don’t have all the ingredients for. You have to adapt and overcome any situation that might arise.”
Many techniques can be trained, and many hours of experience can build confidence, but ultimately, there is something in a good bartender that is innate, and hard to pin down in words.
“Not everyone can be a bartender,” McClellan said. “There has to be a certain ‘get it’ factor that plays highly into your success in the industry.”