Why Professional Bartenders Still Matter

Perry Smith

By Perry Smith

Oct 17, 2023

“A Professional Bartender is someone who can do his or her best work when he or she doesn’t feel like it.” — Bruce Tomlinson

That is a fine sentiment, and in a US bar and nightclub industry projected to gross $36 billion in 2023, this still holds true. Versatile, well-trained, and engaged bartenders are still hugely important to a successful hospitality venue even in the age of digital inventory control, wireless pour counters, AI-generated craft cocktail recipes, and confusing wine lists too large to print. In his infinite wisdom, Mr. Tomlinson understands that skilled bartenders often have the hardest job in the house and should be valued, trained, and rewarded.

Served with a Smile

Although I’ve spent most of my career as a restaurant owner, the bar side of the business holds a special place in my heart. I first worked at a small pub in Greenwich Village called Chumley’s and then moved on to other concepts in NYC that included a sports bar, a jazz club, and a 10,000-square-foot dance venue. On busy nights, I sometimes served over 400 drinks, not including beer or wine service. Thanks to having benefited from excellent job training and mentors, no matter the volume, each customer was acknowledged, greeted, and served with a smile, and their drinks poured to their exact specifications.

When my team launched our restaurants Matchbox and Ted’s Bulletin, we resisted the idea that staffing the bar side would be an afterthought. On the contrary, we know it would ultimately be critical to our success. Our teammates were the first to greet customers and were hired for their beer, spirits, and wine knowledge as well as trainability and technical prowess in creating and serving the ever-so-perfect beverage to satisfy our customers’ wide range of tastes. But more importantly, they are hired for their creativity, enthusiasm, and willingness to learn and collaborate with fellow team members.

Lack of Experience and Training

Unfortunately, in my more recent drinking and dining experiences, I often see an increasing lack of experienced and well-trained staff in many hospitality venues, including bars and restaurants as well as hotel bars, be they lobby, rooftop or restaurant.

Here are my suggestions and tips to make sure that your bar isn’t an afterthought:

  1. Don’t overlook your bartenders. Many establishments tend to undertrain new staff or assume they have more frontline experience than reality reveals. Granted, these days, staffing is a challenge, but in the end, oversight, investing in training, testing and effective collaborative management will win the day.
  2. Nurture and reward staff that take initiative. While both millennials and Gen Z bar staff may be more independent than previous generations, they also sometimes shy away from taking the initiative to satisfy guests. An accomplished bartender can anticipate your guest’s needs three steps in advance.
  3. Stamp out “Service Indifference.” Many bartenders feel shielded behind the bar and shy away from establishing a command position to meet and greet their customers. Service indifference also occurs when a bartender assumes a customer will not be spending much money or ordering dinner with their drinks or is distracted by their phone or visiting friends. Bartenders should be proud, and it’s not a bad thing to show it at times.
  4. Encourage eye contact. Positive and engaging interactions with bartenders and service professionals who make good eye contact are more likely to be remembered by customers. This can lead to repeat business and positive word-of-mouth recommendations.
  5. Hire “Weeds” not “Orchids” as bar staff. While both have some value, I prefer staffing my venues with Weeds. Let the divas, the Orchids, have their pristine working conditions. Let them sit there and revel in their own reflection. Give me the weeds, the doers, the staff members who can think two steps ahead and move to satisfy your guests in advance because they remembered what Steve from Columbus had the last time he was in town and needed a drink at the bar.

Compassion and Empathy

“Perma-anxiety” is a term that we as hospitality professionals need to acknowledge and do our best to overcome. Our guests and travelers may have arrived having had to endure a barrage of worries that include flight security, neo-isolationism due to COVID, and other geopolitical and local issues. Projecting compassion and empathy are essential qualities in bartending as well as for all other service team members.

No one can fault another for handling difficult complaints with understanding and patience. In addition, this can also translate into a sense of camaraderie, trust, and support within the team. Overall, compassion and empathy in service staff can contribute to a more nurturing, inclusive, and enjoyable experience for our customers. Bartenders who genuinely care about the well-being of those they serve create a positive atmosphere that encourages customers to return, facilitates meaningful connections, and supports the emotional needs within the bar setting.

About the author

Perry Smith

Perry Smith is the President of the Avalon Institute and a consultant with Cayuga Hospitality Consultants. He provides strategic consulting and robust organizational tools to assist restaurants, hospitality concepts, hotels, startups,  and leaders in operations, growth, critical thinking, creative branding and communications. Perry Smith is a  lifelong business leader and entrepreneur who has developed, operated and scaled a variety of brands and successful restaurant and hospitality concepts including the  Matchbox Food Group, Ted’s Bulletin and DC-3 in Washington, DC, Maryland and Virginia.  Smith is a graduate of Lehigh University and received an MA in Communications from NYU.   While attending NYU, Smith created the successful  Polly Esther’s entertainment venues in Chicago, New York City, St. Louis and Washington,  DC.

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