or Second Tuesday: Learning that what goes on behind the bar also is about what goes on in a bartender's head and learning that the bartender not only serves up drinks, but his personality
Note: I apologize for the delayed entries for this series. It's been a little hectic here. I hope to have the rest of the installments for this blog post series wrapping up in a more timely fashion
Tuesday, 2 p.m., once again I was at Tailor. Eben was going to be late, so I was informed I could go downstairs and set up the bar and practice while I waited.
Whoa, wait, what? Set it up? I vaguely remembered that there were some shakers to the right and some jiggers to the left...I was hoping that would be end of setting up. I breathed a sigh of relief when I got downstairs and saw that some guardian angel already had the bar ready to go.
I tried practicing a little (*cough*cramming*cough*), but started looking around the bar in case I would be expected to set it up again. It felt weird as I poked in the nooks and crannies, because even though I had permission to do so, the set up of and the space itself felt really personal and I felt ridiculously out of place. I couldn't help but feel a little bad about gingerly touching and moving things. I felt like Goldilocks messing up something someone had set up just right.
I took a little step back and looked at the bar and thought how nice the sort of symmetry of things were.
"Man, there's a lot going on back here," I thought looking at the sinks, the ice, the different bottles, the dishwasher and all that was usually hidden by the front of the bar.
Then I turned around to look at the shelves lining the wall behind the bar. I'd looked at those very shelves many times before, but now I was actually seeing a pattern. It was so fascinating I hastily sketched it out on my notebook.
Soon Eben showed up.
"Wait, did you do all this?" he asked extremely surprised.
After a brief moral battle I answered sheepishly, "No, it was already like this when I got here."
"I was going to say, I would've been impressed if you did. I wanted to test you on setting the bar up just from the last time."
Very fitting because today's lesson was centered around the bartending mentality and having a limber brain. We'd sort of touched on it in a way talking about filling the gap and things of that nature on the first Tuesday. Today we were going to talk about what was quite possibly my worst enemy, memory.
Memory plays an important part in bartending. One of the more obvious roles it plays is for learning cocktail recipes. But it doesn't just come down to poring over recipes.
Eben said that you have to be somebody who can remember something for the first time because many times you're simply shown how to make a cocktail once, and after that you're expected to execute it in the same way every time you make it.
Eben said that he himself has tried to do a better job of archiving his recipes, but many times, he'll come up with a concept for a drink, then sit around with his bartenders and have they taste it, maybe give some input, and that right then and there is where they learn how to make it.
Memory is also a part of service since you need to keep track of orders through all the craziness that is a night of bar service on top of being able to remember all the recipes to fill these orders. Think about it, how many times have you seen bartenders write down your drink order unless its a table order handed to them by a server? And even then we're talking about fitting in table orders while fielding orders from the bar itself. On top of that while you're filling an order, someone might ask you for an order or cut in to ask for the check. You still have to have the wherewithal to keep track of all of that.
"You need to be somebody who can remember something the first time because a lot of times you'll be shown something and you have to execute it that way...it's one of those unseen things of bartending that people on the other side don't realize."
Eben admitted though that nowadays it's a bit of a different game with the widespread use of credit cards as well as having point-of-sale systems. Even though you have a machine remembering things for you, Eben said it was important to try and keep an ongoing tally in your head for those sitting at the bar. It just helps in providing service. A customer might want guidance when they don't kno needs guidance in where they'd like to go next with there drinking, and you
Credit cards have changed service. For one thing it affects tips. It's harder for bartenders to take home cash tips. Also, for a bar, there are fees and payments can take days to clear.
Another matter of service that memory plays into is customer relationship. Eben said it's important that a bartender is able to remember customers, and not just to remember them so you can say, "Hey, Joe, what's it going to be? An Old Fashioned as usual?"
"It plays into your safety," Eben said because you also need to remember if anything bad has happened with customer.
So how could a novice bartender practice and exercise their brain. I thought maybe I should start playing Brain Age or something, but Eben had a more low tech solution for this.
Create several sheets of paper that have drink orders on them. Place them at random spots on the bar face down. For those of you playing at home, you can just put the papers down on a table or wherever you find yourself practicing. The next step is to flip the pieces of paper over, and like a game of Memory, remember what each "customer's" order is then proceed to make and serve those customers in the order you looked at the pieces of paper. Mix it up. Two at a time, three at a time. Maybe look at five different orders from left to right or like some kind human form of liquor dispensing Simon Says machine, look at them at random and remember to make those drinks in that order.
Bonus level: Include a price with each sheet of paper.
As one of Tolstoy's most trotted out quotes go, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." When you have a pleasant interaction with a customer. It's generally the same. You've helped someone had a good time, get an adequate to good tip for it, maybe even gained a regular. But when things go bad, it can go bad in so many ways. Getting shafted on tip after a long evening with a customer you thought you had a good rapport going with. Getting a drink order wrong or not making a particular cocktail in the style a finicky customer enjoys it. Then how about meeting one of those picky customers where you can't tell if they really have very particular taste buds or just a sadistic desire to see you dance for them behind the bar. Then sometimes you might find yourself in a situation where you need throw somebody out or possibly get five-o involved. As a person selling alcoholic beverages, you have to take responsibility and try to keep things under control because it affects everyone in the room. A customer getting angry at you and storming off without tipping sure can ruin your night, but their loud tirade against you and your establishment also ruins the night for other customers at the bar.
Again, some customers are just bad apples period. Customers can become belligerent or difficult to deal with, and the addition of alcohol to that mix probably doesn't help with some people. However, even without the alcohol, some people just have an attitude. While you might not be witness to one-armed knife fights every night, there are toxic customers. The type who are never satisified and are basically there to take out their day's frustrations out on you.
Eben said, then it comes down to having to figure out how do I deal with this person or do I have to make this person leave. It's not always so easy unless someone's behavior is particularly egregious. And it's not just a matter of grabbing someone and throwing them out because you want to handle the situation as gracefully as possible because you don't want the person blowing up in your bar, nor do you want to deal with getting shanked. You have to gauge for yourself what the proper response is depending on your bar's personality, the comfort of other guests and the safety of you and everyone else in the bar.
Eben told me that Jim Meehan has good "dealing with bad customers" stories by the millions, and this is very true because I've heard some of them firsthand myself (in fact, read about the customer service panel Jim was a part of at Tales this year, here). Eben recounted to me one incident when a customer threw a nut at Jim's head to get his attention. This person got promptly shuffled out of the place. Some might think the reaction to this patron's behavior was a bit much, but think about it. Someone who lacks the basic respect of others enough to show that contempt by throwing something at someone isn't simply boorish, they are a possible liability thanks to their inconsiderate behavior. If you can't be bothered enough to civilly address someone when ordering your drink, how can a bartender guarantee you won't be a brash, obnoxious drunk loudly disregarding everyone else in the bar once you do get your drinks?
"When you've been in the business long enough, one thing you learn is that usually the guy 86'ed from every bar in the city is the first to be at your bar when you open [a new bar] up," Eben said.
Nowadays, Eben said, with a lot of the more upscale joints, you get the bouncers or hosts and hostesses who can regulate incoming traffic to a bar. In a way, a lot of bars are more insulated. That doesn't mean that you can't be on alert.
Eben told me a story about how at Tailor he once spotted a suspicious duo come down to the bar. He felt something was fishy when he saw one of two make a beeline for the bathrooms. At the time, Eben was out from behind the bar, so he was able to observe the other guy's partner sandwich himself between two patrons and slowly begin to fiddle with a female customer's purse that was hanging on the hooks underneath the bar. Eben sent someone to go collect the bathroom dwelling member of the duo while he put himself between the suspicious guy and the lady customer he was about to rip off. Eben tried to warn the lady that she might want to collect her belongings.
"She looked at me and laughed like I was kidding, so I told her again, 'No seriously, you should move your purse.'...I was definitely putting myself in a bad position."
Eben said he takes the safety of his bartenders as well as his customers very seriously and again pointed out that it is a bartender's responsibilty to be aware of such things since he is in fact serving alcohol. Not that this should scare all of you out there into expecting the worst in customer interactions. As a bartender, you may find yourself burdened more with keeping up civil pleasantries than with throwing people out on their ear. "Burdened" might seem like an unfortunate choice of words, but being able to hold a court while doing your job can be a tightrope act for a bartender, and it's just as much an equal mix of natural talent as well as hard work.
Eben said that there was "a loss of the art of conversation in modern bartending." Too many times bartenders get bogged down in the creation of their cocktails that they run the risk of forgetting the human aspect of it.
"Being able to have abbreviated conversations is a skill," Eben said, because it's possible to be too much of a conversationalist. At the end of the evening, you still need to fill out drink orders, not just gab with people. You have to know when, how and how much of a conversation should take place. A bartender could get engrossed in a converstaion with one customer then you can watch as "all the other customers disappear."
According to Eben, the bartender needs to be what he called, "a master of distilled interactions." Especially so in today's cocktail bar climate, where customers want to watch and get involved with what's going on. Some might just say, "Hey, how about that weather we're having?" Other will want to get into a full on discussion with you about what bitters you are using behind the bar even though you might be up to your elbows in orders.
Eben said that the ability to be humble and to have a bit of a self-deprecating wit can go a long way as well. You don't have to be servile, but there's no room for the customer at the bar anyway if your ego's taking up all the seats. It's OK to acknowledge when you do make mistakes and in fact, it can make you more endearing.
"You can't take yourself too seriously," Eben explained. The bartender already exists as a sort of authority and expert behind the bar. Nothing wrong with professionalism or being serious about what you do, but you already cut an intimidating figure behind that bar. When you do make a little mistake and can laugh at yourself about it, everyone can relax. Eben pointed out examples such as Dale DeGroff or Tony Abou-Ganim. Guys at the top of their game that Eben said still managed to be "a total mensch" without any ego.
I could see how this intimidation could bring out several customer responses. Nervous or unfamiliar guests can be easily scared off or soured by the slightest thing. Then again, you might get those that want to knock you down a peg.
Besides, being too cocky about what you do can actually stagnate you as a bartender if you're someone who wants to continue to grow and improve.
"You should never feel that you got something down or perfected anything," Eben warned, since recipes and variations are out there all the time and something can always be improved on. "You should think, 'I like the way that I make this,' but be open to anything out there or what a customer wants...There's always something to be learned, even if it's learning how not to do something."
Say you go out to another bar and order a drink. You taste it and you think you can do better. Don't stop the smug train of thought right there at Complacentville station. Actually think about what it is you think you could do better. Do the juices taste not so fresh? Is the presentation a little crap? Maybe the drink's just fine. Then what would make it spectacular?