By Gabriel Daun
I’ve said it many times before – there’s so much to know and learn about at the bar that one lifetime alone is not nearly enough! Which is why five aspects will have to suffice for this article – without any claim that these provide the full picture, of course.
01. I WANT TO BE THE CAPTAIN – SURE?
Here’s what many bar careers look like: after a certain amount of time of working with the company, bartenders are given more responsibility (so initially: taking orders, billing, recording inventories – because a manager hates these tasks, as many people in their right senses do). If they haven’t lost the key to the bar one time too many beforehand, they’re at some point themselves promoted to the position of manager at a bar. As if this were a logical step! The truth is that managing a bar isn’t anything you automatically know how to do or have earned on account of simply having worked at a bar for long enough.
Management (and leadership, though that’s a different topic) is not everybody’s cup of tea. Management is art, great art even at times, if carried out wisely and by principles pertaining to both head and heart. It’s not just a matter of putting the fun into the business in the bar (i.e. what should happen when the curtain aka the bar door opens in the evening), but of putting the business into the business, too!
“Bartenders are salesmen” – this is something Harry Johnson could already tell a thing or two about. Not just when dealing with a guest, but also in administration. Economic analyses (in short EA, sometimes boring, sometimes quite exciting, and for a bar’s financial success always important, indispensable even), dependable email correspondence every day, drawing up duty rosters, developing training, communicating with superiors, authorities, suppliers, the landlord, industrial partners and the team, evaluating inventories, making payments, creating and updating SOPs, controlling and authorising invoices, etc. – all of these, like it or not, are part of the job description. Not just salaried bar managers, also those operating their own bar need to incorporate them.
Award-winning bars in which award-winning bar staff worked who wrote up award-winning menus – they had to close, simply because the money wasn’t rolling in. And this was mainly because the illustrious topic of accounting was dealt with just a little too laxly and the costs outweighed the profits. No profits, no party! Calculating the cost of goods is unglamorous, but essential – so don’t let Excel scare you! To be successful, you need to leave your own comfort zone once in a while, that’s just the way it is. But the opposite holds true, too: if you waste too much time with accounting, sitting in front of a computer just to buy a bottle of bourbon for one euro less, instead of dealing with more important matters, you’ve not got it right, either. Think about your team and guests, without whom you wouldn’t be making any money in the first place
02. Stay Modest!
Most Ferrari dealers don’t drive home in Ferraris. What I mean by this is that we sell luxury by creating a short period – sometimes a long or reoccurring one – in the lives of our guests that is as close to perfect as possible. One of the vehicles that allows us to do so is the selection of exquisite products that we have the opportunity of working with. But just because a product belongs to the everyday life of some of our guests and we serve it to them, this doesn’t mean it becomes part of our own everyday reality, too. We can buy ourselves a bottle of champagne as a highlight and reward as often as possible (I can’t think of a better way to spend money). But if you think you need to keep up with the guest you’re serving, who might be earning three or four times as much as you, though, and therefore be drinking sparkling wine from north-eastern France every day, think again. Except for if the guest invites you to join in for a glass – in that case living the champagne life on a lemonade budget holds true.
03. AN OFF DAY IS NOT AN OFF DAY!
The bad news is that not everyone can be the best. Which means that not everyone makes it to the top in our industry. Yet there are reasons why some make it and others don’t. Those who are in the top league, I’ll just put it out there, want it more and were therefore more willing to invest more as well. I don’t just mean them putting in more hours on the job in the bars, but rather their entire life being geared towards the bar. The term work-life balance, as used (to death!) by agency flacks, is nothing less than a major misunderstanding in my view anyway: working life is also life, after all.
But I do think that the more the interests of private life overlap with the requirements of professional life, the more likely it is that the activity in the bar is enriched by ones undertaken outside of the bar. People who are invested in culinary matters on a private scale (visits to restaurants, cooking, wine …), in delving into exciting topics that are suitable as subjects to be talked about with guests (subscribe to a newspaper! – and then read it as well!) or in arts and culture (cinema, theatre, concerts, books), don’t just enrichen their own private lives, they also become a more interesting person when they stand behind the counter or at the table when speaking with a guest.
I just don’t believe that a bartender would actually be very concerned about whether an excellent drink could be improved upon if he only eats fast food and tinned ravioli, drinks beers while watching TV and thinks Mario Barth is immensely entertaining outside of the bar. And I probably won’t be laughing much at his jokes either.
And generally speaking – read, read, read! Invest ten percent of your tip money in (bar-related) books. To really grow in it, the bar must be your way of life to a certain extent, your philosophy, your passion – not your hobby, a grating side hustle or worse yet, something that owes you anything.
04. An off day is an off day!
However, the opposite is also true: it is mentally and physically exhausting to work at a bar. This is why it’s so important to take care of yourself (don’t get too high on your own supply, as they say) and to also do things that have nothing at all to do with the bar. Your own line of work is not the only one. Be open and curious about other matters, have friends in other job sectors and meet up with them, stay open, create a good counterbalance to your profession.
In order to perform this job with integrity for a long time, you need daylight. Self-care is crucial. Calibrate your home to make it a place of harmony, in which you’re able to recharge your batteries and in which you can give back strength, too. Our lives are built on the pillars mentioned above – on our professional and private life. Both of these pillars need to be nurtured for them to be and remain stable. This is why it’s important to know when it’s time to stop working, when not to be taking care of things related to the bar, even if only mentally. The best in their profession – despite what I mentioned under point 3 – are those who pursue other interests as well, perhaps ones that have nothing to do with their job. This way professional challenges stay exciting for longer – as it’s easier to look forward to them. Absence makes the heart grow fonder as the old ballad by Dean Martin goes – this applies not just to loved ones in form of a person, but also in form of a job! In other words, sometimes it’s enough to just sit in a sauna on a cold winter evening – without thinking about how best to reproduce the mountain pine infusion in your next drink that’s just been poured over the heated rocks. A day off is a day off!
And with regard to your loved one – take along the person who’s dear to you by day and close to you at night and include this person in your world! Show him or her how you work and count your blessings when your partner stops by the bar with some friends from time to time. This way there’s less stress, less hidden resentment, less jealousy, I promise.
05. IN CONCLUSION: THREE POINTS
Angus Winchester once summed it up nicely. It was a piece of wisdom he gave me when I was still a young bartender and which I’ve passed on to many other bartenders with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years: you can sound out three points in every situation in a bar – bring a smile to the guest’s face, optimise sales and give the guest a reason to come back. If what you’re doing doesn’t meet any of these points, you can stop doing it. Of course you can and should think laterally – a good mise en place before your shift enables you to fulfil these points just as well as taking the right decisions during ongoing business or answering a reservation request swiftly. Or more generally – anything that creates the right circumstances for your guest to feel as comfortable as possible is worth doing. Anyone who fights for 100 percent will always be rewarded. Promise!