We all have our thresholds. Rankle our sensibilities, render lousy service and any one of us is capable of going ballistic. There are unwritten conventions governing professional bar conduct. We know most of them intuitively, so why do so many bartenders consistently step on these seemingly straightforward rules?
A bartender’s degree of professionalism is most apparent when the bar is slammed. Whether it’s that certain “calm-under-fire” quality or their precise bursts of movement, really great bartenders are a genuine pleasure to watch. On the flip side, a bartender who loses his cool — making guests bear the brunt of his anger — is like a cold, hard slap of reality. People get kicked around plenty in their day-to-day lives without being subjected to it during “happy hour.”
*** Plotkin’s Law — People get the worst service on the days when they can least afford it emotionally. ***
One such breach of convention is failing to acknowledge that customers exist. When people sit down at a bar, they typically will extend the bartender a grace period before he sidles over to take their order. Miss the grace period and he’ll nearly have to kill them with hospitality to overcome the snub. If a bartender is too busy to wait on guests, that grace period easily can be extended with a smile and an “I’ll be right with you.”
Tacky, too, is a bartender who is conspicuous when counting his tips. Gratuities are a private matter between two people — the customer and bartender — played out in a public setting. Counting tips at the bar is indiscreet.
Well, maybe I was wrong. Perhaps the tenets of great service aren’t intuitive; maybe they have to be learned like everything else. So what commandments would make the list? Here’s my take on it.
• Prioritize: Working a high-volume bar requires taking care of “first things first,” such as waiting on bar customers before washing glasses or preparing drink orders for food servers before finishing a conversation with a regular. Prioritizing tasks is essential to rendering great service.
• No preferential treatment: While it’s natural to prefer serving some people to others, it’s a fundamental mistake to act upon those sentiments. Treating select customers like second-class citizens is not part of the job description. Your attitude and demeanor can betray how you feel as clearly as inattentive service.
• Don't fixate on gratuities: Making a decent living behind a bar is best achieved through rendering prompt, competent service. Concentrating on tips during a shift diverts your concentration from the job at hand. Take care of your guests, and the tips will take care of themselves.
• Remember names (and drinks): People appreciate being referred to by their name. Whether it’s early on or just before he or she departs, make a point of getting a guest’s name, work to remember it and use it. Also, while people appreciate bartenders remembering their names, they fully expect bartenders to remember what they’re drinking.
• Warm smile and friendly attitude: Gracious hospitality is the cornerstone of our business. Welcome people into the business as you would welcome guests into your home. There’s little difference. Hardware stores wait on customers. In this business, we serve guests.
• Accommodate guests' needs: Conventional wisdom suggests you should never say “no” to a customer. Within reason, all requests should be fulfilled, regardless of the degree of hassle. People appreciate being catered to; it’s at the core of being hospitable.
• Take the lead: Guests will nearly always heed menu recommendations and suggestions on what to drink. But get rid of the canned delivery. Offer suggestions as though you are feeding guests insider information; they’ll love the personal attention. And don’t be reticent to ask your guests questions. The more you know about your guests’ preferences, the better service you will render.
• Anticipate guests' needs: Excellent service can be defined as anticipating a guest’s need well before he or she realizes the need themselves. Refill water glasses and replenish breadbaskets without being asked. Likewise, many cocktails should be served with a back of water. So after you serve a martini or scotch, neat, return moments later with a glass of water. It’s a classy thing to do.
• Cooperate with fellow employees: Providing timely assistance to a fellow employee helps produce a positive working environment and leads to a higher standard of service. That entails a cooperative effort, people helping each other to accomplish the stated objective, even when there may be no direct financial compensation pending. Teamwork inevitably will bail you out in a time of need. As you know, the better the service, the better the tip. Prima donnas should pick another trade.
• Be entertaining: Humor is the great equalizer and something that nearly everyone appreciates. If you can make someone smile, it may prove to be the best thing that happens to that person the whole day.