5 Steps to a Better Bar

I was speaking with someone in charge of a major American chain restaurant beverage program recently, one that has made a significant commitment to upgrading the quality of drinks served there, and the topic of consistency came up. Chains, of course, have dramatically different service standards and requirements from those at cocktail-centric bars, but also serious challenges having to do with sourcing, production and execution.

For instance, deciding to muddle drinks at, say, 75 to 100 units can create a monumental task of training and oversight, especially since bartenders at many of these places are frequently timecard punchers who just want to put in their shifts, empty their tip jars and scoot. So getting them to commit to the need for, say, double-straining, or hard shaking, or even making fresh sour mix to company specs at every shift, well, you can imagine.

Each chain or independent restaurant solves these problems in their own way, but it doesn't take very long watching a bartender work to know how much he or she really cares about their craft. But the fault usually lies in the operational set-up, expectations and beliefs of in-house management - if people aren't expected to achieve and supported in their efforts to do so, nothing else will matter.

This, though, is a topic for the management newsletters; what I'll suggest right now are five small ways any bartender or manager can improve his or her game and raise the level of operations, so that bigger initiatives can be taken on.


1. Handle your products right. Every time I see a bottle of vermouth go back in the rail, my heart sinks a little, because I fear it will spend each and every night there. Vermouth is wine, and needs to be kept oxygen-free as much as is feasible - if you don't vacuum the bottle every night, you're serving boiled down herb soup. Ditto on the garnishes, especially the briny olives; fresh gets tossed or repurposed, everything else kept as fresh as possible.

2. Know what you serve. Anytime you take on a new wine, beer or spirit, make sure each staff member tastes it, understands why you've added it and how it will be used. Suppliers will be happy to help in this regard, and in fact, they should be made to before you even think about purchasing anything. No matter the discount they give you, it's no bargain without what the chain buyers call a selling proposition - how is this better and different and how will it make me money? "It's cheaper" is the wrong answer. The same goes with cocktails - every staff member needs to know what they taste like and why it's worth recommending.

3. Everything as fresh as can be. For each operation, freshness means different things. But anytime you opt for pre-packaged, pre-made or prepared outside your house, be aware that you cede ground to your competitors and are going against contemporary bar trends. When you do go fresh, have a well-established plan for disposal and use of items a little too far gone for garnish or drink service. For instance, citrus may fade fast, but that doesn't mean that the kitchen couldn't put it to good use in sauces, preserves or other applications. Before tackling a new fresh step, think it through so your impulses will more likely be rewarded.

4. Know your competition. Regularly visit the bars and restaurants near you, and those who serve the same niche as you. Spend time to see what they are doing right and wrong, better and worse than you, and look for smart ideas you can copy. Imitation isn't theft, or all those people serving Oaxacan Old-Fashioneds or Gin-Gin Mules would have been served papers long ago. The point, though, isn't to copy other people, simply to get fresh ideas about where your business cohort is heading, and how those ideas might help you and your customers.

5. Treat non-drinkers like adults. Enough with the cranberry and soda for the designated drivers; you leave money on the table and create frustrated customers when you don't adapt contemporary tastes to non-alcohol beverages. I won't list the easy and tasty possibilities, but will say that any bartender worth employing could, on being sent into the kitchen to forage, emerge with a refreshing and potentially profitable concoction, without booze but with plenty of appeal.

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