Can Rotating Bartenders Build Patron Loyalty?

I recently mentioned my skepticism about traveling bartenders (check out my last blog, "Where's My Regular Bartender?") — those who hop around the country for guest shots and those who work in multiple bars. My main complaint was on behalf of the customer; someone has to speak for the poor misbegotten, uh, I mean, the patron.

But here are two interesting twists to that trend that might soften me up: In Seattle, the acclaimed Vessel is soon to reopen after more than a year without a home. Vessel’s partners and bartenders made it into one of the "must stops" on the national bar crawl through innovative drinks and techniques. Now Jim Romdall, the brains behind the bar, plans to open the new Vessel with this well-crafted philosophical statement:

“As Vessel's manager and lead barman, I invited many extraordinary bartenders to join me behind the bar. Some came from as close as down the street, while others came from as far as San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Berlin, and other far-flung places. We had a great time. More important, we learned from each other. Creative juices flowed. This sparked my idea for designing Vessel's bar program to be a bit different at our new location. We'll meld two great ideas: First, we'll still offer what we're known for — the utmost quality and craft of classic and new drinks (notwithstanding equally good food and service). Alongside this, we'll offer something off the charts — nightly visiting bartenders who express their wild and experimental sides with special drink menus created just for that evening. You'll recognize these bartenders as the best in the city. We'll rotate them in with our regular oh-so-talented staff. And we'll keep the out-of-towners coming as well as ultra-special guests. Imagine — every night will be one of innovation and surprise. No other establishment has tried this before! I know it's ambitious. I'm confident it will work because of Seattle's uniquely collaborative 'family' of food and drink professionals. We don't back bite. We actually like it when our peers succeed. It makes us all better. Vessel's new bar program will raise the bar and set a new standard for what's possible. And ultimately, we're doing this for you, our very appreciated, loyal customers.”

Whether it works or not remains to be seen: Restaurants with rotating chefs never quite manage to build the customer loyalty required to pay the bills, and not every bar can succeed with a concept based on frequent changes. But if they pull this off in Seattle come May, the latest date targeted for opening, we can expect this trend to boom.

If it does, then there’s an app for that, or at least one that claims to be an efficient way for bartenders and bars to communicate with those ever-important core customers and followers about what’s happening. It’s called “onthebar.” I’ll let the creators describe how it works: “onthebar is a mobile app for bartenders to develop and manage their personal brand and cultivate a loyal following of regulars … Bartenders check in at the start of a shift notifying their consumer base of their location. They have the option to include relevant messaging such as a new drink, menu, event or other draw. The application features a search element for guests that breaks down bartenders and establishments by styles, spirits, cocktails and specific brands when planning their evening out … Bartenders use the app to ... track and grow a network of regulars; communicate directly with that network to drive incremental business to his or her establishment; differentiate themselves via profiles and custom content, like photos, updates and menus; and broadcast his or her updates to extended social networks (e.g., Twitter, Facebook).”

So maybe technology will figure out how to track the bar-hopping bartender to the benefit of the customer, establishment and bartender. Technophiles, get on it and let me know how it works for you. I’ve downloaded it, but as a Yelp-resistant, Facebook-wary, Twitter-rejecting curmudgeon, I’ll let someone else explain its value.

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