Creativity & Control: Managing Creativity at the Bar

Image: A creative cocktail from the Radisson Blu Alcron.

Being great behind the bar requires a ton of creativity. For sure the great craft bartender working a great craft bar expresses this trait in the unique ingredients she combines into great cocktails. But even the bartender mostly serving beer and Jack & Coke needs to be plenty creative. There are drinks to name, menus to write and promotions to create, not to mention customers to keep satisfied. The ability to think outside the box and quickly on your feet is critical in these environments as well.

Owning and operating a bar also requires tons of creativity. Unlike the bartender, the owner/operator needs to temper that creativity, make sure it is sensible as it relates to success. Profit margins are thin and implementing the right policies and procedures is critical to running a profitable operation. Finding the right balance between these two contrasting characteristics is the goal.

Too often, for too many operators, tight operational controls win out over allowing and encouraging creativity. The benefits of fostering a creative environment are intangible and therefore tough to quantify. Using jiggers instead of free pouring to ensure accurate pour costs results in a tangible benefit. But intangible benefits are still benefits. Especially if you lean toward tight controls, consider loosening some for the sake of creating a more creative environment. Here’s why and how.

The Why

1. The nature of the business.

Consistency, quality and value are and always have been hallmarks of great food and beverage operations. Detailed procedures and standards, and managers who ensure that they are adhered to, are the means to this end. But the business has changed. In 1986, the year I first worked behind a bar, no one called anything. My customers ordered house red, house white, whiskey sours and rum and Coke. Today’s consumer is more educated with higher expectations; you need to meet them. Your best bet is to give your front line employees the freedom to do so.

2. The nature of the consumer.

Your customer is educated and has high expectations. This is true of your product as well as your delivery. Your customer wants what he wants and your job is to provide it if you are able. What constitutes a successful service encounter is unique for every guest. Your staff needs to be empowered to customize their service delivery based on the expectations of the guest. Give them the flexibility to be creative and successful…on your behalf.

3. Attract better people/Keep the best.

It’s tough to find good help. I keep reading about the impending crisis in American kitchens. At a recent conference I heard the same lament from bar professionals.

You can feel bad about it and whine like chefs or you can do something about it. You could make a better environment. Creative personalities are attracted to and motivated within operations where their creative personalities are supported, celebrated and rewarded. Providing this kind of environment will help you attract the right people and keep your best.

The How

1. Identify what motivates.

Everyone works to make money…that’s why they call a job a job and a hobby a hobby. Money motivates. But certain individuals with certain personalities are motivated by more than just financial rewards. Creative individuals love a challenge and a sense of accomplishment. They want some freedom to solve problems as they see best - let them. Good people will seek you out and they’ll stay.

2. Provide the tools for success.

Providing the best tools communicates to creative individuals that you value their talents and are committed to supporting, nurturing and developing them. Tools include equipment, but also training and professional development. The opportunity to explore new products, approaches and techniques with colleagues is stimulating. Your commitment to these activities sends a strong message about who and what you value.

3. Eliminate hassles and distractions…or at least explain them.

Policies and procedures are a necessary evil. Creative personalities disagree – they hate them! They consider them a barrier to creative thought, activity and results. Whenever possible, eliminate these barriers. Many times, what are considered annoying hassles by creative minds are important operational controls. Where you are not willing or able to eliminate them, take the time to explain their importance to your staff. 

Understand that I am not advocating for you to cede control of your business to your employees. To the contrary, as I mentioned above, finding equilibrium between tightly controlling what happens in your operation and providing freedom to your staff to express their creative side is what you should be after. The intangible benefits of doing so will often result in tangible benefits that you could not have anticipated.

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