Design Disconnect: 21st Century Drinks, 19th Century Bars

Jack Rose Dining Saloon bar
Images: Jack Rose Dining Saloon and Perlick Corporation

“I don’t go to bars,” said Dale DeGroff during a panel at the 75th annual WSWA Convention, “I go to bartenders.”

You probably think you know where this article is going. You probably assume I’m going to talk about bartender training tips from the legendary Dale DeGroff. You’re wrong, to put a fine point on it.

DeGroff has made this statement before, sometimes to begin or punctuate a conversation about training bartenders and the importance of hospitality to the guest experience. This time he was talking about bar design.

You’ve no doubt been focused on your bar (or bars) the past month or two. After all, ‘tis the season for spring cleaning. But have you been focused on more than its cleanliness? Have you paid attention to how your physical bar dictates bartender-guest interaction?

“We’re making 21st century drinks at 19th century bars,” DeGroff said. He also asked why bartenders aren’t the people designing bars. Certainly architects, designers and engineers need to be involved in the process. After all, you want to make sure you get your plumbing done properly the first time around to avoid major expenses in the future.

Read this: The Comprehensive Guide to Bar Renovation & Design

But, as long-time favorite Nightclub & Bar Show speaker Tobin Ellis of BarMagic has also said on numerous occasions, bartenders need to be included and consulted when designing the physical bar. DeGroff and other bar experts believe that today’s bartender need a new workbench, as it were.

You, your bar managers and your bartenders should think about the guest experience when considering bar design. Whether you’re a new operator designing your first bar or an experienced operator planning a redesign or opening a new unit, understand that you should avoid clutter on top of and behind the bar. Keeping the top clear and the bartender’s workspace well organized serves two purposes: hospitality and efficiency. The bar below, the famed Jack Rose Dining Saloon, features a clear bar top with the beer taps, glassware and bottles placed smartly—and elegantly—behind the bar:

Jack Rose Dining Saloon bar in Washington D.C. -

Watch your bartenders as their interacting with your guests. Are they looking down constantly as they serve your guests? Fellow panelist Jonathan Pogash, president and owner of the Cocktail Guru, Inc., said that eye contact is key when it comes to hospitality. If your bartenders are always looking down, how can they be fully engaging your guests? A well-designed rail and uncluttered bar top can solve that problem.

Assuming you’ve gotten your plumbing installed correctly, including your bartenders and experienced bar managers into the design or redesign process doesn’t have to be painful or prohibitively expensive. In fact, designing your bar well will pay off in the long term. Installing drawers, rails, sinks and garbage intelligently makes for an efficient bar, and as DeGroff said, “A more efficient bar is a more visited bar, so it’s a more profitable bar.” Thoughtful details such as one championed by another living legend, Francesco LaFranconi, help deal with mistakes behind the bar with ease and speed: placing the faucet of a sink so it can burn ice quickly should glass end up in it. For an example of thoughtful, modern bar design, check out the pre-configured Tobin Ellis Signature cocktail station from Perlick below:

Pre-configured Tobin Ellis Signature Cocktail Station from Perlick -

Besides being an efficient design, the station above is also much more comfortable to work behind than outdated designs. Spend some behind a traditional, standard bar with the goal of noting the physical toll it can take on your body. You’ll strain your back, your shoulders, even your kneecaps if the designer didn’t take ergonomics into account. Now think about what the effects of all that straining can do to you, your bar managers and your bar staff day in and day out over the course of months and years of shifts.

Read this: Bar Design: The Return of the Horseshoe

Have you had anyone who works behind your bar call out due to physical injuries? Have you noticed a shift now and then during which members of your bar staff seemed uncomfortable and perhaps off their game in terms of the level of service their delivering? Your current bar design may be to blame. Observe your bar staff as they serve your guests, ask them for feedback, and determine if a bar redesign is in order—it may just earn you more guests and make you more money.