On-Premise Titans Sound Off

It’s not uncommon for experts in their individual fields to occasionally find themselves shaking their heads at what their contemporaries are doing. The interesting thing about the on-premise beverage industry is that no educational requirements are Bartendernecessary to operate a bar, restaurant or cocktail lounge. As a result, some folks find themselves in the unenviable position of being wholly unqualified to manage a beverage operation or lead a staff of professional bartenders.

So we asked the leading experts in the on-premise sector about the things they see other beverage operators do that make them cringe just thinking about it. Here’s what they had to say:

Jeffrey Morganthaler is the beverage manager at Clyde Common in Portland, Ore. “I’m always amazed when I see a manager or operator who doesn’t seem to understand their own space. Trying to shoehorn a complicated cocktail program into a neighborhood tavern or an enormous Belgian beer list at an Italian restaurant are things that just won’t work. If you’re always fighting to make a program work, it might be a sign that there’s a flaw in the concept.”

Toby Cecchini is the former owner of a New York cocktail lounge — Passerby — and now a writer for the New York Times. “There are a lot of mistakes that I see operators make that just rankle my nerves. It’s such a fickle business; you see horrible cheesy places doing great for 20 years running while savvy little joints that seem quietly brilliant go under in a year. There is no magic formula, but there are an infinite number of pitfalls. In general, I say you have to do something that seems true to you. I loathe themes of any type in bars. This is a tapas place, this is a Russian vodka bar, this is a Hungarian wine bar, I see those gimmicky things come and go so often. People tend to gravitate to places that have their own idiosyncratic center of gravity and don't need to wave flags. To me, an interestingly counterintuitive thing I notice a lot in New York is that the more money and bells and whistles owners feed into their place, the shorter-lived they often are. What I term B-flat bars — just basic places that have good selections of beers, wines and spirits, a little food, maybe, but done very well, even just great fries or a burger, particularly in this economy — that's what people want deep down. They can be neat and well run or ‘divey’ and rank, but there’s something visceral in simple places that people react to positively. Most people can make their own fun if they're comfortable, and faux luxury is inherently uncomfortable.”

H. Joseph Ehrmann is a master mixologist and the owner/operator of Elixir in San Francisco. “Self-centered operators bother me a great deal. This is a service industry, which means we serve others. You are only as successful as you are hospitable. You can present your ideas and concept and hope that the people want it, but you must remember that they are guests in your house and it is your job to not only bring them in, but to keep them. This applies to staff as well. Attracting and retaining the best staff will attract and retain the best customers. At the end of the day, you spend more time managing people than anything and if you mismanage that process it will drag you down time and again.”

Tammy La Nasa is the first beverage director of Del Frisco's Restaurant Group, operator of Sullivan’s and Del Frisco’s restaurant concepts. “I think the biggest mistake that I see beverage operators make is choosing items or programs that they like vs. what their guests like. Product mixes don’t lie, and if you just talk to your bartenders, cocktailers and servers, they will tell you what is working or not working.”

Adam Seger is an acknowledged cocktail authority, creator of Hum Liqueur and the general manager, sommelier and resident bar chef at Nacional 27 in Chicago. “What bothers me is when operators mark up high-end products at the same percentage that they apply to more conventional call brands. Now mind you, I’m an advocate of tracking cost percentages and running a profitable business. But you need to remember that you take dollars to the bank, not percentages. Therefore, on higher end items, I think it’s far better to take a much higher cost percentage so you can sell them and offer value and make big dollars on the sales vs. letting those high-end wines and spirits collect dust.”

Ciaran Wiese is the bar manager and head barkeep at Scott & Co in Tucson, Ariz. “What drives me to the point of distraction is when a beverage operator or bar manager devises an elaborate beverage menu featuring classically structured cocktails made with interesting ingredients, and yet there isn’t a single bartender behind the bar that could make an excellent Martini or Negroni to save his or her life. You can’t put forth an amazing bar program backed up by a poorly trained staff of bartenders. Start off with a simple menu of the basics and teach the staff how to make a Daiquiri or an Old Fashioned properly; you wouldn't give the French Laundry menu to an Olive Garden’s line cook. A bar’s greatness is not predicated on its cocktail menu, it stems from the men and women who work behind the stick day in and day out.”

Jim Meehan is an author, cocktail authority and general manager of PDT in New York. “I’m a critical fellow, but those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. It’s tough for me to criticize others when I don’t walk in their shoes. That said, I guess the most disheartening thing I witness is influential operators squandering the opportunity to set meaningful examples for the rest of the industry. Thankfully, there are role models for operators of massive high-profile programs like Tony Abou-Ganim, who took on challenges at the Bellagio years ago and never made excuses. I hate excuses.”

Willy Shine is the co-owner of Contemporary Cocktails, Inc., a full-service beverage consultancy based in New York City. “What things do beverage operators do that make me cringe? Not having an effective inventory system in place. What a horrendous mistake. I loathe seeing horribly cut and displayed garnishes, absurdly large 10-ounce Martini glasses, bars without footrests, drink menus that have ‘-tini’ on the end of every cocktail and sour mixes dispensed from a gun.”

Jonathan Pogash is a beverage consultant and the director of cocktail development for Hospitality Holdings in New York, operators of Bookmarks Lounge, The Campbell Apartment, The World Bar, The Carnegie Club, Madison & Vine and The Empire Room. “I cringe when I see beverage operators cut corners by using pre-mixed and artificially flavored juices and sour mixes, ingredients that would never be caught dead in a high-quality cocktail lounge. One of my jobs as a consultant is to spread my cocktail philosophy and convince operators that yes, they will end up making more money, even if the upfront cost of switching over to fresh juices and seasonal ingredients is a tad more.”

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