Training Vs. Education: Creating Knowledgeable Bartenders

Some people contend that the best results are obtained by educating bartenders, not training them — that the days of training people stops at the potty. They suggest that bartenders need a steady diet of education. Others argue that while some aspects of the job require continuing education, technical proficiency is a strict matter of training and guidance.

Then there’s the third possibility: They’re all wrong. The practical reality is that bartenders require training, education and a healthy dose of something called applied leaning, also known as savvy.

It’s true that training is an essential component of maintaining excellence and continuity in an organization. For instance, major league baseball doesn’t conduct “spring education.” At the onset, bartenders need training on specific policies and procedures, pricing and mixology fundamentals. Familiarization with all aspects of the operation is important. You can’t hold people accountable if you haven’t fully detailed the scope of their responsibilities.

Training a professional staff needs to go further than that, though. All frontline employees should be thoroughly trained on precisely what to do in the event of medical emergencies, acts of violence, fire and armed robbery. The heightened stress and critical nature of these potential occurrences requires training. Anticipating situations before they occur and devising a strategy for handling them often makes a huge difference in averting tragedy. At the police academy, cadets are taught that a person can do one of two things in a crisis situation: panic or think. The police are trained to think, and so should your employees.

Education involves an entirely different subset of teaching, typically involving products and mixology. For example, you don’t train professionals about wine, you educate them. The same holds true for spirits, beers, bottled waters, Daiquiris, entrees and appetizers. The educational process, in this context, melds intellect with sensory perceptions. The ultimate goal is a heightened appreciation for the products, which should translate to enhanced interactions with guests.

Training and education are not enough, however. In fact, training shortchanges your employees and business alike. What’s fundamentally crucial is not the degree of training or level of education; it’s the savvy application of those things that matters.

Consider drink making. Learning how to make cocktails involves training in proper technique. Repeat the process enough and it will be ingrained as muscle memory. However, for bartenders to make the grade as mixologists, they need more than training, they need to be educated in the classic cocktails — what they are and why their balance of flavors has garnered them legendary status.

Yet this level of understanding alone won’t catapult a bartender into being a franchise player. Exceeding guest expectations entails making each cocktail like it genuinely matters, because it does. It involves a feel for when to suggest premium spirits and to whom. Knowing how a certain brand of spirit tastes is one thing, understanding how it will alter the delicate balance of a cocktail is another. This applied learning falls outside the purview of training and education both; it exists within that murky, gray area of bar savvy.

Are these lessons best gained through experience? Perhaps. But experience is a hit or miss proposition. Are operators expected to suffer their bartenders’ lack of savvy until their experience fills in the gaps? Consider the ramifications of their deficiencies on revenue, staff, guest satisfaction and legal compliance. The cost of waiting for bartenders to gain the necessary competency may be cost prohibitive.

Once you begin to look at training and education as mere foundations that need to be further developed into savvy, illustrations abound. Take, for example, serving food at the bar. Knowing how to present appetizers and entrees properly is a training issue, while learning about the dishes is a matter of education, another melding of intellect and sensory perceptions. But deciding what items to recommend when and to whom is all about savvy.

Situations likely will arise that inconveniently fall through the gap between training and education. If two people sit down and order three drinks — the third cocktail ostensibly for a friend in the restroom or parking the car — should the bartender prepare and serve all three drinks? It is not an uncommon ploy. The absent person is likely a minor or already intoxicated. What if your bartender has never encountered the situation and serves the alcohol?

This begs the obvious question, how do you instill savvy in your bartenders? This is one instance where managers, corporate trainers and owners aren’t up to the task. The time-tested answer is mentoring, pairing novice bartenders with seasoned pros. Savvy is gained by emulating the actions and professionalism of another — in this case, a well-trained and well-educated bartender who knows how to keep the guests satisfied while watching out for the best interests of the house.

Bartenders work in a highly charged environment. Affording them every opportunity to excel is in your and their best interests. Mentoring may well be the best strategy to ensure they do indeed succeed.

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