Why Bad Things Happen to Good Bars

Doing something because “it’s the way it has been done in the past,” in reality, is to do something because it is familiar and may only serve to perpetuate a costly, inefficient or otherwise unfounded practice.

Familiarity acts like a cataract on perspective, impairing the decision-making process. Engaged with day-to-day concerns, most of us spend untold hours in our operation seeing things as they are and not as they could or should be, growing to accept the norm as the final objective. In most instances, that type of thinking process proves costly, especially behind the bar.

Consider different points of view and seek all of the input and insights you can. Be resolved to ask questions. “Why do we do it that way?” “Is there a better way to do it?” Things of worth will survive the process, the rest will be replaced.


Managing the Human Factor

Consider starting the process by assessing how effectively you use your bar staff. One chronic problem is understaffing. Aside from subjecting employees to undue stress, running a skeleton crew when it’s busy will undoubtedly cost you sales, cost the bartender gratuities, and cost clientele the level of hospitable service they have come to expect. Understaffing is expensive, far exceeding any savings in payroll.

If the anticipated business seems too brisk for one bartender, yet not busy enough for two, schedule a barback to work the shift. You’ll get another set of hands behind the bar, the clientele will be well served, the barback will gain valuable experience and the bartender will get to keep a larger percentage of the tips. In addition, you save the bartender from being besieged, which if you’ve ever been in the weeds, you know isn’t a pleasant feeling.

Are there employees who are assigned certain tasks or responsibilities that could be better fulfilled by another? In some establishments bartenders are expected to wait on customers, make drinks for servers, wash glassware, answer the phone and be the cashier for the operation. When it gets busy, they’re overwhelmed. Review each position’s job description. Are employees being utilized to their fullest? Sometimes seemingly minor changes can make a tremendous difference. Is there a written job description for each position on your staff?

Does your business encourage the practice of cross-training? Imagine the potential benefits if food servers were trained how to tend bar or barbacks knew how to work the floor and bus tables. Likewise, bartenders should be knowledgeable with the menu and be comfortable serving and properly presenting menu items. When necessary, bussers should be able to go behind the bar and competently make an espresso or cappuccino or help wash glassware. Cross-training allows employees to expand their skills to the fullest, while the business benefits by having a more capable, versatile staff and a smoother running operation.

Do employees split their tips equitably? If not, some people are being cheated out of their just compensation. That inequity will inevitably cost you, either through increased turnover, theft, absenteeism, or some other job-related malady. Review the operation’s tipping policies. Ask for input from the staff. The objective is to establish a fair system for distributing the wealth among those who had a hand in generating it. Once it is written down, post the policy by the time-clock as the tip rules of the house.

Do you schedule your employees for two-week blocks of time? If requested, will you give employees permanent schedules? A two-week schedule has the stabilizing effect of enabling employees to better plan their lives outside the workplace. The same is true of a permanent schedule. Also, fewer scheduling conflicts occur when employees are given more advance notice of their work schedule.


Evaluating Your Beverage Program

Are the brands of liquor in your well still the best labels to feature? House brands should reflect the character of the business and help establish its identity. Perhaps you need to break out of a rut by running with different labels in your well. Like a blood transfusion, changing well brands may infuse your operation with new life.

Some long-accepted pouring practices are quickly becoming outdated. For instance, are your bartenders allowed to pour doubles? Are they permitted to free pour? Does the bar announce “Last Call” at the close of business? Each of these practices is fraught with potential liability. Do you stock products 100 proof or stronger at the bar? A screwdriver made with 100 proof vodka doesn’t taste appreciably stronger than one prepared with 80 proof, but it’s considerably more potent and some customers are not going to be able to handle it.

When was the last time you and your staff reviewed the bar’s price list? Most price lists contain a fair amount of omissions, oversights, contradictions and brainteasers, all of which, in the long run, wind up costing you money. Is the price list compiled in an easy-to-use format? Is the list accessible?

What type of marketing is conducted at the point of sale? Are there daily or weekly drink specials? Does the bar have a specialty drink menu? Do you rotate your beer selection or stock any specialty beers? Is there a varietal wine by-the-glass program?

How well does your bar prepare and present its product? Drinks should be made skillfully and not thrown together like chow on an army mess tray. Take the Bloody Mary for example. Do you use a commercial pre-mix or is it made from scratch according to an established house recipe? Or is it prepared in the glass for each individual drink, a time consuming practice without assurance of consistency. Does the glass the drink is served in do anything to enhance its presentation? Finally, are your Bloody Marys garnished with the fibrous, outer stalks of celery, or the tender, interior pieces? Is the leafy greens left on or trimmed away like a denuded tree trunk?

Do your bartenders know to ask customers if they would prefer Martinis served straight-up or on-the-rocks? Olives or a twist? Do they ask guests if they would want a water back? Do bartenders ask patrons ordering a Margarita how they would like it served — straight-up, on-the-rocks, or frozen? Salted rim?

How well do you take care of customers? Is the bar top kept clean and presentable? Do the bartenders empty customers’ ashtrays? Are there bar snacks or finger food available? Is the ambiance in the establishment well suited for your clientele? Is the music and lighting appropriate?

Timothy Leary hit the nail on the head when he advised to “question authority.” Challenge convention. Be suspect of long-held assumptions and root out faulty reasoning. Question authority, even if your perspective is the one being challenged. Your business will be better for it.

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